New York City might be the best specialty food shop city on the planet. That’s largely due to the fact that the city’s history has seen a perpetual and unprecedented stream of immigration from all over the world. People used to use the metaphor “melting pot,” but New York is really more of a “salad bowl.’ And so, when it comes to food, specifically, specialty food stores that reflect this immense diversity, there is going to be a delicious, hunger-inducing bounty to shop for.
Here are some staggering statistics on the city’s diversity: There are 600 different languages spoken throughout the five boroughs. Thirty-six percent of the population of New York City is foreign-born. The Big Apple is home to the largest population of Puerto Ricans outside of Puerto Rico and the largest Asian-Indian population in the Western hemisphere. It also has the second largest population of Koreans outside of Korea and the largest amount of Arabs in North America. It has the biggest Jewish population outside of Israel, and the largest number of Chinese outside of Asia live in NYC as well. In fact, there are eight Chinatowns in New York City.
So, here are the best of the best specialty food shops in New York City:
You don’t have to fly all the way to Senegal to get your hands (and taste buds) on some West African deliciousness. Just take the subway up to 116th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard, in the heart of “Petit Senegal.” At Adja Khady (243 W 116th St) you can get things like baobab syrup, amazing fresh French bread, and spiced coffee.
Bangkok Center Grocery
Hidden down a tiny sloped and untrammeled street in Chinatown in Manhattan, Bangkok Center Grocery (104 Mosco St) specializes in—you guessed it—Thai foodstuffs. The shelves of this diminutive shop are crammed with fresh curry paste, rice noodles, chili sauce, fresh lemongrass, and cans of Thai soup.
The Butcher Block
Located in Sunnyside, Queens, The Butcher Block is a home-away-from-home for the Irish diaspora in New York City. There are two sections to the shop: a grocery that sells soda bread, Barry’s Tea, various Irish beers, and all things Cadbury. And then there’s the butcher section which has a fine selection of meats but also killer Irish-inflected sandwiches, such as the Irish breakfast sandwich: fried eggs, thick-cut bacon, Irish sausage, black pudding, white pudding, and hash browns all stuffed into a hero roll. It’s to die for—literally and figuratively.
Headquarters for homesick Spaniards, this diminutive Nolita shop sells jamon iberico that you can buy packaged or hand-sliced on demand. Despaña also has plenty of unctuous sobrasada, chorizo, tinned seafood, seafood pâtés, and Spanish olive oil. The back holds a sandwich spot where you can grab a table and feast on a couple of bocadillos next to the Despaña wine shop.
Over a century old, Di Palo’s is a beloved Italian food purveyor in Little Italy. Enjoy a local experience and wander the aisles of legendary Di Palo’s to get some melt-in-your-mouth prosciutto, homemade pasta, peppercorn-studded pecorino, or 36-month-aged Parmigiano Reggiano. Di Palo’s is located at 200 Grand Street at Mott Street.
This Murray Hill market first flicked on its lights in 1944 by an Armenian from Turkey. The shop originally specialized in Middle Eastern spices and herbs, but as the years went on it diversified. Now there are products from over 80 different countries. Kalustyan’s has aisles and aisles of products from around the world, sometimes taking a deep dive into one particular ingredient. The rice aisle, for example, has hundreds of different varieties from around the globe.
Not many New Yorkers outside of Staten Island know that this borough has a significant Sri Lankan population. Lanka Grocery sits at the heart of the swath of the borough where many Sri Lankan-born New Yorkers make their home. If you want to stock up on spicy curries and pol sambol sauce, this is the place to do it. Lanka Grocery is located at 344 Victory Boulevard at Cebra Avenue.
Murray’s Cheese has become a Greenwich Village institution. Step into this cheese-land and you can immediately smell the edible funk. A long counter of various types of cheese (manned by employed cheese enthusiasts) is the altar. But the shop also has a really nice selection of Italian prosciutto, Spanish jamon iberico, chorizo, and tinned seafood. Murray’s also offers a variety of cheesy classes.
It’s not a surprise that this Brazilian food market is in Astoria, Queens. The neighborhood is something of its own United Nations. Rio Market is the headquarters for homesick Brazilians who come here to stock up on everything from cuts of meat from Brazilian cows to feijoada kits to bottles of matte beverages. And if you just can’t wait to eat Brazilian food until you get home, there’s an in-house eatery.
Russ & Daughters
Since 1914, Russ & Daughters have been purveying Jewish appetizing delights on the Lower East Side. They specialize in iconic Jewish specialties like bagels and lox and herring and smoked fish.
Russ & Daughters is likely the most famous specialty food store in the United States. It has made ample appearances on various TV shows and in films. In 2021, the Financial Times included it in its listing of the “50 Best Food Stores in the World.”
This Brooklyn Heights institution was founded in 1895 and is still run by the same Lebanese-American family. Located on a strip of Atlantic Avenue that has long been known as “Little Syria,” Sahadi’s takes up three storefronts and is crammed with (mostly) Middle Eastern delights. The hummus is some of the best on this side of the Levant. The flakey, crispy spinach pies ooze with flavor. Shopping here is a real feast of the senses. There’s also now a location in Brooklyn’s Industry City that includes a sit-down restaurant.
Yamadaya quietly opened up on Sixth Avenue in Greenwich Village in 2021 in the former home of the Jefferson Market grocery store. The space is big and this Japanese purveyor uses all of it to display various kinds of Japanese snacks. Here you’ll find freshly made sushi, affordably priced Japanese craft beer, and cups and cups of noodles. The shop also sells Japanese beauty items.
Yun Cafe & Asian Market
Located on the lower level of the Jackson Heights-Roosevelt Avenue subway station, Yun Cafe & Asian Market (7305 37th Rd Store 2) sells food products from Myanmar. And if all those shelf displays of curry paste and mohinga fish mix are making your stomach growl, you can sit right down at the in-house eatery. We recommend feasting on the excellent tea leaf salad or the Burmese hot pot that they make here.
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.