Tuesday, July 14, 2009

My Ideal Neighborhood Food (food)

I understand that America is a car-based culture. Driving 10 minutes to go to your local fast food place is nothing out of the ordinary. I never learned to drive however, and I've always lived in neighborhoods where food is readily accessible by walking. However, the selections here in my current Long Island City neighborhood pale in comparison to the cheap and wonderful food available near my previous addresses in Jackson Heights and Sunnyside. There are certain cuisine types that I believe should be present in every neighborhood, and certain cuisine types that are in every neighborhood that shouldn't be.

I think that every neighborhood, especially in NYC, should have a good variety of affordable ethnic options. Of course, if your neighborhood is known for a specific ethnicity (Greek food in Astoria, Indian food in Jackson Heights, etc.), then that's different. Here are my picks for my ideal restaurants and food options that I want in my neighborhood.

It's cheap, the portions are big, and it's basic. Refreshing choices in the summer and hearty choices in the winter. This is the kind of food that you can eat every day, and can even afford to do so.

Pizza/Red Sauce
Every neighborhood needs a pizzeria, but do you really need a semi-fancy italian place? I mean, the top end italian food in NYC is amazing, but so many italian "restaurants" are barely serving food better than a good red sauce joint and just charging you for white tablecloths.

As Jennifer Lee noted in her talk, Chinese food might just be America's cuisine, since it's everywhere. Chinese food is efficient. Lots of combination platters, lots of options, and can be cooked to order to a certain degree.

2 Eastern Mediterranean-based cuisines
A lot of countries border or are near the mediterranean, but a lot of their cuisine is similar too. Greek, Turkish, Israeli, etc. types of cuisine share many common styles. This is why I want more than one of these places, and more importantly, at least one of them must be kosher or halal. This is important because then you will know for sure that their meat is fresh. The thing about this type of cuisine is you will often get good yet inexpensive bread, good simple meat, and good salad that's not doused in cream-based dressings. Very diet friendly.

Fried food
Everyone loves fried food. While there's really good fried food out there, normal fried food is usually enough to satisfy anybody. Whether it be a fish and chip shop, a fried chicken place, or anything along those lines, I think every neighborhood needs a place devoted to fried food. That way, they can get enough turnover to keep the oil fresh.

Every neighborhood needs a real diner. Nothing fancy, just good old American greats done simply and inexpensively. A lot of diners are mediocre, but even then, sometimes a simple open-faced turkey sandwich with stuffing and gravy is all you really want.

Taco cart
Fast, authentic Mexican street food. Made to order. What more do you need?

Many of the foods above are suitable for a neighborhood because they can be both sit down and takeaway. One other main criteria I use is that it should be a cuisine where the cheap version can provide just as good value as the expensive version of that cuisine. However, there are many cuisine types where the cheaper version and the expensive version are just too far apart in quality. However, many of these places pop up in neighborhoods all the time because of the built-in premium by association with the expensive counterparts.

There is no cuisine that has more of a built-in premium than Japanese food. $6 for gyoza? $5 for edamame? They're just blanched soybeans. Or how about those "designer" maki rolls that cost the equivalent of a full meal at other places? I'll travel for really good Japanese. I'll also have Walmart sushi if they ever have it because I'll know it'll be cheap and fresh enough with a high turnover. The in-between restaurant that's ubiquitous in NYC? No thanks.

Thai food also has a premium although I never understood why. There really is amazing Thai food in NYC. However, there are also plenty of expensive mediocre Thai restaurants all over NYC. Often times I'll have a craving for simple Americanized Thai food (like the pad thai they serve over here) and then I'll go up to the restaurant and can't justify the cost to myself and leave.

French/Modern American Bistro
These places feel like they're in the neighborhood so that you can say there's a nice restaurant in the neighborhood and the area is not a dump. However, my experience has been that these places usually try to do too much, often led by chefs who think they're much better than they actually are.

Did I forget anything? Is there any cuisine type that you'd really want in your neighborhood not on this list? Or are there other overrated cuisine types floating in your neighborhood? Let me know what you think.


Jonathan Weinstein said...

Well, in my neighborhood in Evanston, IL we've got pretty much all that and I frequent them all. It's a great place for a bachelor without a car who doesn't cook much:-). One you left out is a sandwich place.

The Pretender said...

Is your neighborhood good with public transportation? I might have to move there as this NYC thing is looking less and less likely to work out.

Yes, a general sandwich/fast food place is always useful. However, the places I listed are also capable of providing types of sandwiches (Bahn Mi, Greek pita, Taco cart tortas, etc.)