Monday, January 30, 2012

New York City: Food City, USA

There are many good reasons to celebrate New York City, and it has many well-earned identities. The financial capital, the entertainment capital and so forth. But to me, more than anything, it is the food capital.

All I have to do is spend any amount of time in another part of the country to realize how good I have it in New York. Because in most other parts of the country, you have to search, you have to work pretty hard, to find the kind of good food that is readily available all over New York City.

Now granted, things cost more here. I discovered that when I was a kid growing up in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. In 1970, we got our first McDonalds fastfood joint in Perth Amboy. We were thrilled to be able to scrape together some loose change and get those yummy McDs hamburgers and french fries, or for a little more, maybe the mindblowing Big Mac.

So believe me, as an 8 year old with a quarter a week allowance, I kept track of how much each item on the menu cost, including tax. But then, the next time I came with my family into New York City, and we stopped in at a McDonalds for a meal before heading back to New Jersey on the train, I was shocked to see that my normal computations of how much the food was going to cost didn't work. It made no sense to me. McDonalds was McDonalds was McDonalds. How could it be so much more expensive to buy in New York City the same thing I ate all the time?

Of course, we know that with supply and demand and whatnot, it is very easy to see why things cost more here. I've lived here so long, and lived on a New York City inflated income for most of that time, so I've almost forgotten the feeling of realizing that it is expensive to eat here. But it is possible to find bargains for eating here. I haven't looked lately, but at one time when I was poor and cared about such things, I used to know which neighborhoods were cheaper to eat in.

To eat cheaper, one good strategy is that the farther from midtown Manhattan you get, the cheaper things may be. This doesn't always work - there are other neighborhoods in Manhattan, and some in Brooklyn and Queens that can also get pretty pricey. But in general, it works. I remember at one time knowing the difference in the price of bagels, for example, in supermarkets on the Upper West Side of Manhattan versus those in supermarkets in the East Village. At that time, there was a correlation between the rents you paid to live in an area and the food prices in supermarkets.

Now, who knows? Living in Manhattan, yep, it's just crazy expensive. Things have gotten out of control. How much does a square foot of real estate cost anywhere nowadays? And you know, anybody who is selling food, whether restaurant, deli or supermarket, has to plunk down serious rent money, and those exorbitant rents trickle down into the cost of each can of Coke and jar of mayonnaise and bowl of gazpacho.

But in spite of high costs, I still say this is the place to be for food. I know that Tony Bourdain recently on his Layover show said that San Francisco is the place for reasonably-priced food, while New York is mainly good for high-end food. But personally, I think you can find all kinds of eats here. Again, you may have to travel to certain less-tony parts of the City to find food that isn't priced more for the place you're eating it than for the quality of what it is you are actually eating. Some might say it is not possible to find such food. But again, I beg to differ.

Of course, I have my favorites. For example, diners. I've had some pretty bad meals in diners, and I've also had some very memorable meals in diners. Some have unexpected things, like menu items you wouldn't expect to find in a diner. Some are from the land that time forgot, or at least pretend to be.

One of my favorite diners, for example, is the prophetically-named Good Food Diner on 14th street. I mean, come on, if you call your place "Good Food" you have to deliver, right? They have kitschy decor, good basic things like turkey burgers and mushroom omelets, and they are open all the time. And the people who work there seem like they were genetically-engineered to work in diners. Can't you see some mad scientist: "this one will be perfect at mopping floors and whistling tunelessly!"

Some industries in New York City have been killed either by jobs moving oversees or one behemoth coming in and killing the others, or just from the onset of mallification (why have one Fifth avenue when we could make every shopping area look like Fifth Avenue! I'd like to imprint my bootmark on the rear-end of the idiot who is responsible for that). But we still have neighborhoody eateries. We still have those delis that make killer roastbeef sandwiches and have tuna fish salad that looks like it might've been made around the time that hair grease and shoes polish were invented. And there are restaurants that cater especially to the folks who live in any particular part of the city. Yes, some of these places also cater to tourists - see Chinatown - but blame the people who write the guidebooks.

In my neighborhood, the Upper Westside, for example, we have some great Asian and fusion restaurants. One of my favorites is actually called "Fusha" and has all kinds of great curries and sushi rolls and the like. They make an appetizer which is a combo of guacamole and Asian spicy tuna which you put on deep-fried seaweed tempura batter chips - wow, I could eat that stuff every day of the week for every meal, even for breakfast.

In the East Village, which is still one of my favorite parts of the city even though it has undergone massive gentrification in the last 20 years and does not at all resemble the neighborhood it used to be, there are all kinds of unique, quirky, reasonably-priced places to eat. For example, on Avenue A there is Bennies Burritos, which has undergone some changes (it was bought out by Harry's Burritos, but that is another story) but still manages to have some of the yummiest Cal-Mex lowcost food in the City.

Then there is Polonia. The East Village is an area of Manhattan that was occupied by all kinds of immigrant populations until the last couple of generations (and of course the gentrification got rid of the last of them). One of the groups that inhabited that area was the Polish. They are mostly gone, but on First Avenue there are still a couple of Polish restaurants. Polonia was always my favorite place to go for Pierogis and egg noodles with mushroom gravy and potato pancakes. However, the last time I went there, it seemed like the menu had completely changed. Not sure if they got bought out by someone who decided to upgrade to fit the new tony clientele or what, but it was not the food I've been eating for the last 25 years. I'll have to get back to you on what is up with that one.

Now I must confess that since I've been dating my girlfriend Therese, my tastes have moved to more pricey venues. But I feel like we enjoy a variety of places. We make a lot of use of, the site of sites for getting the sense of what people have to say about restaurants all over New York. And we try to economize when it makes sense. But once we sit down at a table, all bets are off. Life is too short, eating good food is one of the best reasons for living, and why do we work so hard making these high New York City salaries if we can't relax and enjoy ourselves now and then?

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