Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
The winners of our CityEats contest told us about the must-try restaurants and dishes for visitors and locals.
We asked CityLab readers to tell us about what locals eat where they live and why, and you delivered. We got tons of mouthwatering odes to the spots that define the cities you live in. (The editors tore through lots of snacks while we read through your submissions—they made us hungry!)
The winning responses earned a gift card to a food delivery company that services their area. These gold-star entries, which we’re excerpting below, paint vivid pictures of delicious food. But they also do something more: They show us how, across the world, food is a point of connection between people and places.
Some entries were snarky, others a bit sappy—but the ones that moved us the most centered on how food nourishes and and anchors people, offering a sense of community across time and geography. You told us about finding comfort in neighborhood stalwarts, and kindling a sense of belonging over a bowl of warm soup. Here are some of our favorite examples of how food can make a place feel like home.
The comfort of beef thenthuk in Queens
J.A. Strub found something familiar in the Tibetan offerings of Jackson Heights, Queens, where corner stores sell Mediterranean specialities and cuisine from Uruguay and Nepal is easy to come by.
The one type of food that Jackson Heights does not have are the homestyle Northern Italian meals that I grew up eating at home. One need only enter my home and attempt to log into the wifi (network: LastMeal; password: RisottoMilanese) to know where my heart pulls me. Nobody could have guessed that my cravings for the flavors and textures of Veronese comfort food would be satisfied in a small Himalayan restaurant on Roosevelt Avenue.
I ducked into Spicy Tibet the other day after work amidst a torrential downpour, hoping to nurse a head cold with something hot, hearty, and mostly liquid. I ordered the beef thenthuk, a standard Tibetan soup with hand-ripped noodles, beef brisket, and bok choy. The bowl that was set in front of me five minutes later triggered an immense wave of déjà vu. For a moment, I felt like I was in my Nona's kitchen, cranking the handle of her ancient pasta machine to produce an even-thinner ribbon of yolk-stained dough. The aromas of the thenthuk's broth evoked the rich yet clear brodos [“broth”] of my childhood, cooked all day in a large, cast-iron pot with the carcass of a roast chicken and the bygone contents of last week's crisper. The slivers of flat egg noodle reminded me of the pappardelle scraps, flash-boiled in broth, that my sister and I used to fight over after school. Even the bok choy, which is decidedly not a central European ingredient, brought back memories of stewed escarole. I sipped the final dregs straight from the bowl as the 7 train rattled above us.
For those of us who grew up in kitchens, nothing can eclipse memories of home cooking from childhood. And yet, sometimes, new eating experiences can remind us of where we came from while simultaneously giving us a window into the hauntingly delightful similarities between seemingly disparate cultures. Even in our polyglot corner of Queens, it is helpful to be reminded every so often that we are not so different after all.
The broad appeal of falafel in Erbil
Maxine Quigley wrote about how food carts become gathering places on the streets of Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Falafel is the defining street food of Erbil, sold everywhere in shops and from street carts. Nowhere will you have better falafel or a stranger experience finding them than on Iskan (or "People") Street. During the day, Iskan is a typical commercial street lined with open-front restaurants intermixed with phone shops, pharmacies, etc. In the evening, the street is transformed into another kind of People Street, a late-night food bazaar for male people only. Kurdistan is one of the most relaxed countries of the region, with the genders mixing freely, but Iskan Street at night is something else, a huge frat party, perhaps. It's a place where men gather to talk, drink beer if they choose, munch on sunflower seeds, brawl, whatever, and while they talk, they eat.
Restaurant competition is fierce and the street food here is the best in the city—great burgers and fries, kebabs, spit-roasted chicken, eggplant or beet salads, soups, and, of course, falafel. There are two styles: the moist, green, herb-laced Lebanese style that I prefer, and the drier local favorite made from spiced yellow lentils. For the yellow style, go to Al Jandol, famous for the Kurdish version of pizza called lakhem-bil-ajeen (“meat on dough”). For the green version, try the stunningly good falafel wrap sold at the tiny shop Falafel Abo Halab, a short way down Lane 101. Look for the huge (really huge) flashing glittery sign.
The pleasure of routine in NYC’s bagel shops
Laura Vitaro shared a literal love letter that she mailed to Ess-a-Bagel in Manhattan. Here’s an excerpt:
While perhaps your stark approach to customer service drew criticism, you knew your loyal patrons and allowed them to wear it like a badge of honor—a familiarity with the menu, the specificity of the ordering routine, and the forbidden toasting request. We could move through the line unscathed, and with time, would even develop a warmth of interaction.
When I moved away from the neighborhood and was torn from your sweet doughy, carbo-loaded embrace, my once weekly (or more frequent) voyages to that bizarre stretch of First Avenue grew sparse, and I felt as if I had lost a major part of what was making this city bearable to live in; your perfectly crafted whole-wheat everything with olive cream cheese is my everything—like something zapped into existence by the elusive and dwindling New York Bagel-Gods.
The sheer size is enough to deter the weak, uncommitted bagel patrons. But it was even more than that. It was the routine. The line, the attitude, the flavor and texture that never seemed to change. Not slightly. It didn't need to, and it wouldn't be compromised. Or the older regulars sitting with their bagel, lox, and a newspaper, so clearly their routine for many years. It was consistent in the best way possible. It felt like something that was mine. One of the only things in this city that I could ever really know. … Ess-a-Bagel, you matter in this city.
A passionate case for San Francisco’s burritos
Casey Ungar wanted to make sure we knew that burritos trump chowder.
I take pity upon any man who claims—either through sheer malice or simple ignorance—that a noxiously stale bread bowl filled with gummy clam chowder is the official dish of San Francisco. I envision them gulping down their gruesome gruel at Fisherman's Wharf, burning their tender tongues as they gaze at each other in faint horror, unaware that they have (in the words of Gob Bluth) made "a terrible mistake," totally unaware that they are a short trip on the 49-Van Ness from sampling San Francisco's only culinary contribution to the United States: the Mission-style burrito.
Its genesis is the subject of fierce debate, rending neighborhoods asunder. The battles over which place produces the best example is oft drenched in the poisonous vitriol reserved for street-fights between Raiders and 49ers fans and meetings of the County Board of Supervisors. What can I recommend? The Brobdingnagian "Super Burrito" from La Espiga de Oro: a grilled-to-flaky homemade flour tortilla encasing fresh chicharrones de carne, howling spice, perfectly melted cheese, an equitable balance of rice and beans and a healthy smattering of avocado in every bite. It’s tough not to conclude that a Mission-style burrito is the platonic ideal of a meal.
Returning to a family tradition at Chicago’s Chinese spots
Tanya Basu told us about returning to the restaurant she frequented with her parents and siblings.
When I was 4 years old, my father moved us from Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood, on the north side, to the far western suburbs. But we made the pilgrimage practically every weekend—it was nearly 50 miles one way—to the near south side of the city, to reach the mecca of Chinese food that defined Saturday nights to me. Once [my parents] figured out that Won Kow was their haven for Chinese food, it was hard to have anything else.
We always ordered the same few dishes. Vegetable lo mein was a slippery-yet-fried mass of angel hair noodles, swirled with mushrooms, water chestnuts, bok choy, and seasonal vegetables. The Mongolian beef was probably my favorite—flawlessly, forever tender strips of beef cradled between crunchy white noodles and dry red Thai chili peppers that were impeccable with a swirl of soy sauce. My parents gobbled up the vegetable egg foo young—two omelette-y egg pockets crammed with veggies in the most mysterious-but-elegant, syrupy brown gravy. And the chicken! I lived for Monday leftover lunches at school, the silken Szechuan chicken somehow better than it was 48 hours ago, the water chestnuts still offering their satisfying crunch next to caramelized white onions and proud bushels of broccoli.
More than anything, Won Kow was wonderfully familiar. The owner, Dave, was a family friend, taking photos of my siblings and me as we grew up, chatting us up midway through a meal. I can still picture the Hong Kong harbor photo plastered on the wall facing our usual roomy round table, the year-round Christmas lights twinkling amidst Dave's favored smooth jazz station in the background. Today, Won Kow is reserved for our graduations, birthdays, and holidays (you can count on a Basu pilgrimage there during Christmas/New Year's). We've grown up and scattered, but if there's one place that brings my family together, it's slurping noodles in the dim light of a place I will always fondly think of as the best Chinese food in the world.
Far-flung cuisine in Buffalo
Maggie Hamilton made a strong case for Buffalo’s food scene, beyond those famous wings.
It’s a wing thing: The Buffalo Wing. That's about all we've got in terms of national recognition. (Except mis-guided perceptions of our snow, and—if you know what you’re talking about—good architecture.) But I'm here to tell you about the West Side Bazaar, a bastion of global culinary perfection that would make any NYC or San Fran foodie do cartwheels.
An outpost of the Westminster Economic Development Initiative in Buffalo, the West Side Bazaar currently houses kiosks that serve up Chinese, Ethiopian, Thai, Burmese, Asian, Halal, and Laos dishes. There are also wares sold there, as well: clothing, beauty products, and home goods. When I pop in, I typically leave with a bubble tea, some dim sum, vegetarian Ethiopian lentils served by my friend Zelalem, or the banana roll—which combines sweet and spicy—from my other friend Wi at the Burmese sushi stand. Consider this a love letter to the refugees who have arrived in Buffalo. We welcome you, and your culinary expertise, with open arms (wings?).
Recognizing the aroma of South Asian spices in Oregon
Negina Pirzad remembered how an Indian lunch buffet helped her feel more at home in Eugene, Oregon.
I was fourteen when I met you: young and hungry. I heard about you from my friends and family, but it wasn’t until one fall day back in 2005 that my school day was interrupted by a spontaneous trip to Punjab, India, via your lunch buffet. Once I swung open your door, the smell of rain on concrete was quickly masked by the same South Asian spices that waft from our kitchen at home when my mom puts a spin on our traditional Afghan dishes. I rushed back to school that day, hoping to make it on time to fifth period, with an overflowing to-go box of “exoticism,” as so many in town describe you, and a sense of belonging that I had never felt before then.
Some of my classmates gave me questionable looks as I savored your gifts for fifty minutes straight, but I took it as envy rather than disgust. You see, the thing about this city we live in is that the people of Eugene, Oregon are majority white, race-wise, but so many of the individuals I know have these worldly interiors that long for global interaction and knowledge of “the other.” There aren’t many opportunities for cultural escapism in Eugene, given the limited number of international food vendors in town, but the ones we have—like yourself—do the job. Not only do your trays of chicken tikka masala and baingan bhartha make up most of my daily cravings, but the ambience that is Taste of India makes me never want to leave. The synthetic greenery that adorns your space reminds my family of the South Asian place they came from. The fact that the same family has managed you through the years makes us trust you. So, thank you, Taste, for accepting my family and me, and for the magical trip you take us on once a month.
Falling in love with carbs and cheese in D.C.
And, on a more irreverent note, Jamie Lee told us about how a cheesy bread boat was the best thing to come out of a bad date in Washington, D.C.
Dear Compass Rose,
I came to your establishment on a first date. I was with a man who, within minutes of meeting, told me to go gluten free, to eat more protein and less dairy. And so I ordered the khachapuri—a bread boat filled with cheese, served piping hot with an egg on top. It tasted like home even though I’d never eaten it before. The cheese was velvety, buttery, dense. (Like pizza, but even better without tomato sauce to ruin the beautiful, simple matrimony of carbohydrate and dairy.) Khachapuri—even the name is fun to say—is not for the faint of heart. Perhaps better suited for a group to share, I ate it alone and with passion, with gusto, with the sort of burning lust I would never waste on the man in front of me.
Unctuous, hearty, salty, rich. The sort of food that will remind others, even if they are on a terrible first date, that there is still goodness in the world, that there is still hope.
Thank you, Compass Rose, for introducing us. (No thank you to Tinder for the date, though.)
All my love,