Restaurants began the year in darkness. Dining rooms in New York had been closed, again, by order of the governor. Is it any wonder that some of my strongest memories of the year in eating are takeout and delivery dishes? Or that, once restaurants were allowed to serve indoors again in February, the things that tasted best tended to be enduring classics like chicken soup from Eastern Europe and egg rolls from the streets of Saigon? Here are the 10 dishes — in no particular order — that dance in my vision when I close my eyes, all of them taken from establishments in the city that for one reason or another did not make my list of the year’s best new restaurants.
Estelle’s Chicken Soup at Mark’s Off Madison
Estelle was the grandmother of the chef, Mark Strausman, and this was her soup. It got my attention not because I’d never had anything like it before — it’s the classic once found at every diner and deli, and still pretty common in New York — but because it is rarely made so well these days. Broth this full-bodied takes more chicken and more time than most people are ready to spend ($13).
41 Madison Avenue (East 26th Street), Flatiron district; 646-838-8300; marksoffmadison.com
Egusi at Nneji
As found nearly every day at the steam table in this bright and welcoming shop in Astoria, Queens, roughly crushed egusi seeds provide the nutty and crunchy substance of this West African stew, cradling spinach and red peppers cooked just long enough to be tender. The palm oil that gives the stew a brilliant flame-orange color also makes it smooth, rich and luxurious ($8).
32-20 34th Avenue (33rd Street), Astoria, Queens; 917-832-7338; nneji.business.site
Lahmacun at Burchak Pide
It’s almost laughably basic, this circle of dough, about as thick as a linen napkin, spread with spiced lamb and baked. So is the salad that comes with it — lettuce, tomatoes and white onions under a purplish shower of sumac. Somehow, though, when you scatter the salad over the lamb, squeeze lemon on everything and roll it up, the long cigar of meat and vegetables evokes all of Turkish cuisine at once ($5).
1614 Sheepshead Bay Road (Jerome Avenue), Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn; 315-207-7080; burchakpide.com
Spicy Chicken at Pecking House
To lockdown-era New Yorkers who were struggling to keep their heads above water, having a bag of Eric Huang’s Southern-fried, Sichuan-seasoned chicken brought to the doorstep was like having somebody throw you a life preserver that you could eat. The chicken is still available for delivery, but it’s also sold on the weekends at the Huang family’s restaurant in Queens ($35 for three pieces with three sides).
185-23 Union Turnpike (186th Street), Fresh Meadows, Queens; peckinghouse.com
Dad’s Egg Rolls at Falansai
Ground pork and wood-ear mushrooms fill these Vietnamese egg rolls. And you’ll be convinced those ingredients make one of the world’s greatest marriages for as long as it takes you to finish one — less than two minutes, if you’re anything like me. Dad is the chef’s father, and he used to make them on the streets of Saigon ($12).
112 Harrison Place (Porter Avenue), Bushwick, Brooklyn; 718-381-0980; falansai.com
English Muffin Kits From Seabird Bakery
Shuna Lydon, a pastry chef in pandemic exile from restaurants, bakes a variety of sweet and savory treats for home delivery. Her lineup changes weekly with one exception: the EMK, or English muffin kit, is a constant. It deserves to be. The muffins are small but substantial, more chewy than crumbly; if you’ve had only mass-produced muffins, the deep flavor Ms. Lydon builds in her sourdough is almost shocking. Each kit comes with four muffins, salted butter and, the real treasure, a small jar of fresh jam, just barely cooked to keep the fruit tasting bright and juicy ($15).
Mixiotes at Under the Volcano
In a perfect New York, Under the Volcano would cook its lamb mixiotes underground, in a fire pit. In actuality, the lamb is cooked in an oven, but some of the missing smoke is supplied by a shot of mezcal added to the spices and garlic — not enough to get you drunk, but enough to set your senses reeling ($14).
12 East 36th Street (Madison Avenue), Midtown; 646-448-4442; utvnyc.com
Fish and Chips at Dame
There are technical explanations for the weightless, shattering shell on the fish and the more heavy-duty crunch on the chips at Dame, having to do with air pockets and boiling points. And if you want to talk about that science with a plate in front of you, go right ahead. The fish, for once, won’t get soggy, though if you don’t shut up and eat, it will eventually get cold ($29).
87 Macdougal Street (Bleecker Street), Greenwich Village; 929-367-7370; damenewyork.com
Remember the Maine at Sunken Harbor Club
The virtue of the manhattan is its simplicity; even a distracted bartender can knock together a decent one. The downside is that it is generally lacks polish, like a rough draft. An old variation called Remember the Maine, resurrected by Sunken Harbor Club, is both more velvety (thanks to cherry liqueur) and more spiky (absinthe). It has the combination of elegance and raw power that enables our most heroic cocktails to set a drifting world spinning on its axis again ($16).
372 Fulton Street (Smith Street), Downtown Brooklyn; 347-689-3677; gageandtollner.com
Aguachile Negro at Mariscos El Submarino
Aguachile is a raw-seafood cocktail straight out of Sinaloa. Most often it bathes raw shrimp in a red or green liquid that tastes fresh and vegetal, like something you might get from your local juice bar if it was trying to use up some extra serrano and Fresno chiles. The addition of soy sauce makes Mariscos El Submarino’s aguachile negro taste brawnier, almost meaty, while the chiles make it one of the most head-clearingly spicy bowls of raw shrimp in the city ($19).
88-05 Roosevelt Avenue (88th Street), Jackson Heights, Queens; 718-685-2780; mariscoselsubmarino.com
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