5 NYC Foods I Will Miss the Most

“My pants are tight,” I said to Faye, my good friend since childhood and fellow native New Yorker.

She rolled her eyes. “It’s because you’re in New York,” she said, and then described how she experienced the same my-pants-are-tight phenomenon when she moved back here from Russia. “Basically, it’s impossible not to gain weight in this city. The food is just so good!”

And it’s everywhere. 

One could travel the world through the culinary arts here in New York:

A Yemen restaurant in Brooklyn where there are neither English menus nor eating utensils (your hands will do).

Dipping ramen warmed with obsidian-colored hot stones.

Chicken and waffles in their birthplace of Harlem at the dinner-breakfast threshold of the early A.M. 

Kimchi pancakes and Sapporo at the magic post/pre-karaoke hour of midnight.

Crispy potato pancakes and potted meat pierogies in the old Ukranian pockets of the Lower East Side.

But these are my top five:

1. Pumpernickel bagel with lox spread and a large coffee.

Simple, filling, and a little more affordable than straight up lox. This was my go-to breakfast on mornings when I’d work in my aunt’s office. I came in so often that the cashiers at the bagel shop told me I can skip the line. Finally, I’m a VIP somewhere!! 🙂 Just in time to leave the country. 🙁

2. Pizza 

I lost count of the number of times I had pizza this time. I had plain, pepperoni, white, and The Grandma, which is a square pizza that is layered thusly: cheese, sauce, fresh basil. Mostly I went to my aunts’ neighborhood pizza place, Arturo’s—their pies truly are superior to almost anything else I’ve had elsewhere. Their crust achieves the perfect chewy-to-crispy ratio, they don’t use the cheapest mozzarella ever (some pizzerias use mozzarella that has a gross artificial rubbery look to them), and the grease pools elegantly onto the paper plate. Damn, son.

3. Shake Shack

The Shack Burger, fries, and a black & white shake. A day and a half worth of calories.

Only made it here once (and once is enough), but Shake Shack is where I go for my fast food fix. Admittedly, I never needed a fast food fix until Shake Shack came on the scene. Founded by Michelen star restauranteur Danny Meyer, Shake Shack is easy on the wallet but satisfying in the belly. Because it’s so crowded, it’s typical to share a table with someone — and that’s how I discovered that Shake Shack is a bit of an international travel hub, as I often end up dining with other teachers of English abroad.

4. Diners

Odessa diner on Avenue A in the East Village–my go-to spot since high school.

Diners are where I go to remember where I came from—a far more cosmic purpose than simply to eat. I derive a great deal of comfort from the knowledge that I will never see the bottom of a coffee cup, not with servers rushing around, pot in hand; the endless chain of refills create the illusion that time flows uninterrupted, that my childhood is not so remote. I am probably the only weirdo who waxes philosophical about diners. Except for Faye here: 

Faye and I wax philosophical in diners over coffee.

Needless to say, I don’t go to diners for the food–although I do like it.

5. Good Italian

…oops, I tore it up and forgot to take a picture!

On the eve of every big adventure in my life, my aunts and I dine at a local Italian spot called Arturo’s, a favorite of ours for about thirty years…so, my whole life, basically. My Qingdao trip was no exception. Good Italian is not a thing in China, so I made sure to have my fill, as you can see from the photo. (I had veal stuffed with prosciutto and mozzarella, topped with a marsala wine sauce.)

Bonus food….my aunt’s cooking

My aunt cooked me all of my favorite meals. Boeuf bourguignon. Asparagus pesto pasta. Eggplant parmigiana. Meatloaf. Steak. Omelettes with popovers and prosecco. “Are you sure you want to go to China?” my aunt asked. “I cook whatever you want and you don’t even pay rent. You have a pretty good deal here.”

Don’t worry, I always come back for another round!!

The Third Bedroom

Although I have no brothers or sisters, I have never had the privilege of my own room. Ish. Growing up, my “room” was a wall-less corner that connected to the living room and the kitchen. Technically, my parents raised me in a one-bedroom apartment. 

To get privacy as a kid, I used to do things like make a tent out of chairs and a blanket. Sometimes I tried converting the bathtub into a bed by curling up in it with my sleeping bag and some stuffed animals.

When I turned eleven, my dad built a bunch of book shelves that stretched from my little corner into the living room. It wasn’t exactly a wall, but it was a barrier of sorts.

I liked my room anyway. As a teenager, I started decorating it with posters of my favorite bands, artsy-looking postcards, and bumper stickers that said weird things like “The truth is out there…somewhere.” Two reading lamps hung over my bed, my shelves were lined with books and CDs, and my boombox was always playing whatever was considered alternative in the day (any New Yorkers out there remember 92.3 K-Rock? RIP :(). 

Then some unpleasant family stuff went down, and at 16 I moved in with my two aunts in Manhattan. It was an upgrade in my life in every aspect, except for one: now, I had no room of my own. I slept on a blow up bed in one aunt’s bedroom and stored my stuff in the other aunt’s bedroom. It was the best we could do, and it was no small sacrifice on my aunts’ part. Still, we were and still are a family, so we made it work. Every time I return to New York, I stay with my aunts.

In senior year of college, I had my own real room for the first time in my life. And man, I lived it UP. It constantly smelled of coconut coffee, which I would make at all hours of the day and night (oh the days of pulling all-nighters on the regular to work on my thesis….never mind, I don’t miss that part!!). I did whatever I wanted. I talked to myself A LOT and laughed at my dumb jokes. I was my own BFF. And when I was lonely, my dear Roomie (we were roommates in sophomore year), who lived just above me, would come down for a study break/impromptu Britney Spears dance party.

My next room-of-my-own was in Dalian, China. I shared a three-bedroom apartment with two awesome people. I loved my room like it was a person. I had a queen bed, a beautiful mahogany desk, and a wardrobe. But best of all, I had pink overhead lights. The color of a Chinese brothel. Who knows, maybe that unit had been a brothel before we’d moved in. Actually, the entire apartment must have been designed with partiers in mind, because there were blinking lights lining a mirror in the dining room, and the overhead lights bathed the living room in a deep, sensual orange. 

That was back in 2012. Since then, sadly, I have been room-less. I moved to California with my ex, where we struggled pay rent in a basement bedroom-converted-studio in Alameda. There was no sink; we had to wash dishes in the shower. Four months into our lease, however, the fleas arrived off the backs of—this is gross—rats inside the walls. Within days, we fled to Oakland, where we rented a playroom-converted-studio. No fleas, plus it had a proper sink, so it was as step up for sure. But it was so small. Move-the-bed-in-order-to-open-the-refrigerator kind of small. Whenever we cooked, we had to do it as a team: one person manning the wok, the other desperately fanning the smoke detector. 

Now its the dawn of 2019, and as I await to board my flight to Qingdao in a few days, I have downgraded to sleeping on my aunts’ sofa once again. Luckily, for a Manhattan apartment, it’s pretty spacious—but at the end of the day, it’s still three people sharing a two-bedroom unit. And although it’s not a huge deal—it’s great to spend time with my aunts before I move abroad, plus they feed me really well—I dream about having a space of my own in Qingdao.

I also literally dream about a third bedroom in my aunts’ apartment. That would be the perfect arrangement. Jokingly, I told that to my aunts. They came up with a solution that is pretty close: why not hang out in my aunt’s office when she’s not at work?

Hmm. Why not indeed. One of my aunts runs her own therapy practice with an office nearby. But the office is actually a studio apartment, complete with an efficiency kitchen and a fireplace. And a GARDEN. In MANHATTAN. Un. Heard. Of. 

I looove the interior brick wall.
A real fireplace….now a home for plants.

So that is now where I hang out (at least, it is when my aunt is not at work). 

I work on my yoga mat.

It’s kind of a great studio, actually. I liberally enjoy fantasies of living in this space, or any kind of roommate-less space close to four different trains, decent restaurants, coffee 24/7, nightlife, etc., etc. And did I mention there’s a garden??? 

A garden! There’s the proof.

However…it’s not perfect—no apartment is. Noise is an inescapable thing. But it’s tolerable—in fact, I kind of enjoy it. I get a kind of semi-voyeuristic thrill from hearing the signs of life around me. Or maybe it just makes me feel less lonely. Mostly, it’s muffled voices from next door (luckily I can’t make out what they say). One morning, it was waking up to a lovers’ quarrel in the lobby, with a woman shouting: “Everything’s always about you, isn’t it! It’s just you, you, YOU!!!”

Despite the noise, I began spending a few hours in my aunt’s office almost every day. My aunts and I joke that it’s our third bedroom. I guess when I go over there, it’s all about me, me, ME. And for even just an hour or two each day to write or work on this blog, what a luxury it is indeed.

What Happens When a New Yorker Leaves California

…and returns to New York.

What happens is that said New Yorker forgets how to be a New Yorker.

This “said New Yorker,” by the way, is yours truly.

I came back on Thanksgiving Day. Two months later, I have yet to shed my California skin. The truth is, I just have no idea how to function in this city anymore. Here’s the proof:

Exhibit A: Rush hour ding dong

For the first time in maybe a decade, I found myself on the train during rush hour. I was standing near the doors. Some people needed to get off. Did I get off the train to make way for them, as one should? No. I just stood there like a ding dong. A woman trying to get off yelled at me: “Jesus Christ, MOVE!” If I were her, I would yell at me too. I HAVE yelled at people like me!! And now I’m one of them!! Oh, the shame.

Exhibit B: Crossing the street

Is jaywalking an art? A skill? Never in my life have I even thought about it—until now. What used to be a instinct is now a drawn-out debate in my head at every freaking crosswalk: Should I cross? Hmm, I don’t have the light, but neither do the cars. If I cross, will the light suddenly turn green? Will a car hit me? Is the preservation of my identity as a New Yorker worth the risk of getting hit by a car? Oh, everyone else is crossing—I guess I’ll follow them. 

Exhibit C: Compost no more

The first time I dumped food waste in the trash, it hurt my soul. In the Bay Area, we compost—and whenever I composted, I felt like I was doing something good for the environment, and in a subtle way that boosted my happiness/sense of connectedness to the world/warm fuzzy feelings. Now, I’m just another earth murderer.

Exhibit D: More earth murdering

Speaking of environmentalism, the Bay Area observes a ban on plastic bags, so when I went grocery shopping, I always carried cloth or canvas bags—as is the norm. (The alternative is to purchase a paper bag for ten cents.) I do that here, too. But here, even if I have my bag out and ready to pack, the cashier will ALWAYS beat me to it with plastic bags. They are just. So. Fast. Come on, New York, if you’re so progressive, why do you still use plastic bags??

Exhibit F: Who has time sit around all day drinking coffee?

Desperate to write (draft 2 of my novelette), I sought the shelter of a bohemian/artsy/intellectual cafe a la those of Berkeley or the Mission District of San Francisco, where people linger over manuscripts, screenplays, homework, the newspaper, or chess games, or meet with friends to discuss art, politics, and their disappointing love lives. Little did I know, few such spaces exist in Manhattan. Cafes in Manhattan, it seems, are designed to get people in and out the door as quickly as possible: they’re fast, noisy, splashed with cold colors, and furnished with minimalist (read: uncomfortable) seating. I ended up at Starbucks. The music was so loud, I only lasted an hour.

Exhibit G: What do you expect?

Also…oh my god, it’s freezing. On the street, I overhear the same conversation about the weather again and again:

Person A: It’s really cold today, isn’t it!

Person B: It’s January, what do you expect? What do you think this is—California?

(For the record, Person A is not me.)

So yeah, I’m going through a bit of an identity crisis at the moment. But I guess there have been a couple of instances that have proven that I’ve still “got it”:

  • I still walk fast. I keep up with the other fast walkers, which is almost everybody else. Elegantly, stridently, I weave between the slow pokes who are text-walking, but without rudely cutting them off—as subtle as a stream. How liberating, indeed. Gone are the days of stop-and-go walking among the herds of slow San Franciscans. For some reason, people in San Francisco walk in large groups at a leisurely pace, as though they don’t have a job to get to. Never understood that. (Note to self: stop being late to everything so that I won’t need to power walk/run everywhere.)
  • The other day I passed by Times Square, and…yep, I still hate it.

…Well, that was a short list. 

Sadly, I won’t be here long enough to get back to my roots, because I’m moving to China. And when people there ask where I’m from, I think I’ll say California.