Lamb Dumplings at Tianjin Dumpling House
Back in January, I emerged from the Main Street 7 train in Flushing with a mission: find the best dumplings in the neighborhood. Six hours later, with 13 dumpling shops under my belt, I came most of the way toward doing just that, realizing in the process that yes, there is such a thing as too many dumplings, and I reached that limit at stop number seven. But here's the thing: I went back to Tianjin Dumpling House a few times during my research, risking yet another stomach ache, because I couldn't believe how good their dumplings are. The lamb dumplings in particular are incredible—the skins are thin and delicate, chewier than wontons but only slightly. The filling is self-saucing: a lipsmackingly rich mix of finely ground lamb, ever so slightly gamey, tempered by the sweetness of summer squash and scallion. By my rankings, they're the best dumplings New York has to offer.
The ProZack at Shopsins
It's not a year in New York without at least one meal at Shopsins, and this sandwich took the cake: gravy-soaked brisket, Hatch chilies, and Jack cheese on a loaf of garlic bread. The brisket is so tender you could cut it with a spoon, the sauce tastes of little more than stock reduced until it's a meaty syrup, and the chilies give a genuine burn. There are sandwiches, then there are Shopsins sandwiches, and then there's this thing of beauty.
Pad Ped Moo Krob at Larb Ubol
Hell's Kitchen finally has a Thai restaurant I can shout from the rooftops about: Larb Ubol, an Isan-influenced spot run by Thai maestro Ratchanee Sumpatboon. My favorite dish on the menu is this stir fry of fatty pork, crunchy Thai eggplants (cut two ways for textural contrast), and plenty of red curry paste. The gentle sweetness tempered by chilies, green peppercorns, and ginger all hit in layers, a tongue-searing dish that rewards contemplation.
Potato Pancakes at Stage Restaurant
I've visited the Stage more times than I can count this year, and these stellar potato pancakes are on my order every time. Craggly, crispy outsides, almost creamy interiors, with plenty of good sour cream, they're everything a potato pancake should be with none of the mishegas. Here's hoping this East Village diner sticks around for another 30 years.
Mezze at Grill 43
I was looking for another restaurant when I came across Grill 43, but I'm glad I stayed. This dumpy Sunnyside place makes some of the best Turkish food I've had in the city—if you know what to order. The grilled items are all pretty much forgettable, but the mezze—creamy eggplant dips, full-throttle ezme with tomatoes and chilies, roasted eggplant with peppers—are all incredible. Don't miss the menemen—Turkish scrambled eggs, stained orange with spicy peppers—for breakfast.
Whole Hog Barbecue from the Arrogant Swine
I ate a lot of barbecue this year, but the smoked meat that stands out to me above all others didn't come from a restaurant at all. It was North Carolina-style whole hog barbecue, chopped before my eyes in a Greenpoint parking lot, smoked by one Tyson Ho, a.k.a. the Arrogant Swine. Ho studied with whole hog master Ed Mitchell and is doing the lord's work for New York's barbecue scene. It's not just that he's making stellar pork barbecue—which we sorely lack in the city—but because the format of his summer pop-up events, with all-you-can-eat-meat, free-flowing beer, and live music under a big 'ol tarp in the sun, speaks to what barbecue is really all about. Ho's events weren't places where you handed over money, ate your meat, and left. You participated, hung around, made new friends, and got a little tipsy while eating the afternoon away. I hope more barbecue enthusiasts and event planners follow by this example. We'd be better for it.
Achar at Woodside Cafe
Woodside Cafe is the only Himalayan restaurant in New York I recommend wholeheartedly without reservations of any kind. It's a curious place, the awning still touting the sandwiches, pizza, and pasta that its earlier Italian incarnation served, but it now has set its sights squarely on Nepali cooking. Among my favorite small bites there is achar, a daikon pickle sauced with oil, dried chiles, and ground mustard seeds, a spicy, sour, and funky snack I wish I could purchase by the quart, set out on cheese plates at home, and take all the credit for its manufacture for myself. This is how Queens does artisan pickles.
Hummus at Local 92
One of my favorite restaurant reviews to write in 2013 was on this unassuming East Village restaurant, a hummus shop that's more than just a hummus shop. Chef Shai Zvibak makes a new batch of hummus every two hours, and the freshness shows—something so creamy yet light, understated yet perfectly executed, as to raise New York's already high hummus bar even higher. There's more to the menu here, including some very good shakshuka, but it's the hummus I still dream about and return for in my off hours when I can.
Cauliflower at Alder
For the first time in ten years, Wylie Dufresne opened a new restaurant. Its name is Alder, and it's a relatively casual East Village place with great cocktails, agreeable prices, and a reserved-yet-decidedly-Wylie take on better bar food through science. I think the mid-priced dishes on the menu offer the best value for the money, especially where this huge hunk of cauliflower is concerned. It's deep fried whole, served on a bed of preserved lemon, almonds, and lemon oil whipped until mayo-like, and topped with lardo and cacao nibs. It tastes unapologetically of cauliflower with added nutty and roasted notes, and I'd take it over a steak most days of the week.
Roti Kotthu at New Asha
For four out of six weekends earlier this year I boarded the ferry to Staten Island to put together a comprehensive guide to the borough's Sri Lankan cuisine. And every time I went, I made sure to see what was cooking at New Asha, a steam table joint that stole my heart. Chief among finds there was this plate of chopped up roti stir fried with spices, eggs, bits of chicken, and a riot of herbs. It's a beautiful hangover helper, a spicy gut bomb with a lot going on. Don't miss it on your visit.
Gelato at A. B. Biagi
If I had to pick one ice cream development of the year, it'd be A. B. Biagi's arrival in Nolita this summer. Gelato man Antonio Biagi studied among ice cream masters in Italy and France before opening his New York shop, and it's a learning experience that paid off. With super-creamy hazelnut, pistachio, and peanut gelati and crisp, clear sorbets (including the most remarkable chocolate sorbet I've ever tasted), this shop ranks high among the city's best. Biagi respects tradition but isn't beholden to it: just ask about his ice cream flavored with sugar cones. It's delightful.
Cheese Dumplings at MP Taverna
MP Taverna has a lot to offer Astoria's Greek restaurant scene, but chief among its treasures may be this plate of gnudi-like pillows of cheese swimming in a thick, sweet tomato sauce alongside tender lamb sausage nubs and wilted spinach. It's spicy, rich, punch-to-the-gut good, home cooking dressed up just enough to be something really special. Don't miss the killer braised lamb shank on your visit either.
Tokri Chaat at Mumbai Xpress
Is Mumbai Xpress, all the way out in Floral Park, the city's best chaat house? Quite possibly, especially where this tokri chaat is concerned. It's an edible bowl of shredded and fried potato filled with creamy chickpeas, fried chickpea crackers, and onion, topped with cool yogurt, deeply tangy tamarind chutney, and tiny fried chickpea flour noodles called sev. Something like an Indian taco salad, it has a lot going on, but the flavors and textures work in careful balance to make a stand-out plate of Indian snack food.
Orange Cake at Titan Foods
Titan Foods is Astoria's one-stop shop for all things Greek. That includes a trip to the bakery counter for a slice of this orange cake, which the shop calls "orangepita," described elsewhere as "portokalopita." Part pie, part pudding, part cake, it's a custard of yogurt, orange juice, orange zest, and shards of phyllo dough baked together and then drenched in syrup. The orange zest lends the cake a surprisingly bitter edge, a good thing to handle all the sweetness. One of the most unique and interesting sweets I ate all year, all for three bucks a pop.
Egg Custard Tarts at Teixeiras Bakery
We did some good eating in Newark this year; my favorite of it all was dessert in the form of these extraordinary pasteis de nata. The crust is where Teixeiras really sets itself apart: it's shatter-crisp, dark and burnished. The layers separate easily and do so with an audible crunch. This is pastry gold.
Beef Tartare at Skàl
Truth be told, I didn't like Skàl very much. The service was amateurish, the food largely bland or confused, the experience a big disappointment. But credit where credit is due—they do a fantastic beef tartare, the flavor of which way outsizes the plate, the beefiness accompanied by briny clams, sprinklings of fennel and chamomile, and beef fat-brushed toast. Let's hope Skàl improves with age, as it really could be a nice place if this dish is any indication.
Chocolate Babka at Breads Bakery
What is there to say about Breads Bakery that I haven't said already? How about this: I can eat one of their chocolate babkas by myself in one sitting, and I don't even think that's a bad thing. Part croissant, part cake, it's a babka that'll change your perceptions of what babka can be.
Octopus at E Taverna
Astoria's E Taverna does incredible things with seafood, including this plate of octopus tentacles that are grilled until just soft, then washed in good olive oil and tossed with a fistful of capers along with some of their juice. It looks like too much brine, enough to sail right over the octopus's gentle sweetness, until you taste just how rich the meat is with all that olive oil.