My 5: Top Ethnic Restaurants in Manhattan

The reason we are discussing Manhattan today is:

It’s where I live!!!

Oh my, are there ever great ethnic restaurants all over the world. There are even great ethnic restaurants just across all the bridges and tunnels that lead from Manhattan! (Can you say…Queens???)

But Manhattan is my beat. Manhattan is where I wake up in the morning, thinking about what ethnic eating experience I’m going to have that day. Manhattan is where I approach the late-night hours thinking, “Gee, just a little bit of Pho or Chilaquiles would finish the day just right!”





And, frankly, though Manhattan gets LOTS of praise as a great place for restaurants…I think that the average quality of higher-end restaurants in Manhattan does not compare to the average quality of higher-end restaurants in Paris, or Tokyo.

Compare the cities, however, with respect to restaurant diversity…and Manhattan kicks butt! Only London, in my experience, and possibly Sydney, have more thrillingly diverse and thrillingly delicious ethnic restaurants.

Premise established…let’s proceed to the first five places that haunt me every day:



 

1) Yakitori Totto

 The yakitori bar at Yakitori Totto

My primary criterion for a great ethnic restaurant is deliciousness. But authenticity doesn’t hurt! And there’s possibly no restaurant in Manhattan that reminds me of its home place as much as Yakitori Totto; this is exactly like dining at a yakitori restaurant in Tokyo! The mostly Japanese crowd seems to agree. The one difference is this: since restaurants in Japan are highly balkanized (you go to a yakitori place, or a sushi place, or a teppanyaki place, or a tempura place, etc.)…you don’t find much at these places beyond the main subject and its principal accompaniments. At Manhattan’s Yakitori Totto, the menu ranges a bit wider. No matter! Focus on the chicken, and it’s Ginza-time! And what chicken! There’s at least a dozen parts on fabulous skewers, with the just-right taste of a great grill–from ropy neck, to soft-knee-bone, to heart. Come before 6:30 if you want the very best parts…the oyster, the tail, the skin…because these sell out fast. At any time, order the crazy green salad with fried little fish, cream cheese, and a coddled egg—it’s a perfect accompaniment. The sochu with grapefruit cocktail ain’t bad either…

 

2) El Malecon

El Malecon on Amsterdam Avenue, a neighborhood shrine

Manhattan’s Upper West Side is dotted with places that offer the homey soul food of the big-island Caribbean (Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, etc.)…but most rice-and-bean veterans agree that this is the best place of all. I wish this place were open later, because this is exactly where I’d come at 2AM for a major late-night fix. But the hours are dictated by the roasting chickens–burnished, crispy ones, rotating in the window all day, thick with seasoning. When they’re done, El Malecon is done; you don’t want to come here later than 10:30 or so. But…man!…as a regular dinnertime dinner at 8PM or so…this place is crazy good! There are just too many irresistible things on the menu…from soupy rice, asapao (I’m addicted to the shrimp asapao)…to mofongo (fried plantains mashed together in a mortar with stock, garlic, cracklins, etc.)…to wondrous rice and beans. But don’t worry about ordering everything: the insane prices encourage that! Three of us recently went through scads of food, with a few bottles of wine, and a few pitchers of Sangria. Total price: $98!!!

 

3) Milos

The display of seafood on ice at Milos

And now we go to another kind of price insanity: high! In fact, I considered leaving this very high-end Greek seafood restaurant off of my list—because when you’re spending north of $100 a person, can you call it an “ethnic restaurant?” I say yes, because 1) Greek is not mainstream…and because 2) Milos may be my favorite restaurant of any kind in Manhattan! It all revolves around the quality obsession of the owner, Costas Spiliadis; everything that hits your table at Milos has gone through the high-quality filter…from olive oil, to yogurt, to olives, to bread, etc. And more. Milos’ most popular app, the Milos Special, is just thin-cut zucchini and eggplant lightly battered and fried–but Costas has two chefs working exclusively on this dish alone to make sure the frying quality is maintained! And it is the best fried food on earth. He has arrangements with Greek fishermen in the Aegean, who fish all night, get their harvest to Athens by noon, which then comes to Manhattan by 3 and sits proudly on ice at the rear of the restaurant. The fish simply go on the grill…but when fish is this good, what else do you need? Service is absurdly attentive, and the Canadian goat-milk yogurt drizzled with honey from Kythera, Costas’ home island in Greece, may be the best dessert in Manhattan.

 

4) Yee Li

Yee Li at the corner of Elizabeth and Bayard in Manhattan’s Chinatown

My original ethnic craving in Manhattan was Chinese food, of course–because when I was ten years old, there wasn’t too much else. How many nights did I, with my new driver’s license, cruise into Manhattan from Rockaway Beach for midnight-and-later chow fun sessions? Unfortunately, Manhattan’s Chinatown finally followed the quality curve of neighboring Little Italy…and became a pretty bad place to eat! I still search it, relentlessly, for a great place serving the kind of food I loved in the 1970s. Chinese fried chicken. Crab soong. Whole fried fish with a light sauce. Great broad rice noodles with duck. The General Tsos of the world have wiped a lot of this away. However, just a few months ago, I found a place that’s like a time warp: Yee Li. I’m not done exploring it yet…but the pan-fried flounder alone… 

Pan-fried flounder at Yee Li in Manhattan’s Chinatown

…with its fins like potato chips, its sole-like filets, its light-as-can-be black bean sauce…makes me confident that the 1970s live again!

 

5) Haandi

Haandi, in the heart of Curry Hill, Manhattan

There are a plethora of Indian lunch buffets in Manhattan…from cheap ones downtown, to expensive ones (like $24) midtown. I have probably tried most of them, because I am an Indian-food fanatic. A few years back, a gourmandizing Pakistani friend suggested I try the Pakistani buffet at Haandi, right in the heart of Manhattan’s most sub-continental neighborhood (around 28th and Lex). Oh…my…god (Vishnu, Allah, whomever). This is, without doubt, the best Indian-like buffet in Manhattan…and at $9.99 a head!!!

Part of the buffet at Haandi

How does Pakistani differ from Indian? Not much. My friend says it’s a little richer and meatier—which seems exactly right to me. Of course the great difference here is on the quality front: at most buffets, all the dishes seem alike, as if they’re direct from the Central Curry Factory. Here, the dozen-plus dishes on display every day have individual distinctiveness! Set-apart spicing! Different textures! And if you took all of that away…I would still come here for the pot of lamb-and-chicken biryiani they offer everyday…possibly the greatest Indian or Pakistani rice dish in New York. I always start with that, and somehow keep going back to it in spite of the massive quantity of everything piling up on my plate. Haandi. Now that you know…it’s a crime to not go.

 

Photos Via: David Rosengarten