Food as Cultural Ambassador

There are those nights in NYC when the last thing I want to do is go to that place with the young, tattooed chef cooking million-ingredient new American cuisine. I don’t want the fancy crowds or the hour-long wait or the communal tables. And I really, really don’t want the scene.

What I want instead is an escape, to go to a place that feels immersive and homey and a vacation from the money-d sameness of downtown Manhattan and brownstone Brooklyn. (Hey, we all have our cynical days.)

I’ve written about how Queens is a world away while only a 15 minute subway ride from Midtown. But there are places all over the five boroughs that offer the same kind of transportive experience.

My husband and I hit up three such spots, three weekends in a row.

First up was San Matteo Pizza and Espresso Bar on the Upper East Side. We were looking for something low-key after a visit to the Met, and this place was just right. It’s small, minimally decorated with maps and Italian football club scarves and churns out top-notch Neopolitan pies (I’d stick to the classic Margherita). Their specialty, though, is a panuozzo, a type of pizza dough sandwich that’s native to the Salerno province in Italy. The restaurant was filled with Italian tourists looking for a taste of home while on vacation.

Next was Chayhana Salom, a new-ish Uzbek restaurant in Brooklyn’s Sheepshead Bay. We indulged in kebabs, plov, a regional lamb and rice dish with as many variations as there are grandmothers, and lagman, a toothsome, homemade noodle, egg and beef creation, which turned out to be our favorite dish of the night. Around us, Russian and Central Asian families were indulging in a celebratory night out. And, of course, like other similar restaurants in the ‘hood, it’s BYO (vodka).

photo 1

The plates at Chayhana Salom

On the third weekend, we hit up BCD Tofu House in Manhattan’s Koreatown. This chain has locations all over California and an outpost in Seoul. Their specialty is a tofu stew called soondubu. The stew is spicy, funky, and filled with silken tofu as well as your choice of add-ins. It’s the ultimate cold-weather comfort food! The dish is served with multiple small plates called banchan. At BCD Tofu House, this means various pickled things, a fried fish and a raw egg to crack into your boiling pot of soondubu. Their bulgogi, a type of grilled and marinated steak, was saucy, sweet and delicious. It’s a great spot to enjoy the buzz of K-town and a variety of unique–and addictive–Korean specialites.

photo 2

Soondobu and bulgogi at BCD Tofu House

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