Gonzo Diner Food: Shopsin's
Perhaps the most Only in New York eatery in New York; Kenny Shopsin's takes on mac-and-cheese pancakes and burgers and whatever the f*ck else he feels like making that day are can't-miss items. The small is more a sit-down destination rather than a to-go lunch, but you can't help but love the food from this NYC icon.
Greek To Go: Boubouki
You'll have to look far to find a better spanakopita than Boubouki's ($4)—its crisp phyllo, bright tangy feta, and plush spinach are best in class. One is a snack; two edges you closer to a meal. You can round one out with a half-pint container of chickpea salad, dressed simply with olive oil, lemon juice, feta, and parsley. And for dessert there's a rotating selection of cakes and pastries all worth your attention.
Boubouki: 718-344-4202; bouboukinyc.com
Tacos: Brooklyn Taco
A taco that costs $4 should give you pause, but Brooklyn Taco's are loaded with enough fillings that two equates to three or four cheaper versions. Of the new-wave taco operations in New York, they have much better tortillas, which are pliant and just a little charred. Our favorite fillings: the brisket (rich but clean in flavor, and much better than the average taco truck's beef offerings), and the kale & potato, which packs a lot of heat in those shreds of green.
Brooklyn Taco: 646-820-8226; brooklyntaco.com
Sandwiches: Formaggio Essex
Formaggio is a cheese and specialty food shop with, among other things, quite a nice olive oil selection. They also make sandwiches based on whatever products look interesting and fresh to the proprietor that day. There's no set menu, but walk in and ask what's available. It'll probably be cheese-based, and a solid lunch indeed.
Formaggio Essex: 212-982-8200; formaggioessex.com
Cured Meat Snacks: Heritage Meats
Heritage Meats is really a place to buy sausage, cured pork, and amazing dry aged meat. But if you're looking for a small snack or something meaty to complement another lunch dish, don't shy away from ordering a quarter pound of their excellent sausages and hams. We're partial to the Agrumi pictured here, which is pleasantly oily with a citrus twang. And don't overlook the tongue pastrami; there's no pastrami like tongue pastrami.
Heritage Meats: 212-539-1111; heritagefoodsusa.com
Japanese Lunch Boxes: Ni Japanese Deli
Ni is tiny even by Essex Street Market standards, but they pack a lot into this Japanese stall. Products like quality matcha hang near the back, but right up front you'll find "bento boxes," portioned-out containers with items like black cod with red cabbage slaw or vegetable lasagna with stewed pumpkin and pickles. It's probably the lighest and most virtuous-tasting meal in the market.
Grilled Cheese Sandwiches: Saxelby Cheese
Saxelby is one of the city's best sources for cheese, period, and they use it to make some insane grilled cheese sandwiches. They're some of the few fancy $7 to $9 grilled cheeses that are actually a good value; you'll be hard pressed to finish one of these dairy volcanoes by yourself.
Saxelby Cheese: 212-228-8204; saxelbycheese.com
Fish Sandwiches: Rainbo
Rainbo's Fish is a veteran of the market scene, and they're still a great place to get fresh seafood. But they also make substantial fish sandwiches for under $5 a pop. Salmon is usually one of the offerings, but we're more partial to the white-fleshed fish sandwich (grouper, flounder, or tilapia) that gets a rub of five spice powder and a dressing of tartar sauce before meeting the sandwich press.
Rainbo's Fish: 212-982-8585
Juice: Tra La La Juice Bar
Next to Rainbo (and under the same ownership) is Tra La La Juice Bar. Whether fruit and vegetable juice counts as lunch is up to you to decide, but if so, you can get it here. They also sell sweet pastries and muffins should your tastes run that way.
Tra La La Juice Bar: 212-388-0449