Pastrami (and beef brisket), David's Brisket House, Bedford-Stuyvesant.
The 20th century social philosopher Isaiah Berlin introduced the idea of classifying thinkers and writers into two basic categories. Berlin designated those who know many things “foxes” (Shakespeare and Aristotle) and he characterized those with one defining idea as “hedgehogs” (Dostoyevsky and Plato). (Berlin himself was emphatically a fox.) This metaphor is quite often used in political shorthand, as in, Reagan was a hedgehog (government is the problem); Bill Clinton is a fox. Restaurants too can be divided into these two categories; those that serve a lot of things, like a classic diner, and those that concentrate on essentially one thing, like a taqueria.
Bubby’s is clearly in the den of foxes. Although it has (we like to think) a clear focus, American home and neighborhood cooking, we’re interested in almost every aspect of it, from oysters to oatmeal. But many of the foods we feel most passionately about often find their finest expression in operations dedicated to making one specific dish.
This blog is intended to glorify the hedgehog food providers of New York– stands, shacks, shops, parlors, joints, trucks and carts defined by one idea, and to celebrate the hedgehog foods themselves, those handy, inexpensive, beloved dishes that lend themselves to hedgehog operations.
Let’s discuss the hedgehog foods that are available in New York and their shared characteristics. First, a hedgehog food is generally (but there are exceptions…) directed at a clientele that knows it well and that has a well defined set of expectations for it. Since this is New York, these clientele groups are typically ethnically based; and “American”, in this context, is just another ethnic group made up natives and of all those assimilated enough to have a liking for American foods. Hedgehog foods tend to be inexpensive and quickly served and consumed. A large number of them can be broadly considered sandwiches of some kind, foods that are at least theoretically hand-held and can be eaten standing or while the eater is in motion. Hot dogs, hamburgers, tacos, burritos, falafels, banh mi, arepas, Jamaican meat patties, empanadas, doner kebabs and even pizza are part of this super continent of hedgehog foods. The great exceptions to the sandwich model in New York are Asian hedgehog foods, dumplings and noodle soups, clearly because East Asians are mostly bereft of bread. (Vietnamese sandwiches (banh mi) are an exception to the exception, thanks to French colonialism and the imperial baguette.) Another significant group of non-sandwich hedgehog places are chicken joints of one sort or another, rotisserie chicken, fried chicken, Korean fried chicken, hot wings.
Every region of the country, probably every region of the world, has its own set of hedgehog foods and their single-minded purveyors. American examples that are not available in New York include spiedies, kebab-like chunks of marinated, grilled meat that are served on the bread used to grab them off their skewers. A couple of spiedies stands are found in Binghamton, NY and almost nowhere else. All-you-can-eat fried catfish parlors are scattered across the South. Cincinnati has chili parlors that serve a particular style of Greek or Macedonian inspired chili, usually combined with spaghetti, grated cheese and minced onion. Chicago and cities of the southwest have birria or birrieria places, which specialize in goat tacos. Certainly hundreds and perhaps thousands of hedgehog dishes are prepared around the world by tiny operations in the street and markets and holes in walls. The vast majority of these foods remain local phenomena but some are exported, usually by emigrant populations, initially for their own consumption, then for the locals as well. Some few, like pizza, tacos, ramen and hamburgers have spread across the globe without the aid of local immigrant customer bases.
It is our observation that we are witnessing the flowering of a golden age of hedgehog foods, at least in New York City. A detailed survey of Lower Manhattan would reveal that dozens of hedgehog food outlets have opened for business in recent months and that the pace of expansion is accelerating. Dozens of neo-hamburger-joints and dozens of creperies and swarms of hand pulled noodle shops and Vietnamese sandwich places have lately materialized. This phenomenon is energized by two factors. One is the still growing intensity and confidence of New York’s immigrant populations. The remaking of the City that began with the new, non-discriminatory immigration law of 1965 has steadily gained momentum as Latin Americans, East and South Asians have established neighborhoods and visibly projected their cultures. The other factor doesn’t really have a name but is partially expressed by the terms “Brooklyn culinary movement” and “artisanal food”. The idea of creating foods using organic/local/farm raised ingredients and either innovative or antique processing (or some combination of the two) has given rise to many hipster outlets based on a single re-invented food.
Let’s start this column with an intentionally incomplete list of NY hedgehog foods paired, almost randomly, with one of their providers. [These places are not being nominated as the best, or even a particularly good, purveyor of its particular food, just one that fits the definition we’re using.]
A couple of qualifications:
1) We are not including desserts or beverages–ice cream, donuts, coffee, juices, etc., in this celebration/survey. Let’s stay with savory hedgehog foods. And, 2) admittedly, there’s a lot of grey area between foxes and hedgehogs, and most hedgehogs serve a few things outside their specialization. So, there’s a bit of subjectivity involved in deciding whether a given place is sufficiently Ahab-like to belong in this column.
Hot dog/Grey’s Papaya, Upper West Side
Hamburger/DuMont Burger, Williamsburg
Taco/Dos Toros Taqueria, Union Square
Felafel/Taim, West Village
Pizza/Numero 28, Soho
Jamaican meat pattie/Christie’s, Prospect Heights
Empanada/Empanadas Bar NYC, East Village
Kati roll/Kati Roll Company, West Village
Pastrami sandwich/David’s Brisket House, Bed-Stuy
Ramen/Ippudo, East Village
Banh mi/Nicky’s Vietnamese Sandwich, Downtown Brooklyn
Cambodian sandwich/Num Pang, West Village
Kebabs/Bereket, Lower East Side
Arepa/Caracas to Go, East Village
Hero sandwich/Defonte’s, Red Hook
Hand pulled noodle soup/Lam Zhou, Chinatown
Belgian (French) fries/Pommes Frites, East Village
Sausage stuffed baguette/Dogmatic, Flatiron District
Fried chicken/Dirty Bird to Go, West Village
Yunnanese noodle soup/Yun Nan Flavour Snack, Sunset Park
Roman-style roasted pork/Porchetta, East Village
Meatballs/The Meatball Shop, Lower East Side
Steak/Peter Luger. Williamsburg
Hot wings/Atomic Wings, Hell’s Kitchen
Australian meat pies/Tuck Shop, Chelsea
Korean soft tofu soup/So Kong Dong (seriously), Fort Lee, NJ
Grilled cheese sandwich/Little Muenster, East Village
We would like your participation in filling out this list. What other foods in Greater New York that are offered by single-minded producers?
What are your nominations for the best purveyor in each category?