15 years behind a desk deep inside Hell’s Kitchen introduced me to the wonderful world of car dealerships, construction machinery, and gay bars. I watched the neighborhood develop, grow and become one of the least appreciated food areas in NYC today. It is a NYC neighborhood, full of personalities and stories. 9th ave has morphed into a little foodie paradise over the years, while 10th ave is full of destination gems.
Today I sit behind another desk, my own. But I still visit Hell’s Kitchen about twice a week for work (so subtle) and research, and it still feels like a second home. As with just about any Manhattan neighborhood, its nice to explore the area on your own. But to bring some of these stories to life and understand what this neighborhood is all about, I recommend taking a tour (ok, not so subtle). These are the dishes that define Hell’s Kitchen today in no particular order. A combination of classics, personal faves, with some fresh meat mixed in between
Chicken Paitan at Ivan Ramen Slurp Shop – Its easy to fall for the classics at Ivan, but this latest invention is my favorite today. It got the richness and deliciousness of a Tonkotsu bowl without the heaviness. Its also the first dish to break the rule and appear in both Ivan restaurants (besides the classics)
Seco de Pollo at Nano – Although I’ve known about Nano for a while and enjoyed it in the past, its only in the last year or so that I’ve really discovered this true gem. Chicken strips cooked with Naranjilla, a sour fruit grown in Ecuador. Abel, the owner is one of those Hell’s Kitchen personalities you want to meet. But if you want to see the last time he came to work dressed up, you will need to look at this.
Pepperoni Pizza at Capizzi – The Sacco slice, and the Diavola at Don Antonio are pretty darn great as well, but my gut usually leans toward Capizzi. The pepperoni is cut thick, giving it more oomph. And the pizza parlor look and feel takes you to another place and time: Staten Island circa 2016
Shrimp Tacos at Otto’s Tacos – Otto graduated from a mom and pop to a corporation (often the end result of finding success in East Village). But their signature shrimp tacos are still some of the best in a sea of Taquerias. They come smartly seasoned, with a tangy homemade serrano cream, fresh herbs and onions. Wash them down with the homemade Horchata
Silan at Taboon – Vanilla ice cream layered with puffed rice and date honey sprinkled with caramelized pistachios and topped with shredded halva. Need I say more? I probably should. This is one of the most popular big boy desserts in Hell, and its been on the menu since day one.
Canotto at Sullivan Street Bakery – You wont find this addictive pastry anywhere else because it was invented and patented by Jim Lahey. The dinghy shape gives it the name (not to be confused with dinghy shaped pizza terrorizing Napoli purists). You can find both savory and sweet Canottos but I always go for the Dolce (seasonal fruits, mascarpone, nuts).
Jonah Crab at Gloria – Simple, yet outstanding. The sweet as lobster crab mixed with strips of Kohlrabi (like a cross between Turnip and Daikon), aided by a thin eggy Sabayon. Ok, maybe not that simple, but so satisfying. This mini Le Bernardin is possibly the most underappreciated fine dining in HK.
Ratchaburi crab and pork dry noodles at Pure Thai Cookhouse – Confession time. I dont really order this anymore, as I usually go for for the specials these days. But its clearly the most important dish at the most important Hell’s Kitchen Thai. Mix it all in including the Yu Choy (like chinese Chinese Broccoli), and the small amount of broth and you got magic
Carnitas at Tacuba – The only Carnitas (Mexican pulled pork) I tasted in NYC featuring that Mission District slow roasted nastiness. It comes with Chicharron (Cracklings), four little tortillas for you to master your taco skills, but thats not all… A beautiful, tangy tamarind habanero salsa that will make you want to dip your credit cards into.
Ika Shoga (Squid) at Blue Ribbon Sushi – EWZ old timers may be surprised by this pick instead of the oxtail fried rice. They are both quite exceptional. But while you can get some incredible fried rice dishes all over NYC, I havent seen anyone treat squid quite like this. Sauteed with ginger and garlic.
Murg Kesar Kebab at Saar Indian Bistro – Its only been open for a few months as of this writing. But when someone like Hemant Mathur (Malai Marke, Chote Nawab) opening his first Hell’s Kitchen location it automatically becomes the best Indian in the Kitchen. I got a feeling that once I taste the much hyped Cauliflower Latkes (they didnt have them last time), I may sub it here. But these Saffron, lemon and ginger infused chicken strips are melt in your fork exceptional
Tofu at Danji – Let me just say this. I dont really eat much tofu. But as soon as I get inside Danji, I smell the soy vinaigrette and order this dish even when I dont plan. The four rectangles are flash fried, and topped with ginger scallion dressing, and that wonderful soy vinaigrette. The result is crispy on the outside, creamy on the inside, and incredibly delicious throughout.
Oxtail Soup at Pam Real Thai – The Khao Soi is equally terrific. But If there was ever a dish that helped me through the last 5 NYC winters, this is it. Pam is like my Thai Jewish mother making me chicken soups when I’m under the weather. But instead of boring chicken, you got three marvelous bony oxtails, with a complex fiery broth. It cures flu like symptoms and summertime sadness.
Soup Dumplings at Kung Fu Little Steamed Buns – Ive seen many moms and many pops getting squeezed out of high rent 8th ave over the years. But as long as these guys continue to deliver high quality XLB (soup dumplings), they can make it anywhere. Well, maybe not Staten Island
Trenette at Mercato – I have to list the best Italian in the hood, I just have to. I dont believe you can go wrong with any of the pastas here. But I always go for the light Trenette al Pesto Trapanese (almond, garlic, tomato), especially in the warmer months.
Bourekas at Gazala’s – Although a bigger and potentially better Gazala’s just opened in UWS, the little Hell’s Kitchen institution feels like the flagship. And 9th ave wouldnt be the same without these warm flaky, outrageously delicious pastries lining up the window front.