I plan an entire visit to a place around its food more often than I care to admit. This was especially true before I became Instagram trash (hey, click that Follow if you haven’t!), when the only photos I snapped were on my Samsung 5, and consisted nearly entirely of things like handheld jianbing or egg waffles stuffed with ice cream. Since my nearly-complete transformation into Instagram photographer and content creator (my friends like to introduce me at gatherings sarcastically as an “Influencer” with an extra wiggle of the eyebrows for good measure, and then we all laugh heartily together), I’ve had this entire other element to take care of: landmark photography, architecture photography, landscape photography.
Food became second. It was no longer the sole destination.
But old habits die hard.
Such was the case when Giovanni and I visited New York for less than 24 hours on one November afternoon the day before Thanksgiving, which is also the busiest (read: most expensive) travel period of the year for Americans. I use “visited New York” loosely, as this is merely code for “found a place to sleep in the East Village in between incessant meals.” It was also the day before having annual turkey and dumplings.
Even though we managed to mow down a lot in fewer than 24 hours, I fully realize that I may not have done exhaustive justice to the food that the East Village is known for. Don’t come for me with your “I can’t believe you didn’t go to [insert iconic/famous/childhood favorite of yours].” Cut me some slack, please, New York friends. With this crazy city, there’s always a next time.
Here is, in my very humble opinion, the best food in the East Village.
Scarr’s is less a New York Pizza icon and more of a quality newcomer. Winner of Alex Eats It All’s best slice in New York as well as earning a spot on Serious Eats’ best new slices in town, you should definitely hit this shop if you want some of the best food in the East Village.
From the outside, this slice joint is completely unassuming: nondescript sign. Dim wood-paneled checkout counter. Even Scarr’s Pizza’s founder, Scarr Pimentel, has admitted that people assume that Scarr’s will be a shitty slice spot, based on the way it looks outside.
But then you go inside. There’s table service in the back of the restaurant, I’m not sure whether it was merely because I was veritably starving by the time I bit into this slice. For an unknowledgeable but enthusiastic pizza lover like yours truly, a slice at Scarr’s is nearly perfect. Even G exclaimed at the lightness of its chewy crust and its foldability (yet durability!). And that man has eaten a lot of pizza.
Apparently Scarr’s also uses freshly milled flour in their dough, which comes through in its thin but hardy and chewy crust, slightly piquant and herby tomato sauce, and stringy cheese, beautifully speckled on top with touches of heat. This pizza is delicious, man. If you have doubts, come extra hungry. Without a doubt, this slice is one of the best foods in the East Village. You could do a lot worse.
Address: 22 Orchard Street, New York City
What to Eat: All slices are probably amazing, but you can’t go wrong with the regular slice (cheese), margherita (they’re different things, both delicious).
What it costs: Single slices cost between $3-4. Personal pies go from $9-13, more or less, but full-sized pies are between $22-26.
Prince Street Pizza
Prince Street Pizza is undoubtedly famous. It’s famous in the way that you mentally brace yourself as your little blue dot on Google Maps rounds its final corner, because you know that you’re about to become Person #24 at the end of a line. And sure enough, I may not have been Person #24, but I certainly wasn’t able to go into this little slice joint right away.
The interior, like so many of New York’s most iconic cheap eat spots (see: Katz’s on this list), is filled with framed photos of A-list movie stars, D-list singers, and everyone in between. All against a backdrop of warm brick and reaching up to the ceiling. The centerpiece is art of Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone in the Godfather, a homage that’s now ubiquitous in New York, where slice shops and old Italian red-sauce joints need to spell out mobster-gangster ties for maximum tourist satisfaction.
Don’t be fooled by the gimmicks, though. This pizza place serves some of the best food in the East Village.
Prince Street pizza serves the original New York “roni cup” pizza – a much-loved phenomenon that precedes New York but has spread like fire since: instead of being topped by limp circles of sausage, these little sausages are sliced thickly and when in the oven, curl up with crisp edges and form little bowls of pepperoni grease. They’re also insanely photogenic, and eating this spicy square slice is akin to arriving at pizza nirvana. The crust is crisp where it’s supposed to be, thicker than most, and the sauce is spicy and sweet. Some of the best food in the East Village? You bet.
Address: 27 Prince Street, New York, NY (b/t Mott St & Elizabeth St Nolita)
What to Eat: Without a doubt, hands-down: the pepperoni square slice, also known as the spicy spring. If you have stomach, go for the regular margherita slice as well.
What it costs: $4 for a single slice, between $22-30 for a full-sized pizza, round or square
Trapizzino is a relative newcomer in New York (its original outpost is in Rome, where I had the pleasure of eating its pizza-sandwich hybrids for the first time). They’re now all over Italy, have this single location in the USA.
What exactly is a trapizzino? Well, my friends, it’s the both pizza and sandwich, and even the name is a mix of both: “pizza” and “tramezzino”, which an Italian sandwich cut into triangles. Which doesn’t sound all that special, but trust me. You need it.
Basically, it’s pizza bianca – essentially “white pizza” drizzled over with olive oil and salt, formed into a large triangular pocket-cone, and then filled to bursting with a filling of your choice. Beside the bread itself, which is good enough to be eaten on its own (puffy, fluffy, warm, and with a nicely resistant crust), the fillings pay homage to hearty Roman classics. Expect pollo alla cacciatora (chicken cacciatore), polpetta al sugo (meatballs in sauce), but also, shall we say, more niche Roman specialties like coda alla vaccinara (oxtail stew) and my personal favorite, trippa alla romana (Roman-style tripe).
You won’t find the last two at the New York location, however. We asked why, and I then answered my own question with “Americans don’t want to eat cow tongue and stomach.” Which was, you know, more or less true. You’ve got to cater to your local audience, I guess. But the New York location still sells supplì, fried rice balls filled with oozy risotto fillings like cacio e pepe.
But Trapizzino, even without the innards and offal (I know, I know), is still a fantastic hand-held small meal or snack. When you’re done with the last piece of sauce-soaked bread, you can thank me.
Address: 144 Orchard Street, New York, NY
What to Eat: In New York, try the chicken cacciatore and the polpetta al sugo, though it’s worth trying any of them just to get that transcendent pizza bianca. I’m a bread girl.
What it Costs: $7.50 for a trapizzino, $3.50 for a supplì
Momofuku Noodle Bar
Momofuku Noodle Bar, first-born child of celebrity chef David Chang, still retains its original East Village outpost. I’m an enormous fan of David Chang and have watched all his shows on Netflix, like Ugly Delicious and Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner, and he may not be perfect, but goddamn it, there’s something so nice watching a successful Asian American on TV talk about food. He’s probably said some problematic things, but then, so have I. Until Twitter pops off with a #MeToo story from David Chang (please God never let this happen), let me have my little pleasures.
It pretty much looks like a grown-up’s cafeteria with an open kitchen on the inside. Long rectangular white tables with no décor to speak of. Chang’s been slammed for this before, but, if I were a multi-millionaire celebrity chef, I’d roll my eyes and laugh all the way to the bank too. The menu swings toward trendy-Asian, with your typical small plates (now found everywhere) like pork buns and small salads. And, of course, there are noodles of all kinds: signature smoked pork ramen, chilled spicy noodles, and garlic chicken ramen, just to name a few.
The famous Momofuku pork buns kicked off the American craze for them, introducing them to every cool Asian spot around the country, and even infiltrated the small plates section of other menus. They’re actually a version of gua bao, a Taiwanese pork belly bun with origins in Fujian province in China. Regardless of their origin, the version is here is melt-in-your-mouth tender, with thick slices of pork belly tucked snugly into in-house-baked soft mantou buns. How do I know that they’re baked in-house? David Chang includes a recipe for these buns in his Momofuku cookbook AND I SWEAR I’M NOT OBSESSED, I JUST HAPPENED TO SEE IT AT THE BOOKSTORE NEXT TO THE SELF-HELP SECTION. Always trying to self-improve. Yep, that’s me.
The smoked pork ramen was faultless – though if you’re not a fan of the flavor of literal smoke, you might want to steer clear of this one. The orb of yolk in the middle is a photogenic complement to the slab of pork belly, and the broth leans on light rather than stick-to-your-lips thick. Momofuku also makes their own barley noodles, which are thin, but are snappy and supply a pleasant chew. I’m positive the other noodles on the menu are just as good.
Some of the best food in the East Village also happens to be some of its most iconic.
Address: 171 1st Avenue, between 10th and 11th Street. New York, NY.
What to Eat: Pork buns all the way. Personally, I felt the ramen was decent, but this is personal preference. You can’t miss the noodles when you’re at Noodle Bar, regardless
What it Costs: The small things are between $8-$15. The bigger things are between $17-$27 (and a truffle noodle dish at a whopping $59!). The meal’s going to cost you at least $30 per person (but more likely $50), especially if you have a drink or two. Without tip.
Momofuku Milk Bar
You might know of Momofuku Milk Bar because it featured prominently in the Desserts edition of Chef’s Table, when founder Christina Tosi, longtime friend of David Chang’s, explains her vision for Milk Bar. Originally a next door fixture of David Chang’s Ssäm Bar, Milk Bar is now a rapidly-expanding-franchise and company behemoth in its own right (and coming to a grocery store now near you). With outposts in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Boston, Las Vegas, and Toronto, it’ll be hard for Milk Bar to maintain its image as Cute Original Purveyor of the Original Viral Dessert without sacrificing some of its single-location appeal.
Not only is it some of the best food (or best dessert?) in the East Village, it’s one of the most famous spots in the East VIllage.
Milk Bar’s attractiveness is in its approachable modernity – something of a white grandma’s kitchen meets Instagram, where its paraphernalia and its storefronts pop in pink accented font and 50s retro design. After all, Tosi says herself, she’s all about nostalgia. But the stores themselves are minimalist in a ruthlessly functional way: its ice cream comes from steel soft serve machines and its pie comes from not hot oven, but from sleeves of frosted plastic.
I’m no food critic, but you have to really be ready for the Milk Bar Pie (recently rechristened from its original name Crack Pie) when you have it. If you press a single finger to the smooth surface of a slice, it will return a glistening fingertip. This is BUTTER, the volume of which I don’t care to know was probably poured into its batter. I tried to figure out the flavor of this pie and came up with nothing more than that it is literally butter-flavored pie made with lots of butter and poured into a butter crust. I could literally feel my arteries hardening as I chewed, but it was also inexplicably delicious.
The Cereal Milk soft-serve was my sleeper hit. Expecting it to be thoroughly underwhelming (and MAYBE my addiction to reading bad Yelp reviews didn’t help), it tasted exactly like, well, cereal milk. In the most delicious way possible, Tosi managed to think up a soft-serve that tasted identically the way cornflakes soften in a bowl of ice cold milk, and recreated those last few seconds of lifting a bowl to slurp the sweetness left at the bottom.
The Compost Cookie allegedly contains pretzels, potato chips, coffee, oats, graham cracker, butterscotch, and chocolate chips, but my inferior taste buds could only ascertain that this was the best sweet-salty dessert I’d ever tasted.
Address: Various. This East Village location is 251 E 13th St, New York, NY
What to Eat: Without a question, the OGs of Milk Bar fame (although everything is probably delicious): The Compost Cookie, Cereal Milk soft-serve, and the Milk Bar Pie if you’re feeling particularly indulgent, though I’d personally skip the pie in favor of the other two.
What it Costs: $2.25 – $5.00 for most single items.
I first heard of Mala Project on the Bon Appetit Youtube channel, where Andy Baraghani, senior food editor, bae of the comment section, and king of poreless porcelain skin, goes into Mala Project’s kitchen for a tour of the ingredients and then a cooking lesson on several of the restaurant’s most popular dishes. Andy is first understandably flabbergasted by the knife skills of the polite and soft-spoken Chef Zhao, who wields his cleaver as gracefully as a ninja tosses his bladed shuriken (that is to say, very gracefully). Andy, with his adorably earnest and never-give-up attitude, tries several times to get the same delicious results, to varying degrees of success.
The moral of the story is that the food in this video looked absolutely out-of-this-world amazing, and that is reason enough to go (and also that Andy Baraghani’s skin is too flawless to be real. Definitely an alien). But if you need more reasons, look no further than the warm service and the actual quality of the food.
The specialty here is Sichuan dry pot, which, for the uninitiated, is basically a bunch of bite-sized ingredients of your choice, stir-fried in a bounty of spices, and served in an enormous bowl placed in the middle of the table. The flavors, which range from punchy garlic to peppery star anise to the notoriously numbing and addictive Sichuan peppercorn, meld together gorgeously in tongue-curling heat.
They have other things on the menu too, like my personal favorite, 夫妻肺片husband-and-wife lung slices (a chilling name that plants images of a cleaver-wielding Chinese Ted Bundy), but which is really a dish of chilled beef tongue and tripe in hot numbing chili oil. Cool and hot at the same time and completely addictive. All you need is a bowl of white rice. The space itself is modern but comforting – nothing like the banquet style Cantonese restuarants I grew up on and more like an Italian trattoria meets Chinese grandmother’s living room, with maroon accents and dim lighting. It’s earned a spot on this Best Food in the East Village list.
And Andy? Drop that skincare routine for us mere mortals, please.
Address: 122 1st Avenue, New York, New York
What to Eat: Husband and wife lung pieces (give offal a try, please, and this one, despite its name, has no lung. If you die eating this, I assure you it will be from joy and deliciousness overdrive). Any version of a Sichuan dry pot with any ingredients you want. My favorites are the thin-sliced prime beef ridged with fat, beef tripe (see a trend?), potato starch noodles, enoki mushrooms (they soak up sauce in their little needles so well), and chewy rice cakes.
What it Costs: Small dishes/appetizers range from $7-$15. Dry pot is $5-$6 per item, with a two person size being 8-10 items. Easily $60 per person at least, not including tip.
Tompkins Square Bagels
I’m a food purist. I really am. If I’m eating what’s meant to be amazing pizza for the first time, I want it unadulterated with any toppings. Don’t introduce extra elements to overcomplicate and confuse me when I’m trying to enjoy eating something for what it is.
So when I read that Tompkins Bagels offered a “rainbow of cream cheese options” and “literal rainbow-colored bagels,” I cringed. Hard. You do not mess with a good thing. It’s the same reason I’m glad the humble hot dog has escaped the artisanal movement. Just give me that soft white roll devoid of all nutritional value, please, and ground up who-knows-what in a plasticky casing. DO NOT, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, EVER PUT A HOT DOG ON SLOW-RISE SPELT MADE FROM A HUNDRED-YEAR-OLD SOURDOUGH STARTER.
On the menu, I saw pear and wasabi cream cheese. Just chilling, you know, on the same page as regular old scallion or uh, bacon herb cream cheese (which, by the way, sounds amazing). Did you wake up craving Birthday Cake cream cheese on your Pumpkin bagel? Tompkins Square Bagels has got you covered, baby.
There are, however, exceptions to the purism manifesto (which I realize sounds frighteningly like the joint brainchild of Adolf Hitler and Elliot Rodger…THIS ONLY APPLIES TO FOOD). If you can get the basics right, you have free rein to do whatever the hell you want.
And this is where Tompkins gets it right. The wire baskets are perpetually filled with fresh hot rings of dough, and further in the back, you can see the guys churning them out with factory-like precision. The bagels themselves have a dense but chewy crumb and a perfect shiny crust.
Tompkins, I’m waiting for the matcha cream cheese, you hear? Come here for some of the best food in the East Village.
Address: 165 Avenue A, New York, NY
What to Eat: Any version of a breakfast sandwich on the menu on any bagel you want (I’d stick to the classics – I’m personally partial to the salt bagel). Untoasted, because you’re in New York, and if you want a toasted bagel, you may as well go to Dunkin’, BECAUSE CLEARLY YOU DON’T CARE ABOUT AVOIDING SH*TTY BAGELS. (No hate to Dunkin’: I’m a Massachusetts girl, and I still drink their coffee. Bagel in carb emergencies only).
What it costs: Bagel sandwiches cost between $8-$13. A bagel with spread is about $2.50.
What can be said about Katz’s that hasn’t been said already? Kat’z fame has eclipsed that of almost any other restaurant in America. With nearly 21 THOUSAND Google reviews at the time of this piece being written, everyone and their mother has been to or has heard of Kat’z. I realize that the number of reviews isn’t a signifier of a restaurant’s quality, but you’ve got to give it to Kat’z: with features on nearly every food network on television and on Youtube, and the pastrami sandwich that Anthony Bourdain said he missed the most about being away from home, it’s gotta be doing something right.
Kat’z has been around since 1888 and now holds the title of New York City’s oldest deli. It almost always figures on every obnoxious listible (ahem) on the best food in the East Village. It isn’t just the old-timey feel of the inside with framed photographs of celebrities positively covering every inch of this place. Nor is it the white-clad “cutters” who make the mile-high sandwiches, carving a few bite-sized slices before you order and pushing it over the counter.
If you are anything like me, the sight of a free sample will lead your arm to unceremoniously and unbecomingly shoot out, by unseen invisible force, and cram said free sample into your mouth with as much speed as possible. After you’ve finished, you can then turn your attention to Katz’s dizzying array of offerings, which include its famous pastrami, dry-cured corned beef, slow-roasted brisket, knishes, omelets, tuna/chicken/egg salad…I could go on, because the menu online currently boasts 73 food items.
What you should get, of course, is the pastrami, which comes to you sliced thinly, with a black-pepper encrusted lining and a gently pink interior. It’s piled at least several inches thick on no-frills rye bread, and costs $22.95 (bet you didn’t know that), but at a spot this iconic, you’ll forget about that $20 real quick.
Katz’s also does breakfast, and it opens at 8:00. How do I know this? Because in order to avoid the godforsaken lines that I saw stretch from the inside, to the outside of the door, and ALL THE WAY DOWN TO THE FOLLOWING BLOCK, I came here the minute it opened. At 8:00 in the morning. To eat a $23 pastrami sandwich.
Katz’s also does delivery now, apparently. The idea that I could be eating corned beef from Katz’s in a townhouse in Portland, OR fills me more with fear than excitement, but hey: I guess to each their own.
Address: 205 E Houston Street, New York, NY
What to Eat: The pastrami on rye (with mustard!). Corned beef at a close second. If you can get a half-half, do it.
What it Costs: $23 for a sandwich. Do it for the experience.
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