What do pizza served by Dominicans, Algerian falafel, Trini jerk fish, Moroccan Israeli breakfast, a kosher Jewish deli, and Polish pierogies have in common? Besides incredible flavor (the examples I have in mind), they’re all available within a few square blocks that reward you with landmark meals in an already epic culinary city. Here, where the historically Polish neighborhood of Greenpoint meets its trendy neighbor Williamsburg, sometimes the best Brooklyn food is served on paper plates.
I love exploring diverse cultures through food and music, and New York City is a conveniently compact, delicious place to do it. While most New York visitors are drawn to Manhattan, I’d forsake its crowds and concrete for the tree-lined streets, parks, brick buildings, relaxed vibe and melting pot of tempting global cuisine throughout Brooklyn.
Greenpoint is the northernmost neighborhood in Brooklyn, with only the G train running through it, while Williamsburg is home to the first stop off the L train from Manhattan. I owe my affinity for the Greenpoint/Williamsburg neighborhoods to my friend Orly, who moved there in 2006, prior to Starbucks or Whole Foods following suit (much to her lament). Throughout the past few decades, crime reduction and deindustrialization spurred revitalization and gentrification in Williamsburg, with Greenpoint appearing not far behind. On my visits to New York over the years, I’m both amazed and disturbed by the ongoing transformation, but grateful to return to some of my favorite eateries, and to discover some new ones:
Anna Maria Pizza & Pasta: The best pizza in New York is the subject of endless debate, but this is my personal favorite. I like boldly-flavored pizza, laden with toppings, sauce and spice. While Anna Maria also offers calzones, hero sandwiches and pasta, I always pick slices from their display of ready pies, usually served oven-toasty by stern-yet-friendly, middle-aged Dominican ladies with hairnets. The slices are generous; three slices between two people make a good-sized meal. Memorable slices I’ve enjoyed include vegetarian with at least eight toppings including avocado, and a spinach and roasted garlic version with piles of savory marinara and pillowy mozzarella. More carnivorous pizza eaters are usually satisfied with the rich meaty slices too. In place “since 1997” per the exterior sign, Anna Maria’s late hours (open until 2am) and abundant slices will hopefully keep enticing patrons throughout the next phases of Williamsburg’s burgeoning growth.
Oasis: With two locations, one in Greenpoint and one in Williamsburg directly off the L train, Oasis serves generous portions of savory Algerian-focused Mediterranean food. The shawarma and kebabs are tasty, but the best deal is undoubtedly the $4 falafel sandwich (since the start of 2015, that is – for 11 years prior, it was just $3. Anything of remotely similar quality in Los Angeles costs at least twice that amount.) It comes stuffed in a pita loaded with lettuce, tomato, red cabbage, homemade pickles and creamy tahini, plus, in my case, spicy red sauce. Not unlike my pizza tastes, I appreciate multiple full flavors and textures within a single bite. In addition, the superbly fresh cold sides such as stuffed grape leaves, baba ghanouj, tabbouleh and chickpea salad are items I could eat every day.
Pearl’s: A newer addition to Williamsburg since late 2015, Pearl’s puts Caribbean food from Trinidad & Tobago on the map. I came to this restaurant tired after a long day of walking around the city, but the lively energy of the colorful, packed restaurant, and bumping tunes including Benjai’s “Phenomenal,” immediately gave me a second wind. The Trini rum punch didn’t hurt either. While I know and love jerk chicken, and discovered jerk pork on a trip to Jamaica, somehow jerk fish and jerk ribs never occurred to me. Both dishes featured on Pearl’s menu, executed wonderfully and accompanied by a variety of spicy-sweet sauces. I had mixed feelings about trying shark, a signature dish, but did enjoy accra (salted cod fritters with tamarind sauce). The restaurant is backed by a cute outdoor patio. Behind a beaded curtain sits the adjacent bar Clyde’s, with a DJ spinning reggae, soca, dancehall and calypso. This combo makes it all too easy to while away hours without leaving the premises.
Cafe Mogador: This popular family-owned restaurant is the second location following the original East Village site founded in 1983. Visiting for breakfast on a weekend meant a bit of a wait, although we were able to get perfect Turkish coffee to go and walk over to the nearby East River State Park in the meantime. When we returned, we embraced the Moroccan-Israeli vibe with the Mediterranean Breakfast and Middle Eastern Eggs, to experience the mezze – plus sides of merguez and spicy carrots! Everything was tremendously fresh and flavorful. For what it’s worth, people-watching was also entertaining, as we saw Jon Voight dining solo near us. Dinner options look tempting as well, with Moroccan tagines and bastilla.
Frankel’s: Another recent addition to the neighborhood since 2016, this family-owned deli frequently sees lines stretching out the door, for good reason. Besides serving up traditional deli fare such as classic sandwiches and matzo ball soup, marked with friendly hospitality, Frankel’s offers catering, and ships nationwide. They specialize in smoked fish, smoked and braised meat, and fresh salads. My partner and I waited it out for bagels and coffee, and were rewarded with a perfect experience of New York bagels. Sampling the first two menu selections of specialty bagel sandwiches, we savored pastrami salmon, scallion cream cheese and dill cucumber with The Number ONE. We found an even more distinctive combination of flavors with The Nettie, featuring Scottish salmon, dill cream cheese, horseradish beets and onion. Through subsequent, inspired research as to why the bagels are so damn good in New York, I confirmed that the common perception about NYC’s soft water (and lower concentrations of calcium and magnesium) do prevent the gluten in bagels from becoming too hard. But preparation methods make the most impact. Chilling the pre-shaped dough, followed by boiling, “pre-gelatinizes the starch in the dough, locking the liquid inside of it and expanding the interior.” This lends the satisfyingly chewy texture. Not everyone does this, because the modern baking method in a hot oven injected with steam, “is faster and easier to automate.”
Northside Bakery: With two locations within walking distance, on N 8th Street (Williamsburg) and Nassau Avenue (Greenpoint), I actually visited both looking for – surprise – vegetarian pierogies. I struck out in finding the sauerkraut and mushroom versions, but did try the other varieties offered – beef, and potato and cheese, served with a bit of buttery caramelized onion that melted in my mouth. Simple, yet executed so well, they must have been made with love. Impressed with the varieties of fresh bread available, we selected some seeded rolls, onion rolls and olive pockets while we were at it. Founded in 1992, this bakery’s products became so revered that they now deliver in five northeastern states.
I’m a firm believer that variety is truly the spice of life. Exposure to people of varied cultural and ethnic backgrounds – through which food and music both offer an approachable, ready introduction – lends perspective, connection, empathy and resilience. I believe no small part of New York’s mass appeal for residents and tourists is the welcome diversity it packs within compact surroundings.
Shoutout to my “second home” of Houston for actually surpassing NYC as the most diverse city in the nation, although the sprawling Bayou City (and most of the US, for that matter) lacks the comprehensive public transit of NYC. And walkability is a big asset following a delicious meal or six.