Taking a bite out of the Big Apple

The Big Apple’s history and identity is best explored through its food – dishes given a new home by waves of immigrant communities and turned into New York City icons.

The Big Apple’s history and identity is best explored through its food – dishes given a new home by waves of immigrant communities and turned into New York City icons.

The hot dog
The mark of any decent regional food is a turf war, and for almost 100 years the humble dog has been splitting New Yorkers’ allegiances. European butchers brought the dog to New York in the 1800s and Charles Feltman of Germany first set up a pushcart on the Coney Island seashore in 1870. In 1916, a former employee, Nathan Handwerker, opened a shop across the street, offering hot dogs at half the price and putting his ex-boss out of business. Nathan’s annual hot-dog-eating contest has been running each 4 July ever since, and while Chicago has its ‘dragged through the garden’ dog, Dallas its corn dog and LA its Pink’s chilli dogs, New York’s dogs are perhaps the most famous.

The turf war still rumbles on. In 1973, Papaya King had been touting its original combination of hot dog and papaya drink for 41 years, when a former partner opened Gray’s Papaya. And it’s certainly made its stamp, featuring in productions such as You’ve Got Mail, Sex and the City and Glee, and in the unlikely-sounding song ‘Bum Rush at Gray’s Papaya’ by Bugout Society.

Its leafy streets lined with beaux arts, Baroque, neo-Gothic and postwar residences, the Upper West Side is better known for its architecture than its dining scene, but Gray’s Papaya’s 24-hour Broadway branch draws in the masses. Decorated in lurid red and yellow, it’s plastered with cheery signs reading ‘No gimmicks! No bull!’ and ‘Famous hot doggery’. But you can’t argue with ‘Best damned frankfurter you ever ate’. Gray’s does a classic NYC frank: all-beef in a natural casing, which is grilled (no dirty-water dogs here) and served on a toasted bun with sauerkraut and spicy brown mustard. The real blessing is the price: Gray’s famous recession special is a mere $4.95 for two grilled dogs and a drink.

The bagel
Midtown screams classic ‘New York, New York’. The borough is home to the Chrysler Building, Grand Central Station and the Empire State Building, proud embodiments of the American dream for so many new arrivals. And it’s here that Zucker’s Bagels, a more humble establishment, with cream, metro-tiled walls and a handwritten menu, quietly goes about the business of providing a quintessential taste of the city.

Jewish bagels are thought to have originated in Krakow in the 17th century and were brought to the Lower East Side by Polish Jewish immigrants in the 1880s. Bagel bakeries became so ubiquitous in the district that a union was established to protect its workers and the craft of the handmade bagel. Come the 1960s, the bread went mainstream with the invention of automated baking machines and pre-sliced bagels. At Zucker’s, the bagel has gone full circle: the ring of plain-yeast dough made with unbleached flour and sweetened with malt syrup is hand-rolled and kettle-boiled. The result is a sweet bread with a crust that’s chewy but not heavy.

The New York bagel of choice is smoked salmon and cream cheese: in the 1930s a Kraft marketing campaign successfully promoted the bagel and cream cheese combo, while lox (thinly sliced smoked salmon) was sold from pushcarts on the Lower East Side by Jewish immigrants back in the early 1900s. Now, Zucker’s gets its kosher salmon from Williamsburg’s Acme Smoked Fish, whose founder Harry Brownstein emigrated from Russia in 1905 and sold smoked fish in New York from his horse-drawn wagon. Today, The Traditional Sandwich – a bagel filled with Nova Scotia smoked salmon, plain cream cheese, Lucky’s beefsteak tomatoes, red onions and capers, served with a pickle and coleslaw – has breathed new life into a New York classic.

The doughnut
It’s an improbable fact that Homer Simpson is the inspiration behind a vegan shop in New York, but it is a fact nonetheless. Watching an episode of The Simpsons one night, Christopher Hollowell badly craved a doughnut, but he couldn’t find a vegan version anywhere in New York. He rang his best friend and fellow vegan Dan Dunbar and they hatched a plan to open the city’s first dairy-free doughnut shop. The resulting joint, in the bohemian district of Williamsburg, is decked out in true down-home style, with walls covered in vintage baking posters, recipes, whisks, rolling pins and baking tins, and a ’20s jazz soundtrack filling the room. Each of Dun-Well’s organic doughnuts are made by hand and there are more than 200 flavours in rotation, from traditional varieties such as glazed, chocolate and jam-filled to inventive concoctions such as root beer, tangerine basil and black liquorice.

They are almost unrecognisable from the earliest incarnations of the doughnut. While they originated in Europe and the Middle East, they made their way to New York (then known as New Amsterdam) as Dutch olykoeks (oil cakes). By the mid 19th century, doughnuts had evolved into the ring we know today, and the craze took off. Indeed, at Ellis Island, immigrants had their first taste of the Big Apple with coffee and doughnuts. New York was home to the first automated doughnut machine in 1921 and they were soon being churned out to the masses, remaining affordable even during the Great Depression. Today, the US produces about 10 billion doughnuts every year, with new takes constantly being devised – witness this year’s Cronut, a croissant/doughnut hybrid that originated in New York. As Homer Simpson once retorted: ‘Doughnuts. Is there anything they can’t do?’

The pizza
Among warehouses and factories splashed with shouty street art, the building housing Roberta’s Pizza is like a shy child cowed by its brasher siblings. The slightly dishevelled, grey-brick former garage is an inconspicuous sight on the streets of Bushwick. And that’s just how its devotees like it. Inside, local 20-somethings with dyed hair, tattoos and skinny jeans huddle with friends, casting curious glances at the out-of-towners who’ve been showing up in increasing numbers since Roberta’s was lauded in The New York Times. All are prepared to wait hours for the chance to dine under the twinkly lights at its rustic wooden tables.

Out back, a sustainable garden and greenhouse produce some of the restaurant’s herbs and vegetables, while in the kitchen, the smoky, wood-fired brick oven transforms simple ingredients into something sublime. This respect for quality ingredients – long forgotten by many a Times Square pizza parlour – is in keeping with the city’s first pizzas, introduced by Italian immigrants in the 1900s. Early pioneering pizzerias – such as America’s first, Lombardi’s in Little Italy – used the best ingredients, including homemade fresh mozzarella. And while Chicago has its ‘deep-dish’ pizza and Californian pizza is light and doughy, New York’s regional style soon developed with a thin crust that allows for faster cooking time – essential in a city where everyone’s always in a hurry.

Roberta’s may be respectful of New York’s pizza heritage but it is, after all, a Bushwick joint, so alongside the classic margherita are creations such as The Bee Sting – tomato, mozzarella, sopressata (Italian dry salami), chilli and honey – and Carlos Danger – parmigiano, squash, fresnos (chilli peppers), onion and chilli oil. Folding it into your face is entirely optional.

The pastrami on rye
'I’ll have what she’s having.’ At Katz’s Delicatessen, it’s almost obligatory to repeat the famous line from Meg Ryan’s orgasm scene in When Harry Met Sally – but, in fact, co-star Billy Crystal made the smart menu choice: the pastrami on rye. This is the New York sandwich: heaps of smoked, black-edged slices of pastrami squeezed inside two pieces of rye bread and smothered in yellow mustard, accompanied by pickles. The recipe hasn’t changed since Katz’s opened 125 years ago: the pastrami is cured the same way, using the same secret ingredients and, unlike in most delis, is still cut by hand to order. This allows the meat to stay in the steamer for longer, so it retains its tenderness and ensures the slices are the perfect size. Some 15,000 pounds of pastrami is consumed each week at Katz’s by a clientele that includes four US presidents, numerous celebrities (photos of whom adorn the deli’s wood-panelled walls) and serving US soldiers, who have been receiving their salamis since WWII, when the owners sent food to their sons overseas and coined the slogan ‘Send a salami to your boy in the army’.

Tradition abounds at Katz’s. The deli opened in 1888 when the Lower East Side, now a melting pot of eateries from around the world, was home to a thriving community of Jewish immigrants. Although Katz’s wasn’t the first to produce the pastrami sandwich – it’s thought that a kosher butcher named Sussman Volk got there first – it soon became an institution. The original ambience that made it so remains, including the ’40s storefront sign and the archaic ticketing system: a ticket is given on arrival, food gets charged to it and a fine of $50 is charged if it’s lost. It doesn’t seem to stop anyone having a good time though – at the meat counter, backdropped by a wall of hanging salamis, the cutters banter, and at the formica tables someone, somewhere, will be faking an orgasm.

The New York cheesecake
The Upper East Side, with some of the most expensive zip codes in the US, has long been the preserve of well-coiffed ladies armed with designer bags the size of steam trunks and diamond rings worth more than the average brownstone apartment. And in the rarefied air of uptown, among some of the country’s most extravagant flagship stores, old-world cafés and opulent bars, the Lady M Cake Boutique is their spiritual home.

Opened in 2004, this boutique (not a mere bakery or cake shop) sells delicate, fanciful desserts that are presented like jewels behind glass on a long counter. The interior is narrow, minimal and all white, almost gallery-like, designed so that all attention falls on the beautifully crafted cakes. These include the signature Mille Crêpe – more than 20 crêpes layered with pastry cream – and, of course, the gâteau fromage.

While baked cheesecake has been eaten in Europe since the 1400s, New Yorkers have appropriated history by claiming it as their own. Reputedly invented by German immigrant Arnold Reuben, but immortalised by Lindy’s restaurant in Midtown in the 1920s, the creation featuring cream cheese, heavy cream, a dash of vanilla and a cookie crust became hugely popular in the ’40s.

At Lady M, owner and creator Ken Romaniszyn has combined French techniques and Japanese style to bring a new, lighter take on the baked cheesecake. His gâteau fromage features a thin base of shortbread cookie crust, and a soft, silky and creamy topping with a hint of vanilla. At seven dollars a slice, it’s a unique and luxurious way to grab a bite of the Upper East Side’s good life.

The cocktail
Take a look at New York’s cocktail scene – where once-forgotten recipes are finding new love, vintage speakeasies are all the rage and braces-clad mixologists earnestly pour ingredients into antique glasses – and it’s easy to assume that the ’20s Prohibition Era was the golden age of the cocktail. But that’s not the whole story. Though the word ‘cocktail’ first appeared in a London newspaper in 1798, the cocktail became synonymous with New York in 1874, when the Manhattan and the Tom Collins were invented in the city. The drink flourished pre- Prohibition, and it’s this age that’s celebrated at the Clover Club in Cobble Hill, a family borough of brownstones and retro boutiques.

Named after a famous, late-19th-century men’s club, the Clover Club serves fizzes, sours, juleps, royales and crystal bowls of punch atop its salvaged mahogany bar. The Victorian-era saloon is a study in informal sophistication, with wood-panelled walls, marble-topped tables, tiled floors and a pressed-tin ceiling. Head bartender Tom Macy’s creations, which use fresh juices, housemade syrups and seasonal ingredients, are a taste of history. On the menu is the Clover Club cocktail, originally enjoyed by members of the men’s club. Today the bar adds dry vermouth to the gin, fresh lemon juice, housemade raspberry syrup and an egg-white mix to turn it from a fruity gin drink to something more grown-up. Then there’s the Improved Whiskey Cocktail, a riff on the Old Fashioned. In the late 19th century, it became fashionable to add dashes of exotic, imported liqueurs – particularly absinthe – to the Old Fashioned. The Clover Club’s version is a concoction of rye whiskey, angostura bitters, syrup, maraschino and absinthe. Sipping the cocktail at the sturdy wooden bar, it seems appropriate to raise a glass and toast the gilded age that inspired it.

The ice cream cone
Dumbo – Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass – is just across the East River from Manhattan, but could be in a different city altogether. Here, high-rises have given way to 19th-century warehouses, now converted into luxury apartments, while its cobblestone streets are home to shops and cafés re-creating a retro vibe. The Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory, however, needs no edifice. The parlour sits in a ’20s fireboat house under Brooklyn Bridge, a homely addition to a backdrop pierced by Manhattan’s skyscrapers. Staff wear pressed white shirts with red bow ties, Coke is sold in glass bottles and all the ice cream for the sundaes, banana splits and milkshakes is produced on site in small batches. There is no Rocky Road, salted caramel or chilli, just eight classic, all-natural flavours: vanilla, chocolate, vanilla chocolate chunk, strawberry, chocolate chocolate chunk, peaches and cream, butter pecan and coffee – made with the finest ingredients.

Outside the Factory, bicycles are lined up, joggers pause for breath and dog-walkers take a seat alongside Brooklyn residents, all admiring the towering views of Manhattan from the calm of the shore. But ice cream hasn’t always been such a democratic confection. It first arrived in New York in the early 1700s and was a luxury item for the elite: in the summer of 1790, George Washington and his wife Martha spent $200 (£3,000 in today’s money) on the dessert. Technical advances in the 19th century led to the mass production, refrigeration and transportation of ice, and the average Joe and Jane were finally able to see what they’d been missing. By the end of WWII, with dairy-product rationing over, Americans celebrated with ice cream, reportedly enjoying more than 20 quarts per person in 1946. Today, at Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory, where the national flag flies on the napkins, patriotism never tasted so good.

The article 'Taking a bite out of the Big Apple' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Traveller.