The Many Flavors of NYC’s Five Boroughs: The Gastro Obscura Guide - Gastro Obscura

The Gastro Obscura Guide to
The Many Flavors of NYC’s Five Boroughs

More than eight million diverse individuals call New York City home, and many of them share their heritage through food. Whether it’s a billiards hall that serves stellar Bhutanese fare or a mosque where Malian vendors sell snacks for just a few hours each Friday, the city offers a vast culinary landscape for those willing to explore it. Venture beyond the flashy hotspots with months-long waiting lists and you’ll find New York’s true flavor lies within the small restaurants and stands rooted in its thriving immigrant communities.

On the left, mole blanco coats a chile relleno. Beth Dixson
Singular Sauce

1. Mole Blanco at La Morada

Located in the Bronx's Mott Haven neighborhood, this Oaxacan restaurant-meets-activist-hub specializes in two things: immigrant rights and moles. Through a door that proclaims "Refugees Welcome," beneath a giant flag that hangs from the purple wall declaring No Deportaciones, this restaurant boasts an impressive array of moles, ranging from green to black to a seven-pepper variety. But La Morada's crown jewel is the rarest, fairest form: the mild, rich mole blanco.

This luxurious sauce might appear bland, but the heat of serrano and habanero chiles lurks within. A blend of peanuts, pine nuts, and peeled almonds imparts its supreme creaminess, with some extra flavor from garlic. Its default presentation is atop dark-meat chicken with rice and beans, but for a few dollars extra, you can swap in pork, white-meat chicken breast, seasonal veggies, or chile relleno. Be sure to wash the hearty meal down with a refreshing horchata.

The restaurant is run by the Mendez-Saavedra family, originally from the Mixteca region of Oaxaca. The family doesn’t shy away from discussing their undocumented history and La Morada operates as a community-activism center, hosting regular events focused on immigrant rights. Don't forget to peruse the lending library—featuring titles on everything from social movements in Oaxaca to the rise of fascism in New York—after savoring as much mole as you can muster.

La Morada is closed on Sundays.

308 Willis Avenue, The Bronx, NY, 10454

A vendor's stand of food and crafts outside the center. Reina Gattuso/Atlas Obscura
Fleeting Friday Fare

2. Malian Snacks at the Timbuktu Islamic Center

Once a week, Malian Muslims in Harlem head to the Timbuktu Islamic Center for jumu'ah, the Friday afternoon communal prayer. Outside, vendors await with an array of snacks and drinks that hail from the West African nation.

You'll often find thiakry, a millet grain pudding with a milky, tangy base, along with bottles of zingy hibiscus flower juice that start sweet and end incredibly sour. There might be baggies of smoked and boiled peanuts, sweet balls of fried dough, or spicy, fish-filled dumplings. Once you've procured your snacks, find a bench at the nearby park on Malcolm X Boulevard between West 143rd and 145th Streets to sit and dig in.

The vendors typically appear on Fridays around 4:00 p.m. But these are informal food stands, so it's possible that a vendor might not show up, or might appear late or close early. Bring cash and, if taking photos, please just focus on the food, as the vendors do not wish to be photographed.

103 West 144th Street, New York, NY, 10029

A bartender adds the raspberry syrup. Beth Dixson
Sweet 'n' Sour Brew

3. Berliner Weisse With Raspberry Syrup at Heidelberg

In Manhattan's Yorkville neighborhood, Heidelberg survives as enduring evidence of what was once an enclave of German immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. With its stucco exterior, rustic touches of wood, and historic art (all the paintings are more than a century old, and the framed needlepoints were done by the owner's grandmother, who bought the venue in the 1960s), this family-owned German restaurant and bar still proudly embraces the identity on which it was built in the 1930s.

An oddity among the menu's expected selection of crisp lagers is the Berliner weissea tart, fizzy wheat ale. The style, which originated around Berlin, hearkens back to a time when northern German brewers didn't follow the country's strict beer purity laws and made sour wheat ales that more closely resembled those of Belgium. In the 19th century, servers started countering the tangy flavors of the ale with sweet syrup. Though Berliner weisse's popularity has faded in its native home, some bartenders continue the tradition of mixing in green-tinged woodruff (waldmeister) syrup, based on the sweet-scented bedstraw plant, or pink raspberry syrup known as himbeersaft. Heidelberg uses the latter, leading to the perfect summer refresher: sour, sweet, crisp, and, most importantly in the heat, lower in alcohol than most lagers or ales.

If you want your beer to-go, head to Schaller and Weber, a few doors down. The store often stocks both syrups. Tell the staff you're looking to mix your own Berliner weisse with syrup and they'll point you toward the best beer.

1648 2nd Avenue, New York, NY, 10028

The rice makes a fine counterpoint to Weekender's fiery meals. Beth Dixson
Grains and Games

4. Bhutanese Red Rice at Weekender

With its drawn curtains and the quiet of surrounding Woodside homes, you might wonder if Weekender is even open. But one step inside will remove all doubt: Men chatter as they lean over snooker tables, billiard balls clack against each other, and customers huddle in the carpeted dining area, happily tucking into the fiery flavors of Bhutan.

While favorites such as the chili-and-cheese-packed ema datshi and the unctuous fatty pork and potato dish phagsha sikam pak get all the glory, it's worth celebrating the side that comes with every meal at Weekender: Bhutanese red rice. Don't be fooled by its humble appearance. This heirloom grain is incredibly unique, thriving only in the remote, high-altitude farmlands of Bhutan, where ancient glacial water infuses the crops with minerals. Its color ranges from white-pink to red, depending on the variety and how much of the husk remains after processing.

The rice's subtle nutty flavor aptly balances the heat of Bhutan's traditional dishes. At Weekender, be prepared for spice (seriously, you might eat the ema datshi and weep) with a chance of spontaneous festivity. Staff members have been known to break into impromptu karaoke sessions, including both American and Bhutanese hits.

Weekender is closed on Wednesdays. The rice isn't listed on the menu, but it's included with every meal.

41-46 54th Street, Queens, NY, 11377

Staff assembles yak momos. Beth Dixson
Dumplings and Dairy

5. Yak-Based Delights at Himalayan Yak

Jackson Heights pulses with the sounds, colors, and scents of Tibet, Thailand, Colombia, Mexico, and India. A dizzying stretch of culinary outposts line the sidewalk beneath the 7 train, churning out quick, authentic fare from countries as far from each other as they are from New York.

For a taste of the Himalayan highlands, venture to the aptly-named Himalayan Yak. Here, yak meat fills sausage, chili, and momos (dumplings). Its most delicate manifestation, however, is yak cheese. On the plains of Tibet and Nepal, yaks provide not only meat, but dairy used to make butter tea, a filling, energy-boosting beverage, and cheese. Himalayan Yak's cheese, from free-range Nepalese yaks, is nutty, slightly smoky, and firm. The pale yellow cubes require little fanfare: They're served simply with a side of either apples or oranges.

To double down on the yak, try the savory yak momos or yak gyuma, a wickedly rich, velvety-black blood sausage. Despite containing meat from a rugged plains animal, each pan-fried slice of sausage reveals no hint of gaminess.

72-20 Roosevelt Avenue, Queens, NY, 11372

Freshly baked non. Beth Dixson
Breaking Bread

6. Bukharan Baked Goods at Rokhat Kosher Bakery

Nestled beside a laundromat on a residential block in Rego Park, this shrine to dough is easily missed. But passing by would be more sinful than gorging on what leavened wonders await inside. At Rokhat Kosher Bakery, two brothers from Uzbekistan stretch, stamp, and stuff breads and pastries for Queens’ community of Bukharan Jews.

Fluffy, warm discs of non (braid-ringed, sesame-flecked flatbread stamped with patterns) and pouches of savory samsa (rich, flaky dough stuffed with lamb and onions) beckon from behind glass. A mound of dome-shaped, cracker-crisp toke tempts shoppers from a stack on the counter. Since items are unlabeled, you have two options: Ask for what you want (even if you don't see it in front, it could be freshly made, waiting in back) or go with your gut and let your senses guide you. Just don't leave without the samsa or without peeking in the back to see the bakery itself: It's filled with traditional Central Asian ovens called tanoors, including one that's large enough to walk inside.

Rokhat is closed on Saturdays and often sells out early on Fridays before the Sabbath. They don't have a website but are typically open from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.

65-43 Austin Street, Queens, NY, 11374

The fruit is often proudly displayed on takeout containers. Beth Dixson
The King of Kings

7. Durian at Durian NYC

Known as “the King of Fruits,” durians are adored, despised, and undeniably infamous. They smell like rotting flesh, look like sea creatures, feel like Medieval weapons, and take some fans to an unctuous, cream-based paradise. Though they're incredibly popular in Southeast Asia, there are only a few places to try them in the United States.

Enter Durian NYC, the preeminent cart for both whole and presliced fruit, painstakingly inspected for freshness prior to sale. This unassuming stall in Chinatown, situated on the corner of Grand Street and Bowery, has enlightened New Yorkers' eyes, noses, and mouths to the magic of durian for nearly 20 years. Its long-standing acclaim results from its first owner, who established a reputation for quality assessment and warning customers about local, inferior distributors.

If the fruit isn't fresh enough, the vendor might not set up the stand that day. Call 917-662-2288 to check, especially if you're coming from far away.

230 Grand Street New York, NY, 10013

Some of the restaurant's featured grandmothers. Courtesy of Enoteca Maria
Dinner With Grandma

8. Nonnas of the World at Enoteca Maria

Once you hop off the Staten Island Ferry and head past Borough Hall, you might start to smell grandma's cooking. That’s because, from Thursday through Sunday, a nonna (Italian for "grandmother") from a different part of the world heads the kitchen at Enoteca Maria.

The project came about after owner Joe Scaravella lost his mother in the early 2000s. To create a feeling of homey comfort in the restaurant he opened after her death, he staffed the kitchen with Italian grandmothers. In July of 2015, Scaravella invited a Pakistani grandmother to guest star for the night, and "Nonnas of the World" was born. Now, a consistently-rotating menu, ranging from Trinidadian to Sri Lankan to Argentinian cuisine, is served for dinner. Lunch, however, will always be prepared by an Italian nonna.

Check the restaurant's website for the lineup of that week's nonnas. Bring cash and, if you want to ensure a seat, make a reservation.

27 Hyatt Street, Staten Island, NY, 10301

Follow the teapot to Tula's trademark cookies. Sam O'Brien/Atlas Obscura
Soviet Picnic

9. Tula Pryanik at the Brighton Bazaar

In Brighton Beach, Brooklyn's seaside Eastern European community, an unassuming grocery store offers its fair share of regional delights. Among these are legendary spice cookies from Tula, Russia. Ever since the 17th century, the city has been known for intricately designed cookies known as Tula pryanik. Their patterns originally came from the city's gunsmiths, who used their free time to carve increasingly-elaborate wooden presses for cookies. They're often stamped with the city’s coat of arms and either "Tula" or “a gift from Tula.”

In the store, simply look for the packaged baked goods aisle or a standing display with a cardboard teapot on top. If you're not feeling like a cookie, options abound to satisfy cravings for the sour, savory, or sweet. Bottles of bubbly, fermented kvass line the shelves. Logs of chocolate-y, rum-and-cognac-inflected kartoshka call out from the bakery, and a cold bar boasts specialties such as "herring under a fur coat" and Soviet-Korean carrot salad. And since you’re here, why not pick up some pine cone preserves, a Georgian and Siberian specialty?

Take your provisions to the park across the street for a picnic, or jaunt over to the boardwalk to sit and watch the waves.

In the unlikely event the bazaar is out of Tula pryanik, try Gourmanoff, another Eastern European grocer, a block away.

1007 Brighton Beach Avenue, Brooklyn, NY, 11235

A bowl of pepián is enhanced with a drizzle of the inky hot sauce. Beth Dixson
Maya Heat

10. Chile Cobanero Hot Sauce at Ix

A giant, painted jaguar watches over the scene that unfurls daily at Ix, a colorful Guatemalan restaurant on the eastern edge of Brooklyn's Prospect Park.

Customers waiting for a table will notice a a stack of small jars beside the register. Each houses Ix's signature B'alam Q'tün hot sauce. Smoky-hot and nebulously dark, the sauce gets its distinct flavor from a blend of roasted garlic, olive oil, black salt, and chile Cobanero. Native to the highlands of central Guatemala, this fiery, inch-long pepper has enhanced indigenous cuisine for thousands of years. Locals around the modern-day city of Cobán started cultivating the plant during the Maya era, as far as back as 250 A.D.

Balanced, full-bodied pepián offers a less tongue-searing way to enjoy chile Cobanero, stewing spices with tender chicken, potatoes, and corn into a ruby-red delight. But you can’t go wrong with any of the restaurant’s rich, flavorful stews that celebrate the delicate combination of flavors that define Guatemalan cuisine.

43 Lincoln Road, Brooklyn, NY, 11225

Senegalese coffee and spring rolls. Beth Dixson
Coffee With a Kick

11. Café Touba at Cafe Rue Dix

Almost everything about Cafe Rue Dix is a celebration of warmth. On summer days, the French-Senegalese restaurant's floor-to-ceiling windows are slid fully open to let the sunshine and breeze filter across the tables. The inviting smell of burning incense wafts through the air. There's even a mural on the wall of a sun-dappled street. Then, there's the coffee. 

The cafe makes a beloved brew from Touba, Senegal, that's rumored to have been created for fueling late-night Sufi chanting sessions. Café Touba gets its distinct flavor from cloves and an African spice known as djar, which adds spicy, bitter flavors and a nutmeg aftertaste. Spiritual leader Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba—who founded the city of Touba in 1887—is said to have created the heady concoction to clear chanters' throats, settle their stomachs, and keep them awake.

Cafe Rue Dix serves their house blend with milk (dairy or nondairy options are available). You can pull up a seat at the bar, grab a table, or simply order your uniquely Senegalese pick-me-up at the to-go coffee counter in the back. Hungry? Order some Senegalese nems, spring rolls brought to Dakar by Vietnamese women who met and married West African soldiers during the French-Indochina War and accompanied them home.

1451 Bedford Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11216

Behold, frozen dessert heaven: the sandwich, with faloodeh in the background. Beth Dixson
Stop and Eat the Roses

12. Persian Ice Cream Sandwich at Sofreh

Prospect Heights a cluster of urban attractions, from the gargantuan Barclays Center to the Brooklyn Academy of Music. But last year, just a couple blocks away from the crowds, an elegant Persian eatery appeared, and it's been racking up acclaim ever since.

Dining at Sofreh does lean upscale, but the food is sublime and well worth the prices. Plus, the phenomenal desserts run for only $7 each. The sweet-and-savory, fragrant Persian ice cream sandwich tucks saffron ice cream between two crisp wafers, accented by rose water and pistachios. For a lighter option, try the faloodeh, which features rose water sorbet atop frozen vermicelli noodles bathing in sweet, zesty lime. For an optimized experience, order both.

Reservations are recommended for dinner, though there is a bar that's first-come, first-served. It's easiest to simply come for a treat or nightcap later in the evening.

75 St. Mark's Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11217

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