Serious Eats Neighborhood Guides: Kenji's Morningside Heights and Columbia University
Editor's note: We write about restaurants all over the city. But sometimes, you don't want to travel for food; you want the best eats right in your neighborhood. So we're having the Serious Eats staff share where they eat around their own 'hoods. Today? Serious Eats Managing Editor J. Kenji Lopez-Alt!
View Kenji's Morningside Heights and Lower Harlem in a larger map
I grew up on 125th and Riverside Drive and spent most of my eating-out-time in the Morningside Heights neighborhood around Columbia University. Back in the day, food options were pretty limited. There was the old Mama Joys' Deli, which made great pastrami sandwiches and Pizza Town II which had a decent slice for lunch. For a couple years in the mid to late 90's, there was a fast food Japanese restaurant that had piss-poor but tasty-nonetheless udon and robot-made sushi.
For dinner, we had Ollie's Chinese noodle shop (it's still there, and still just as mediocre), or my birthday restaurant of choice, Fiesta Mexicana, a decent Americanized Mexican restaurant that had great tacos al carbon, enchiladas suizas, and best of all, neon blue fizzy sweet tequila shots that they'd bring to my parents at the end of the meal (I was allowed to taste my dad's). It burned down sometime in the mid 90's.
At one point the best bagels in the city could be found on the corner of 110th and Broadway at Columbia Hot Bagels, right across the street from the Morningside Heights branch of Gray's Papaya (back then, a recession special of two dogs and a drink was a measly $1.45). Both have been swallowed up by Columbia University's expansion.
While I'm nostalgic for those old hangouts, I must admit that the average quality of food in the neighborhood has improved in spades in the last decade or so. Here's where you should be eating.
Best Barbecue: Dinosaur Barbecue
Dinosaur Barbecue has moved digs to a bigger better space under the West Side Highway in a building that used to be a meat packing facility. They've still got some of the best ribs in town (check out this video with ex-intern Katie Quinn, now at the TODAY show). For sweeter, more deeply charred but equally good ribs, hit Rack & Soul, where you can also sample some of Charles Gabriel's deservedly famous pan-fried chicken (make sure to ask them to make you a fresh batch).
Best Pizza: V&T, Sal & Carmine's, Koronet
The best in the neighborhood, and one of the classic NY-style slices in Manhattan is definitely Sal & Carmine's, still good after all these years. Ask them to reheat your slice 'til it's well done. I have a nostalgic soft spot in my heart for V&T Pizzeria on Amsterdam. The cheesiness of the pies is matched only by the gingham-clothed space, but it makes for a fun, inexpensive night out. For big-as-your-face jumbo-sized slices, there's only one place to go: Koronet. Good pizza? No. Good value? You betcha.
Koronet Pizzeria: 2848 Broadway, New York NY 10025 (map); 212-222-1566
Sal & Carmine's Pizza: 2671 Broadway, New York NY 10025 (map); 212-663-7651
Best Casual French: Alouette
There isn't much by way of fine dining in Morningside Heights, but I've had a few good meals at Alouette, the small bi-leveled French bistro on Broadway. Their do well by rustic country dishes. Beet salads, braised short ribs with root vegetables, country pâtés, and the like. It's also a nice quiet, unpretentious bar to grab a martini or a pastis at.
Best Casual Italian: Pisticci
Carmine's has the market cornered on overpriced, overhyped red-sauce Italian, but head to Pisticci on LaSalle a little further uptown for some fine casual, homey Italian fare. Their soups and handmade pastas are especially nice.
Best Brunches: Le Monde, Toast
Le Monde may not have the best dinner around, but head there on a Sunday morning and get a bowl of cappuccino, hot chocolate, or tea big enough to get lost in as the cornerstone of a very fine brunch. French toast is thick, crispy, and nicely eggy, while simple French dishes like croque monsieur, escargots à la persillade, or merguez sausage will appease heartier appetites. Their outdoor seating can't be beat.
For a more sandwich-and-American-classic based brunch available all day every day, head to Toast up on LaSalle and Broadway (It's also a decent spot for cocktails and chicken wings late night).
Best Thai: Thai Market
You could hit one of the many branches of Wondee Siam, but you're far better off at Thai Market on Amsterdam. Real deal Bangkok-style street food that is the most authentic stuff north of downtown.
Best Quick Lunch: Roti Roll, Bombay Frankie
For under $7 you can get yourself a burrito-sized wrap made with buttery roti wrapped around a curry filling of your choice. Try the potatoes and okra or the marinated lamb. Some of the fillings seriously turn up the heat.
Best Korean: The Mill
The Korean Mill's kalbi and bulgogi are sweet, fatty, and tender and can be grilled right at your table, which'll be full to the brim with banchan, the huge variety of pickles and marinated dishes that come standard with every Korean meal.
The Mill Korean Restaurant: 2895 Broadway, New York NY 10025 (map); 212-666-7653
Best For Relaxing: The Hungarian Pastry Shop
You'd be hard pressed to describe the pastries at this institution as anything but mediocre, but still, there's no better place to relax and take in an awesome view of the Cathedral of St. John The Divine and perhaps a big cup of their great hot chocolate than the Hungarian Pastry Shop
The Hungarian Pastry Shop: 1030 Amsterdam Avenue, New York NY 10025 (map); 212-866-4230
Best Mexican: Taqueria y Fonda, the Truck on 96th and Broadway
Despite its name, Taqueria y Fonda's tacos are not that great. They do, however, make great inexpensive-but-filling homestyle simple Mexican dishes. Got a taco craving? Head over to the taco truck parked just west of Broadway on 96th street most nights of the week.
Taqueria Y Fonda: 968 Amsterdam Ave, New York NY 10001 (map); 212-531-0383
Best Bagels: Absolute Bagels
The best bagels in Manhattan used to be at Columbia Hot Bagles on 110th Street. Luckily, Absolute Bagels moved in to take their place soon after they were ousted by Columbia University. Yes, the owners are Thai, not Jewish, not even native New Yorkers. But don't be fooled—they are true masters of their craft. Pro-tip: don't get your bagel toasted. Instead, ask them which ones are hottest and go for those. They'll have a perfectly crisp crust that makes toasting completely unnecessary.
Absolute Bagels: 2788 Broadway, New York NY 10025 (map); 212-932-2052
Best Soul Food: Miss Mamie's Spoonbread Too
There's no shortage of soul food in Harlem and Morningside Heights in all ranges of quality. The most famous in the 'hood is undoubtedly Sylvia's, and it's worth a visit if only for the historical significance and the incredibly friendly service (you'll never meet a nicer restaurateur than Miss Sylvia and her daughter), but for the best food, try the excellent home-cooked fare at Spoonbread Too (make sure to hit their side dishes and red velvet cake).
Most Famous Restaurant: Tom's Restaurant
I can't say there's much worth going into here. Their coffee, eggs, toast, and hash are just average. But who can't help but notice the iconic sign made famous in Seinfeld? If you're a fan, a visit to Tom's is in order.
Best Delicatessen: Artie's
With the lamentable passing of Mama Joy's, for a while I had to get my pastrami fix from the Olive Tree Deli on 120th and Broadway. Fortunately, a few years later, Artie's moved into the neighborhood. Slicker, cleaner, and more expensive than the old corner delis, they nonetheless steam a mean pastrami (rye, with mustard, please). I really like their full, half, and pickled tomato selection that comes to the table with each sandwich.
Best shopping: Fairway
An incredible cheese counter, produce that spans everything from conventional to organic to local to seasonal (head there in the winter and find nearly two dozen varieties of citrus fruit), a full-on selection of fresh roasted coffee beans, a few dozen varieties of olive oil you can taste, mozzarella stretched to order, excellent fresh baked bagels and baguettes, a walk-in meat and dairy department that's larger than most regular supermarkets, butchers who will cut meat to order (organic, conventional, kosher, you name it), an aging case for prime beef... it's hard to believe this is all under one roof, but it's what makes Fairway my favorite supermarket not just in Manhattan, but in the world.
Where do you eat in Morningside Heights?
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Managing Editor of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.