There are, of course, essential restaurants every food-loving visitor to New York should try to eat at. But what about individual dishes? There are, in fact, a large handful of must-try foods in NYC too. Not necessarily, the most iconic dishes in New York but the must-haves right now, the one revelatory dish you eat at a restaurant that blows you away and you tell people: if you go to that restaurant, you have to order this one dish.
These are (mostly) dishes that haven’t left New York. Instead of the dish coming to you in the form of a franchised or growing chain of eateries, you have to come to it. And unlike the most iconic dishes in New York, most of the below must-have dishes were born after the year 2000.
Adobada Taco at Los Tacos No. 1
A good taco was once hard to find in New York City. Not anymore. Case in point, the adobada taco at Los Tacos No. 1, located in the Chelsea Market, Grand Central, and near Times Square.
The adobada is really the taco al pastor, which, oddly enough, has its roots in the Middle East. It was introduced to Mexico by Lebanese immigrants who brought with them lamb that they would slice off a rotating upright spit. The Mexicans changed it to pork and sliced the tender meat into a tortilla, added a few chunks of pineapple and salsa, and the al pastor was born.
It’s no different at Los Tacos No. 1, where the adobada or al pastor is a candidate for the best taco in the Big Apple.
Zabb Wings at Fish Cheeks
There are a lot of great things to eat at the Thai restaurant Fish Cheeks in NoHo: the famed coconut crab curry, for example, or refreshing somtum corn salad. But the one dish that has quickly become a must-have here is zabb wings: plus-sized crispy chicken wings with enough spice to tickle your palate and enough flavor and juice to make you want to come back the next day for more. These delicious wings are so perfectly crispy and moist that they are a must-try food in NYC.
Akamaru Shinaji Ramen at Ippudo
Founded in the Japanese town of Fukuoka in 1985, this Japanese ramen chain jumped over the Pacific in 2008, setting up on Fourth Avenue and East 10th Street, and immediately became a sensation. Why? Because akamaru shinaji, Ippudo’s (several locations) signature pork ramen, explodes with flavor as if some chef back in the kitchen is sprinkling culinary steroids into the broth.
Liquid Olive at Mercado Little Spain
Unless you were lucky enough to have eaten at Feran Adria’s El Bulli in Spain, you will have likely never eaten anything like the liquid olive at Mercado Little Spain, a collection of Spanish kiosks and restaurants run by Albert Adria and Jose Andres.
We’re all so lucky, that they revived the liquid olive here, which uses the technique of spherification, turning solid foods—in this case, olives—into golf ball-sized olive-flavored edible water balloons.
Birria Taco at Birria-Landia
Birria originated in the Mexican state of Jalisco and the meat was goat. But in 1950, a taquero named Guadalupe Zarate moved to Tijuana and opened a taco cart serving birria. His version was stewier than others and was made of beef because it was cheaper. And Tijuana-style birria was born.
Fast forward to the last decade when the birria taco became a phenomenon in Los Angeles. And then, just a couple of years ago, Birria-Landia pulled up its truck to a street corner in Jackson Heights, Queens, and Big Apple taco lovers went loco for this stewy beef taco that comes with a side of addictive consumé.
Gorgonzola-cured Striploin at Carne Mare
At chef Andrew Carmellini’s new-ish Italian steakhouse in the South Street Seaport, you can get a nice mound of Wagyu beef tartare, fancy mozzarella sticks with caviar, and creamy burrata crostini sprinkled with trout roe. But the standout star of the menu at Carne Mare is the 12-ounce gorgonzola-cured striploin.
Topping a steak with gorgonzola butter isn’t uncommon, but Carmellini actually ages the steak in the Italian cheese for four days. By the time it gets to your table, it is a beautiful marriage of funky-aged gorgonzola and Wagyu beef that you will not soon forget.
Black Label Burger at Minetta Tavern
Minetta Tavern, that oh-so-old New York eatery on MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village, serves one of the best burgers on the planet. The Black Label burger consists of four cuts of meat—skirt steak, brisket, short rib, and dry-aged ribeye—and comes topped with caramelized onions. It’s a smooth flavor-popping extravaganza on the taste buds. The burger at East Village Korean-accented spot, Nowon is the runner-up.
Cha Sui McRib at Bonnie’s
Nostalgia can make chefs do some funny things. And masterful things. Enter the cha sui McRib sandwich at Bonnie’s in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Chef Calvin Eng has created an instant classic. The McRib may not be on the menu at McDonald’s all the time, but this delicious edible phenomenon is at Bonnie’s—if you can get a reservation, that is.
Blueberry Pancakes at Clinton Street Baking Company
Anchored on the corner of Clinton and East Houston Streets on the Lower East Side, Clinton Street Baking Company is a classic American diner-like restaurant. There’s always a wait. And while there is a lot of delicious Americana on the menu, the star of the show is the blueberry pancakes. They’re fluffy and the blueberries exude a tasty freshness.
Fish & Chips at Dame
Fish and chips is a utilitarian English dish when you need something to fill your belly after a night of pounding pints. But at Dame, an English-accented eatery in Greenwich Village, the fish and chips are revelatory. The deep-fried white fish is superlatively crunchy, which gives way to a moist, tender interior that is just luscious on the palate.
Cereal Milk Soft Serve at Milk Bar
Remember when you were a kid, watching Saturday morning cartoons, grazing on some kind of breakfast cereal, and the last part you tasted was the milk, flavored with whatever cereal you’d just eaten?
Milk Bar pastry wizard Christina Tosi has taken that cereal-flavored milk (in this case, Corn Flakes) and created a soft serve ice cream with it. It will take you right back to that living room floor (or couch) on Saturday morning.
Insider’s Tip: In addition to their unbeatable ice cream, Milk Bar also makes our list of the best pies in NYC!
Pho Bac at Hanoi House
Pho bac means northern Vietnamese pho. It’s not only delicious but hard to come by in the United States. In 1975, when the Vietnam War ended (or the American War, as it’s called in Vietnam), tens of thousands of southern Vietnamese immigrated to the United States. And some of them opened restaurants.
Hence the reason why 99% (or more) of the Vietnamese restaurants in the U.S. are southern Vietnamese and why the pho (and the rest of the menu) at Hanoi House, a gem of a restaurant in the East Village, are highly unusual to find. The pho bac at Hanoi House is a savory delight, highlighted by the accompanying chili sauce and fermented garlic. It also refreshingly lacks sugar, which southern Vietnamese like to sprinkle into a lot of their food.
Pollo al Forno at Barbuto
When West Village mainstay Barbuto shut down before the pandemic, regulars missed the pasta dishes, such as the excellent carbonara, but what everyone really missed and craved is chef Jonathan Waxman’s roasted chicken with salsa verde.
Fortunately, Barbuto is back up and running again. The roasted chicken is a New York classic and is maybe the perfect rendition of this deceptively simple dish. The taut skin gives way to ultra juicy and tender meat, complemented by the tangy salsa verde.
Spicy Spring Pizza at Prince Street Pizza
One of the best slices you can get in New York right now is at Prince Street Pizza in Nolita. The Spicy Spring is a thick square with tangy and slightly spicy sauce and incredible crispy, cup-shaped pepperoni. There’s a near-perpetual line outside of this takeaway pizza counter and the Spicy Spring is the reason why. It is a truly unique dish and a must-try food in NYC.
Pork Buns at Momofuku Noodle Bar
David Chang didn’t invent the pork bun. But he may have perfected it. Two ultra tender slabs of pork belly on a soft steamed bun. It’s a bite of heaven. The pork buns are so popular that sometimes they’re not even listed on the menu at Momofuku Noodle Bar, which is located in the East Village and at Columbus Circle. If you don’t see it, just ask and you shall receive.
David Farley is a West Village-based food and travel writer whose work appears regularly in the New York Times, National Geographic, BBC, and Food & Wine, among other publications. He’s the author of three books, including “An Irreverent Curiosity: In Search of the Church’s Strangest Relic in Italy’s Oddest Town,” which was made into a documentary by the National Geographic Channel. You can find Farley’s online homes here and here.