The Lower East Side, formerly the dreariest of tenement neighborhoods, experienced a revival in recent years, and boasts some of best bars and restaurants in lower Manhattan. Here are a few of them.
Congee is a kind of Chinese rice porridge or gruel; it comes in a hot iron crock and you add various sauces to it for flavor. I realize that doesn't sound particularly appealing, but if you to Congee Village, the city's biggest and most attractive congee restaurant, you'll soon see just how good gruel can be. I find it hard to believe I just wrote that sentence. If for some reason you are not in the mood for Congee there is a large non congee menu. And, to be fair, there are also various pre-flavored congees, such as duck and seafood, that require less commitment.
Hidden away in one of the shadiest corners of the lower east side, and looking for all the world like just another pizza joint, Nonna Apa is in fact a singular kitchen with a distinctive slice and absolutely extraordinary veal, eggplant, and meatball subs. The place rewards repeated visits, because there's a wide variety of pizzas and specialties, and also because, like most artisanal operations, some times its better than others.
New York's most famous modernist restaurant is entirely the expression of its chef, the brilliant Wylie Dufresne. Why? Because he's in the kitchen every night, tasting every dish and expediting ever order, that's why.
Kuma Inn is one of the truly original concepts to emerge out of New York's increasingly derivative restaurant scene in recent years. Billed as "Asian tapas," it's in fact an eclectic small-plates restaurant that expresses the vision of one man: its talented chef-owner King Phojanakong. Half Thai and half Fillipino and trained under David Bouley, he's come up with food that is utterly unpredictable and, for the quality you are getting, really cheap.
It does something of an injustice to this bustling LES bar / restaurant / nightspot to speak of it as a "latino" or "pan-hispanic" operation. Yes, its eclectic menu moves effortlessly between central America, peru, brazil, and other traditions, and God knows its cocktail program is informed down to its core by Latino and carribbean flavors. But there's a sense of fun and improvisation here that defies traditional categorization. Hit the bar, order a few of Junior Merino's crazy cocktails, and start ordering what's interesting. You can be sure you won't get it anywhere else.
The world's largest menu, served by the world's grumpiest man, Shopsins is a New York legend, and the food actually lives up to the myth. Kenny Shopsin is actually as hostile as everyone says, but he is a true master of American vernacular cooking, and his menu is truly staggering: there are nearly 800 items on it, and practically every one is good.
Originally a cross-country expansion of Portland cult classic Pok Pok, this uncompromising Thai storefront is dedicated to pad thai. (A bigger, more ambitious Pok Pok is to be found in Brooklyn.) If you have come to think of pad thai as a bland, insipid dish -- and who could blame you given how it's made in New York -- you are in for an awakening. There are also some unpronounceable Thai dishes that are worth trying -- along with cold Thai beer.
This quirky sandwich shop, on a remote street in an obscure area of town, has the distinction of serving the best po-boy in New York, and possibly even in New Orleans. Yes, I said it! The crisp bread, the blue point oysters, the delicate shrimp -- it's amazing. The chicken biscuit with cream gravy is almost as good, and the place is just so weird that it would be wroth visiting even if the food sucked.
Ex-socialite Emma Hearst got notice at this small trattoria for her looks and her skills rather than her famous name, but she's departed and the restaurant is still going strong. It's specialty is quirky Italian comfort food by way of the Piedmont. What that amounts to on the table is a large assortment of very delicious, and by no means light, small plates which tend to involve animal fats in elegant, gratifying ways. The wine list is well-curated and affordable; on the whole, a great place for a date on the Lower East Side.
Look, to be frank, this isn't the best barbecue in New York. Though well-intentioned, the small Lower East Side storefront just doesn't have the equipment to put any smoke to speak of into its meat. But the food is flavorful and conscientious, the sides are good, and it is the only "barbecue" restaurant in the neighborhood. One thing to remember: there is no bathroom.