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East Village

B & H

photo by Voice Media Group

It’s a triumph if a restaurant makes it to its fifth birthday in this city, but such spots have nothing on B & H, an Eastern European diner that has persisted at this address for more than seven decades — and can point to regulars who’ve come in almost daily for 54 years. The restaurant originated as a vegetarian lunch counter, turning out meat-free knishes and blintzes, grilled cheese sandwiches, homemade challah, fresh squeezed juices, and egg creams. While ownership has shifted over the years, little else has changed. B & H once boasted a celebrity following that huddled among friends and neighbors at the counter and in its narrow space. It remains a beating heart of the East Village, a window into the area’s disappearing past, one of the few joints of its kind left in the city.

Caracas Arepa Bar

photo by Voice Media Group

Caracas Arepa Bar co-founders Maribel Araujo and Aristides “Gato” Barrios met at an arepa bar in Venezuela, and it wasn’t long before they nursed a fantasy of working in a little warm shack making arepas by hand and squeezing fresh juices. And so they opened their tiny East Village bar, where colorful Venezuelan trinkets decorate the walls, Latin music plays, and the flow of conversation seems never-ending. The spot trades on its corn-flour arepas, which are made in-house daily and stuffed with fried plantains, guayanés cheese, or roasted pork shoulder. This original outpost has spawned a mini-chain, but the downtown location is still a place where the partners can watch people pass by, sip a cup of coffee outside, talk to their neighbors, and, most important, feel like a part of a community. It’s a fantasy come true.

Casa Adela

photo by Bradley Hawks

After nearly 40 years in the neighborhood, Adela Fargas’s paean to Puerto Rican cuisine remains a culinary focal point of Alphabet City, offering a slice of San Juan at prices that are downright gentle considering the rampant gentrification the neighborhood has undergone. Casa Adela’s dining room is sparse, but NYU students, food lovers in search of a good deal, and the waning Losaida Hispanic population keep the room humming. Heavily seasoned rotisserie chicken achieves a rust-colored blanket of crisp skin, and tender roast pork shoulder shreds apart with the mere suggestion of a fork. Half of a roasted bird costs less than $10, making the decision to order sides an easy one (plantains are superlative, the sweeter yellow variety crusty with brûléed sugar; the green smashed into discs and fried), and fresh fruit shakes — frothed in the blender and mixed with a touch of sweet cream — taste wholly of the tropics. Fargas’s deeply hued chicken noodle soup is restorative, and her sancocho — a murky oxtail and plantain stew redolent with cilantro and chock-full of corn, potatoes, and yucca — puts lesser bowls to shame. Sate your sweet tooth with the only dessert option: roughly sliced rectangles of jiggling flan.

Crif Dogs

photo by Voice Media Group

St. Marks Place has held on as the nexus of New York’s counterculture, so it’s appropriate that Brian Shebairo and erstwhile partner Chris Antista (for whom Crif Dogs is named; try saying “Chris” with a mouthful of hot dog) chose that street to turn the city’s perception of hot dogs upside down. These are no dirty-water dogs, nor are they mere vehicles for mustard. Shebairo and Antista traveled the eastern seaboard to locate the tastiest dogs, and in 2001 they began serving the fruits of their research. Sink your teeth into the spicy redneck, a bacon-wrapped frank topped with coleslaw and jalapeños. Or bite into the chihuahua, also bacon-wrapped, but topped with avocado and sour cream. With its quirky menu, old Pac-Man console, and cheap beer, Crif Dogs quickly became a place to unwind late-night. When Shebairo helped open attached speakeasy Please Don’t Tell in 2007 — accessed via the restaurant’s nonfunctioning phone booth — the dog joint became a gateway for cocktail tourists and booze-obsessed locals alike, and remained an indispensable destination in its own right.

Degustation

photo by Reimyy Gonzalez

Stepping inside Jack and Grace Lamb’s mini–Epcot Center tucked into a quiet block of East 5th Street presents eaters with the difficult choice between Jewel Bako’s dramatic sushi and the more reverential experience at Spanish-inflected Degustation, where chef Nicholas Licata mans the planchas in front of 16 diners who watch him work from vantage points around a broad, U-shaped counter. Licata is the restaurant’s third chef, and under his tenure there’s a whimsy and balance that’s been restored since opening chef Wesley Genovart departed for greener pastures in Vermont. Several of Genovart’s practices and even a few of his dishes have endured, including the croquetas and seasonal fish crudo. (Genovart’s most lasting impression may be his caramelized French toast dessert. The dish was initially served unadorned; Licata has experimented with smoked maple syrup — a resounding win — and now pairs the blow-torched cube of custard-soaked brioche with lemon curd.) When Degustation opened, its cooking was heralded as progressive. Now foams run the risk of seeming passé, but Licata breathes life into frothy Riesling to pair with capers, beets, and potatoes for a plank of flaky corvina. Although prices have changed and the restaurant no longer offers a five-course tasting menu, the seven-course prix-fixe is a relative bargain at $80.

Dirt Candy

photo Courtesy Dirt Candy

Amanda Cohen worked in nearly every upscale vegetarian restaurant in the city before alighting on the philosophy that would inform her own place: “For a long, long time, most vegetarian food was about saying ‘no’ to meat without saying ‘yes’ to vegetables,” she says. “I want to celebrate vegetables, push them further, liberate their tastes from their textures, show people that they can taste better and be more interesting than they ever imagined.” In 2008 she opened a tiny garden-level temple to produce in the East Village, setting up her kitchen as a “lab,” she explains, so that every meal in her restaurant could be an adventure. New experiments hit the menu daily (though Cohen admits the portobello mousse, the nanaimo bar, the corn, the jalapeño hush puppies, and the popcorn pudding are too beloved to be trifled with). With every meal comes a unique thrill, because, as the owner puts it, “No one else is doing this, so my kitchen is like the world’s greatest roller coaster ride every day: no rules, no boring people telling me what I can and can’t do; it’s limitless.” Dirt Candy will move to the Lower East Side at some point in 2014, but for as long as Cohen remains in the East Village, be sure to book ahead. The dining room fills up two months out.

Empellón Cocina

photo by Liz Barclay

There were no tacos on the menu at Empellón Cocina when Alex Stupak opened the doors in 2012. The chef is dedicated to preserving the soul of Mexican cuisine while reinterpreting and elevating it, and he hopes to evangelize eaters with the spirit of our southern neighbor in the process — but he already owns a taqueria in the West Village, and with Cocina he hoped to push into deeper territory. He filled his menu with dishes like squid with black mole and lamb tartare with guaje seeds, luring people into his slick space for an experience that would verge on fine dining, were it not for the ebullience of the front-and-center bar (with its well-edited tequila- and mezcal-centric cocktail list and tight service) that spills into the dining room. Once he got comfortable, Stupak implemented the Push Project, a series of one-night-only collaborations with some of the best chefs in the nation, who bring their own philosophies into his kitchen and challenge his ideas, even when they’re not rooted in the same culinary tradition. This prods Stupak forward in his quest to keep blowing out the boundaries of Mexican cuisine. He eventually relented on the tacos, though; his neighbors wouldn’t quit asking for them.

Hearth

photo by Reimy Gonzalez

Ask general manager Paul Grieco to nutshell what Hearth is all about and he’ll tell you the 10-year-old East Village dining destination is “a chef-driven restaurant where the chef is actually present.” We couldn’t say it better. Grieco and chef Marco Canora are well-versed in the template’s pluses and pitfalls: Both are alums of Gramercy Tavern. True to its name, Hearth is dedicated to warmth and simplicity, with a strong shot of perfectionism. Grieco is in charge of the extensive booze lists, the wine portion of which is all over the place in the best sense, though it does betray Grieco’s infatuation (to put it mildly) with Riesling. Canora’s menu — Tuscan-flavor-forward, seasonal, and close-by-farmer-driven — is laid out in thirds, with first courses on the left, entrées and sides on the right, flanking a section highlighting a couple of mouthwatering “Dishes to Share.” They mean it: We’re talking a big-ass, whole roasted fish. Or perhaps you’d prefer a rabbit. We’ll have the bunny. And we’ll be sure to ask the chef to serve ours not braised or roasted, but fried.

Ippudo NY

photo by David Penner

Just about every neighborhood in New York can point to its local ramen shop, but none is quite like Ippudo NY, the sleek temple to Japanese soul food where you’re just about guaranteed an hours-long wait. Still, it’s an experience you should have at least once. This is one outpost of an almost-three-decades-old international empire based in Fukuoka, Japan, a city famous for its rich tonkotsu ramen built on a broth made from long-simmered pork bones. Ippudo’s international ramen master, Shigemi Kawahara, perfected the tonkotsu that graces the menu here: The broth is so heavy with collagen it’s almost creamy, and it boasts a pleasingly pungent odor. It’s lent impressive depth by springy noodles (made uptown, at Ippudo’s westside location), meltingly tender chashu pork, soft-boiled eggs, scallions, black garlic oil, and pinkish pickled ginger. Pregame your bowl with edamame, renkon chips, tuna tartare, raw baby octopus with wasabi, or (our favorite) a sweet, fatty pork bun. And be sure to check the specials list for new creations.

Kyo Ya

photo by Reimy Gonzalez

Japanese cooking is a delicate art, each measured brushstroke producing symbiotic flavors and textures carefully and beautifully presented. There’s perhaps no better way to experience this art than kaiseki, a progressive feast tied to seasonality; there’s perhaps no better place in the city to experience kaiseki than at Kyo Ya, the pristine East Village restaurant that has hummed quietly along under the shrewd eye of chef Chikara Sono for seven years. Book your nine-, 10-, or 11-course meal at least a day in advance and move ritualistically through visually stunning and nuanced bites, or drop in on a whim and order à la carte offerings that likewise change with the seasons. Treat yourself to hoshi-gaki agedashi, savoring the chewy balls of mochi that swim with persimmon tempura in broth deeply savory from dashi. Move then to the botan shrimp and sea urchin, intricately arranged with shimeji mushrooms in tart, prickly wasabi kuzu sauce. If it’s monkfish season, perhaps you want some liver or the fish deeply fried. Let your server guide you, and don’t miss the sake collection, which runs deep in carafe offerings. One caveat: You’ll want to have the address handy when you set out — Kyo Ya is hidden beneath a staircase that bears no streetside sign.

Maharlika

photo by Robert Menzer

Maharlika may be Filipino in name, but its origins embody a now-familiar New York tale: The concept debuted on the pop-up scene in 2011, when it did turns at the now-defunct DeKalb Market and in culinary incubator Kinfolk Studios. Filipino-Americans Nicole Ponseca, Noel Cruz, and Enzo Lim were anxious to introduce more New Yorkers to the magic of their Southeast Asian heritage, and so they partnered with chef Miguel Trinidad, a Dominican who grew up on the Lower East Side and spent several months perfecting his technique in the Philippines. Maharlika’s permanent East Village location opened later that same year; Jesus hangs from the wall and a chalkboard is scrawled with the Tagalog word of the day (Maharlika, by the way, means “royalty”). Trinidad turns out a playful menu of interpretive fare, with dishes like Spam fries, arroz caldo, the wildly popular flip'd fried chicken and ube waffle, and balut, the fertilized duck egg common at Asian street food stands. This is no makeshift booth in a market, but the operation hasn’t forgotten its humble roots.

Mighty Quinn’s

photo by David Penner

Born from that mighty concept incubator Smorgasburg, Mighty Quinn’s smokes our favorite barbecue in the city. Hugh Mangum’s corner smoke shack in the East Village lives up to the lofty expectations set by his mobile operation while avoiding Williamsburg-length lines. Lustrous hunks of pulled pork and slices of brisket wobble with tenderness, served on their own or piled onto brioche buns with a shimmering blanket of sweet and sour “Texalina” sauce. A Flintstonean beef rib sports aggressive bark with a juicy interior that more than makes up for pork ribs that could be a wee bit softer. Enough with the quibbling. Mangum delivers an unparalleled experience, with craft beers available by the cup or growler and thoughtful sides like edamame with goat cheese and broccoli tossed with buttermilk dressing, bacon, and almonds. The mostly under-$10 price point seals the deal. As the city continues to saturate itself in woodsmoke and meat juices, Mighty Quinn’s exudes slow-cooked success.

Momofuku Ssäm Bar

photo by Dominic Perri

Like a Botox-addled phoenix, David Chang’s Momofuku Ssäm Bar has undergone more nips and tucks than Jocelyn Wildenstein, but it has come away better for it each time. The place launched as a Chipotle-style canteen serving pork fat-slicked, whipped tofu-filled burritos in 2006, only to transform into a fine-dining establishment a year later, when it topped that whipped tofu with uni and tapioca. Dessert superstar Christina Tosi made a name for herself here, eventually occupying the back room for the first iteration of Momofuku Milk Bar (let us never forget her peanut butter and jelly dessert with saltine ice cream). Ssäm also helped lead the large-format menu charge, when Chang began plying groups with whole bronzed shoulders, plunked down on the table with briny oysters, sauces, and lettuce for wrapping. It remains one of this city’s great group feasts. And while Chang helped usher in the rise of a certain kind of downtown restaurant (the type that combines ambitious kitchens with relaxed atmosphere) with the advent of Momofuku Noodle Bar a decade ago, it was Ssäm that cemented his rep, giving him the springboard to global domination.

Northern Spy Food Co.

photo by Dominic Perri

Northern Spy Food Co. was a market when it opened in 2009, selling local dairy, eggs, granola, and jam. But owners Christophe Hille and Chris Ronis realized their East Village neighbors wanted to sit down and eat, and so a few months later they scrubbed the shop, began serving lunch and dinner, and quickly became a go-to for a simple, comforting meal. The restaurant retains its market roots in its philosophy, which is built on sustainability, local vendors, and seasonality; since joining the team two and a half years ago, chef Hadley Schmitt has translated that mindset into rustic but refined New American dishes. Menus are in constant flux (the kale salad and the buttermilk biscuits are constants), and Schmitt has a knack for cooking for the weather, turning out bone-warming stews in the dead of winter and effervescent salads at the height of summer. The best way to sample his wares is via a multicourse, hyper-seasonal dinner, which means you should drop by on a Sunday night, when three courses will run you $27.

Otafuku

photo by Robert Menzer

Otafuku opened more than a decade ago in a closet of a space on East 9th Street with a menu that contained just two items. Micro-focused, niche restaurants since have spread like kudzu; Otafuku now occupies a larger, brighter space down the street, and the menu has — trends be damned — expanded. But the throngs still come for the takoyaki octopus balls and the cabbage pancakes known as okonomiyaki, both of which sport crisp exteriors and soft innards and receive a showering of toppings including aonori seaweed powder, squirts of Kewpie mayo, and a mop of dried bonito flakes. For dessert, puffy taiyaki — nutty, fragrant fish-shaped cakes filled with red bean paste — provide a fitting foil for the gut-busting main event. A selection of imported Japanese beverages and packaged desserts (like gummy daifuku, glutinous mochi filled with sweet azuki bean paste) are displayed in a fridge against the back wall. You can find takoyaki and okonomiyaki elsewhere in the city nowadays, but Otafuku exhibits a rogue downtown charm that makes stopping in an utter delight.

Porsena

photo by Robert Menzer

Reared in Rome, Sara Jenkins opened her pasta-centric restaurant in 2010 as a follow-up to the celebrated chef and writer’s wildly popular sandwich shop Porchetta. At Porsena and its adjoining wine bar, Extra Bar, Jenkins showcases her knack for crafting soulful, comforting pasta dishes, including a baked cannelloni that arrives bubbling in its terracotta casserole, filled with porky ragù and slathered in béchamel. Noodles are the star of the show, but the chef works wonders with more delicate flavors, like hard-seared cuttlefish with baby artichokes, and crostini that overflow with mozzarella (from famed downtown dairy purveyor Di Palo’s) under a shower of microplaned bottarga. Freed from the shackles of roasted pork, Jenkins lets her hair down for plates like Extra Bar’s grilled kim-cheese, an exemplary grilled cheese sandwich that features a puréed blend of aged cheddar, kimchi, and mayonnaise. During the summer, Jenkins turns Extra Bar into an experimental taco shack featuring tortillas filled with everything from fried hibiscus flowers to duck confit mole verde. Porsena is a restaurant that radiates with the passion of its owner — how else to explain the popularity of a pasta restaurant in this mad gluten-free world?

Prune

photo by Nicole Franzen

The only thing shriveled about Prune is its seating capacity, which can make getting a table a challenge, especially at brunch. Chef-owner Gabrielle Hamilton conceived the joint as a place where she could cook uptown food for her downtown neighbors, and that’s precisely what she continues to do. The simple-ingredient, straightforward-preparation route is hard traveled by now, but Hamilton followed the course early. Order a bottle of white and a passel of small plates — doubly decadent fried sweetbreads with bacon, octopus with shaved fennel, roasted marrow bones — and then press on with a fresh bottle and an entrée. (Spatchcocked pigeon! And, what the hell, a salad.) In 2011, when she had a memoir on the bestseller list and a newly minted James Beard Award for New York City’s Best Chef, the Voice asked Hamilton which was harder, writing a book or running a restaurant. She said the book. More recently, she put that answer in a more illuminating perspective for us. How, we asked, do you fit in your neighborhood? “I am the neighborhood,” she replied. “Both what’s good and what’s bad, what’s changed and what’s remained true. I’ve lived on this block for 24 years, in this neighborhood for 29, and I’ve been in my industry for as long, through all of its trends. Prune is only 15 now, but hopefully we will live to become one of the East Village’s institutions, like Russ & Daughters and Katz’s.” Amen, and please find room for us on Saturday morning.

Punjabi Grocery & Deli

photo by Robert Menzer

Cheap-eats fiends and cabbies who’ve just filled up at the gas station down the block find a haven at Punjabi Grocery & Deli, a green-awninged slot on East 1st Street that sells exemplary Punjabi takeaway 24 hours a day. Trays of glossy samosas sit invitingly alongside vats of curried vegetables, daals, and saag paneer, which are warmed in a microwave (don’t knock it; that’s how this works) and then served over rice. Accompany your two- or three-item combo with roti; the char-speckled chewy flatbread is great for absorbing extra stew. Round out your meal with a bowl of kheer (rice pudding), and then stock up on packaged Indian snacks from the counter on the way out. If you weren’t lucky enough to grab some of the extremely limited counter space and are too far from home and hungry, there are plenty of park benches nearby.

Sigiri

photo by Bradley Hawks

Amid the jumble of East Village Indian joints, where hawkers attempt to lure passersby under strands of gaudy lights, sits a second-level sliver of space that’s home to Sigiri, one of the few Sri Lankan restaurants in NYC. Tanya DeSilva and Mala Rajapakse opened this place in the middle of the last decade because they wanted to bring the Big Apple a taste of their native land, and they’ve had no trouble packing their room. This is a good place to let your server take control of your meal; he’ll likely start you with gothamba roti, a chewy pancake stuffed with spiced beef and vegetables, before bringing you lamprais — a banana-leaf-wrapped package of chicken, boiled egg, and plantains — and black curry: pork or chicken stew steeped with cardamom, coriander, and cumin. Sigiri dials up the spice level until you can’t stand it, so if you’re sensitive to heat, be careful what you ask for. And be sure to stop into the deli next door before heading up the steps — you’ll need cash to pay for your meal, and you’ll want to pick up some beer: Sigiri is BYOB.

Stage Restaurant

photo by Bradley Hawks

Since 1980, the slim counter that comprises Stage Restaurant has been a gem hidden in plain sight. The neighborhood’s finest pierogi emerge from the closet-size kitchen, fried to a deep golden brown and bloated with potato, meat, cheese, or sauerkraut and mushrooms. Ask to have them served caramelized onions. The entire menu is full of surprises that cost less than $10, and we can’t resist dipping our forks into dinner specials like hand-sliced roast beef over mashed potatoes and gravy and muddy goulash. Invigorating red or white borscht is served in coffee cups, and the griddled burgers achieve an admirable crust. Oh, and Stage makes our favorite egg on a roll in town. The place overflows with heart, which is why it breaks ours to report that Roman Diakun’s charming lunch counter only has five years left on its lease. With the building sold to new owners, the future of this East Village classic is anyone’s guess, although Diakun is confident he’ll stick around. In the name of all that is good, let’s hope he’s right.

The Redhead

photo by Reimy Gonzalez

The sight of two patrons and two servers engaging in a group hug in the entryway testifies to the warm refuge chef Meg Grace, Rob Larcom, and Gregg Nelson created in 2006, when they opened The Redhead in the space formerly occupied by a beloved East Village jazz bar. Grace has a sure hand with comforting Southern favorites like crispy buttermilk fried chicken and creamy shrimp and grits; you’ll want to start with a house-made soft pretzel sided with tangy Kentucky-style beer cheese. In the spring, taste a Louisiana classic at the restaurant’s annual crawfish boil, when the team serves each patron two pounds of fresh crawfish, with sausage, corn, and potatoes. All patrons get a free cookie at the end of their meal — a thoughtful nod, and another reason so many diners return again and again.

Veselka

photo by Voice Media Group

With its bright, bustling space and decided lack of preciousness, Veselka has an old-New York vibe grounded in years of weathering East Village flux. The restaurant began life as a newsstand under Wlodymyr Darmochwal in 1954, eventually expanding into a café that catered to the local Ukrainian immigrant community, then transforming into an all-hours gathering place. Owner Tom Birchard was deemed an honorary Ukrainian when he began dating the founder’s daughter and working in the shop in the 1960s. He led a refresh in 1996, renovating the space and updating the menu so that it deals traditional Ukrainian recipes with nods to American palates (think pierogi with arugula and goat cheese, in addition to the standard potato and meat fillings). Today, East Villagers come to rehash their evenings and eat away hangovers over ruby-red Ukrainian borscht, stuffed cabbage, and kielbasa, or they stop in for takeaway staples like tuna melts and reubens. Few restaurants are more appealing to stumble into at 4 a.m., so expect a crowd, even in the middle of the night.