Keys to the City: Essential New York Food Secrets, Revealed

If you've followed the Snapchat adventures of DJ Khaled, then you're acquainted with his "keys" to life. The philosophical gems—doled out on social media, hot-wings challenges, and surreal TV appearances—are generally as inspiring as they are inscrutable. "No. 1 key is God, that's the master key," he told the New York Times this week. "Another key is 'never give up.' Another key is 'never surrender.' Another key is 'give thanks to life at all times.'"

All sound advice, to be sure. But where Khaled's philosophy falters is in its culinary applications. He may know his way around a red-velvet cake, but any man who tells you that egg whites are a "major key" is simply not to be trusted. To unlock the real secrets of dining, we must turn instead to the true experts—the ones who know how to score a life-changing bowl of Malaysian soup at 4am, or side-step the crowds inside a tourist-thronged institution. 

In NYC, these insider tips and tricks can mean the difference between waiting in a two-hour brunch line, and eating the city's best sturgeon in the comfort of your underpants. They can ensure that you get the freshest slice at a pizzeria, and teach you how to summon incredible jerk chicken or lard bread out of thin air in Brooklyn. All you need is a jangling set of major food keys to eat like a pro.

To help crack the code, we begged some of the city's savviest food writers and chefs to part with their best-kept dining  power moves so that you may navigate the New York food scene with all of the swagger and panache of DJ Khaled navigating the high seas on his jet ski. We thank them for it, and you should too.

  • Regan Hofmann, food writer, contributor at PUNCH (@regan_hofmann)
  • Gabriella Gershenson, features editor at Rachael Ray Magazine (@gabiwrites)
  • Dan Saltzstein, editor at The New York Times Travel Section (@dansaltzstein)
  • Justin Bolois, features editor at First We Feast (@justinbolois)
  • Alex Vadukul, writes about the city for The New York Times and is the U.S. editor of Port Magazine. He is also the food columnist for Opening Ceremony. (@alexvadukul)
  • Chris Schonberger, co-founder and editor-in-chief at First We Feast (@cschonberger)
  • Scott Wiener, founder of Scott's Pizza Tours, author of Viva La Pizza! The Art of the Pizza Box (@scottspizzatour)
  • Jesse Hirsch, editor of Edible Brooklyn and Edible Manhattan magazines (@jesse_hirsch)
  • Matt Gross, writes about food, travel, and related subjects for many publications (@worldmattworld)
  • Adam Kuban, proprietor of Margot’s Pizza pop-up. You may also know him as the founder of the now-defunct pizza blog Slice, or as one of FWF’s "20 Greatest Food Bloggers of All Time" (@adamkuban)
  • Kenji López-Alt, managing Culinary Director at Serious Eats, creator of The Food Lab (@thefoodlab)
  • Brad Garoon, founder of Burger Weekly (@burgerweekly
  • Chris Jaeckle, chef at all'onda in NYC (@cjaeckle)
  • Joe DiStefano, O.G. Queens food writer, culinary tour guide, founder of Chopsticks + Marrow (@joedistefano)
  • Daniel Gritzer, culinary director at Serious Eats, former professional cook (@dgritzer)
  • Corey Cova, chef at Lord Hamm's and New Leaf in NYC (@coreycova)
  • Ben Shapiro, director of content development at Complex (@b_shap)

In the words of Pusha T, "keys open doors." Here's your new set:


Gross says: "The lamb burger at the Breslin (16 W 29 St, 212-679-1939) is a nearly perfect creation: salty, fatty, rich—a turned-up-to-11 expression of meaty magic. But it is not perfect. The lamb may be rare, the feta tangy, the bun springy and absorbent, but the burger lacks one thing: textural contrast. It needs cucumbers—sweet, crispy, crunchy, thin-sliced cukes. But the Breslin’s chef, April Bloomfield, famously allows no alterations or substitutions to her recipes, so don’t even think of asking for this basic modification. Unless, that is, you happen to be sitting at the bar (which is where you should be sitting anyway). The bartenders, you see, keep cucumber slices on hand for cocktails, and they will (quietly) slip you a few, allowing your burger to become what it was truly meant to be. Just remember to tip handsomely—they’re risking their jobs, or at least Bloomfield’s wrath, for your joy."

Vadukul says: "All New Yorkers pick up and then jealously guard a few gastronomic city secrets. At Keens (72 W 36 St, 212-947-3636), which I believe is the best steakhouse in the city, you can request a few orders as "pub size." You save money and the smaller portion still suits many just fine, especially with a side. I believe it can be requested for the prime rib and their famous mutton chop. If you are a fan of Japanese pubs (izakayas), the more authentic ones in the city offer "bottle keeps." This might not be news to anyone who has spent time in Japan, but if you order a large bottle of alcohol at such izakayas—particularly many of the longtime Midtown staples—you can ask for the bottle to be stored away for consumption on your next visit. Usually, you will be given a marker to write your name onto the bottle (people often draw doodles, too), and you can come back for it weeks or months later to finish it at your convenience. It can be a cool thing to show a friend too if you're eating with company."

Hirsch says: "You would have felt cooler about the secret chicken window if you found it on your own. This unadorned little slot in a mustard-colored wall serves up some of Crown Heights’ best jerk chicken (no small feat), but much of the allure is in its mystery. Tucked near the southwest corner of Kingston Avenue and Sterling Place, the window seems as much like a portal as it does a real food purveyor. But take one bite of that chicken—it’s very, very real. (Oh and don’t be put off by the surly man who serves you—somewhere deep down, he likes you a lot.)"

Jerk chicken slot in Crown Heights. Photo courtesy Jesse Hirsch

Hofmann says: "Katz’s (205 E Houston St, 212-254-2246) is NYC’s best old-school deli, but it’s too much of a hassle for all but the most dedicated locals—the performatively outdated ticket to enter, the winding rows of tourists queued up for the meat slicers, then again for hot dogs, sodas, chopped liver—unless you know about table service. All of the tables around the edge of the restaurant are waiter-service-only, which translates to: You sit down immediately and let someone else fight through the scrum. Cheapskates avoid it because they don’t want to tip a waiter a few bucks, and tourists think it’s not “authentic” enough, which means there are almost always seats available. The chance to get your hands on that pastrami sandwich sooner? Priceless." 

Jaeckle says: "The Garret (206 Avenue A) is an East Village newcomer with a great mellow scene. They offer Monday Vinyl nights, and if you bring a record you get a drink. And if you are hungry, or just looking to escape from people, the dinner table at The Garret is for you. It has only 20 seats, and is accessible through a door in the back of the room. Ring a small door bell and you are in—"maybe." The menu is somewhat Italian and is handled by Scott Tacinelli, who is a great cook. It is still a secret, so get there while the wait doesn't exist."

Kuban says: "I'm all about pizza, so I've noticed this one key trick: Ask for your pizza well-done. It works at a lot of places, but I think the one place it makes the most dramatic difference is at New Park Pizza (15671 Cross Bay Blvd, Queens; 718-641-3082) in Howard Beach, where it turns a good slice into a citywide contender. In general, I don't think most people know you can ask for a pizza cooked to a desired doneness—that's more beef/burger territory—but you can ask for it 'well done' if you like crisper crusts or even a little underdone, if you're warped like that." 

For G.O.A.T Malaysian food, arrive early—around 4am. Photo courtesy Joe DiStefano

DiStefano says: "From 4am to 11am, the swing shift at Curry Leaves Restaurant (13531 40th Rd, 718-762-9313) in the Chinatown of Flushing, Queens, plays host to a motley crew of tough guys, club kids, cabbies, and homesick Malaysians looking for noodle soups and other street food served from a long counter just inside the door. Walk up to the counter and one of the ladies will ask what type of broth and noodle you want. Go for the kari laksa, a fiery coconut-milk enriched broth that’s the best in New York City, with yellow noodle. Next, choose from the dozen or so items—fried tofu, several types of fish cake, long green hot peppers stuffed with fish paste, fried wontons, char siu, shrimp, veggies, fried pork skin, and bitter melon—to add to your bowl. For a truly surreal experience, arrive half an hour or so before dawn and watch the sun rise from the bottom of a soup bowl—figuratively speaking. After an iced coffee and pandan gelatin to calm the kari fire, walk out into the early morning light and check out the live fish delivery trucks as they make their rounds on Main Street."

Gritzer says: "Any time I mention Jackson Heights, where I live, the response is invariably, 'Oh, great Indian food, right?' Nope, not anymore—now it's the place to try some of the city's best Nepalese and Tibetan food. The gateway drug to those cuisines is arguably momo, as dumplings are known in those Himalayan regions. My favorite, sold from AMDO Kitchen (37-57 74 St), a truck parked on a small side street, are steamed doughy balls, slathered in chili sauce and stuffed with Sichuan peppercorn-scented orbs of ground beef, so juicy they're prone to squirting when you take a bite (no joke, I've had to wipe down the truck after eating my fresh-cooked momo next to it). But what makes these momo absolutely worth a special trip is the little-known fact that you can buy them frozen in bulk. I speak from experience: Having a freezer full of some the city's best momo, ready to be quickly steamed or boiled whenever the urge hits, is just about the greatest thing ever."

Wiener says: "New York slice shops can have anywhere from three to 30 pies on the counter. The higher the number, the more it's like a game of Russian Roulette: Which pies are fresh, and which have been sitting for hours? Tip number one: If the pizzas are in a clear display case, you'll see condensation on the glass next to and above the freshest pies. Tip number two: Go with the slice closest to where the staff is standing. It's likely they place the more popular pies in an easy-access location, like next to the register. "

Saltzstein says: "Jackson Heights, Queens, swarms with South Asian stores and restaurants: Indian, Bangladeshi, Tibetan, Nepalese. And there are plenty of good things to eat. But one of the best—or at least most charmingly located—is a little tough to find. Until recently, Lhasa Fast Food (37-50 74 St, 718-205-2339) didn't even have a sign. The only way you'd find it was by wandering all the way to the back of Tibetan Mobile, a cellphone store on 74th Street, opposite Indian superstore Patel Brothers. There is a modest sign now, but you still have to head past the phone cases and earbuds to find the food. Once there, in a cozy, unadorned space, you can choose from pleasantly spicy thukpa soups, hand-pulled noodles, and, of course, a selection of momos, Tibetan dumplings stuffed with greens, beef, chives. They are very satisfying. And if you want to call home with a report—well, you know where to go."

Cova says: "Midtown Manhattan is a culinary crapshoot at best. While many restaurants in the area can boast a 4pm second lunch, happy hour, and oysters with a full bar service, the real pearl is Grand Central Oyster Bar. Not only has it been around for a billion years as a true hookup for dozens of varieties bivalves for the workingman suits of the neighborhood, but it's also got a dirty secret. Any time after the lunch rush all you need to do is walk in like you own the place, take a sharp right to the lunch counters or diner bar and, after you’re handed the large daily menu full of upsells like $20 entrees and $30 fried-fish platters, just ask for the sandwich menu. By request, as long as it’s before 6pm, you can reel in any of those supremely toasty bastards. Vastly superior pairing for those beers and half dozen oysters."

Garoon says: "Union Bar & Kitchen (300 Spring St, 646-791-0005) has a well-regarded burger on their lunch, brunch, and dinner menus, but it's not the burger you want when you're in that restaurant. You won't see them on the menu, but ask your server for El Sucio Grande, or the Gettysburger. El Sucio Grande is Union Bar & Kitchen's brisket-and-sirloin blend patty, topped with guacamole, cheddar cheese, applewood smoked bacon, a fried egg, fried pickled jalapeños, and house-made ghost pepper sauce. Slow roasted carnitas, buttermilk frizzled onions, smoked gouda, fried pickles, applewood smoked bacon, and barbecue sauce top the Gettysburger. These monsters are incredible.

In NYC, it's easy to get your hands on the 5 Napkin Burger. But if you want to impress your friends with your knowledge of the city's burger history and a fancy-pants version of the burger, head to Nice Matin (201 W 79 St, 212-873-6423). This was the birthplace of Chef Andy D'Amico's 5 Napkin Burger, before any restaurants bore that name. The Nice Burger is a dry-aged patty, topped with raclette, braised bacon, house-made pickles, and spicy mayo.

There are off-menu burgers in every borough of the city, but one Brooklyn restaurant has an entire secret burger menu. You can walk into Forrest Point (970 Flushing Ave, 718-366-2742) and find a "Cast Iron Burger" on the menu, but you'd be better off ordering the Jefferson (topped with jalapeño, house sauce, waffle fries, and LTO); the Old MacDonald (topped with a fried egg, pulled pork, LTO, bacon, and cheddar cheese); the King Louis (topped with barbecue sauce, bacon, and cheese); or the Duplex (two six-ounce patties with double cheddar cheese and double LTO). Get a milk punch while you're there; they're known for them."

The Gettysburger. Photo courtesy Brad Garoon

Gershenson says: "My favorite place for weekend brunch is Barney Greengrass (541 Amsterdam Ave, 212-724-4707), a.k.a. the Sturgeon King. It is the New York place—a smoked fish deli with authentically cranky waiters that's more than 100 years old. As we all know, brunch lines in New York can be brutal. And Barney Greengrass, where Nova on a bialy runs around $20, has the added inconvenience of only taking cash on the weekends. My hack? One hung-over Sunday morning, I decided to call BG to see if they deliver. They did. AND they offered the option of paying with a credit card. So it turns out Barney Greengrass will bring brunch to you during prime time AND you don't need cash to pay for the privilege. The bialy that morning tasted especially good." 

Lopez-Alt says: "Patsy's (2287 1st Ave, 212-534-9783) in Harlem is the only place in the city you can get an old-school, coal-oven NY pizza by the slice. All the other classic joints (Lombardi's, John's, etc.) are whole pie only."

Shapiro says: "Peter Pan Donuts (727 Manhattan Ave, Brooklyn; 718-389-3676) in Greenpoint has become one of the most-loved hangover cures in Brooklyn. The doughnuts are fresh, the coffee is strong, and the Polish waitresses behind the counter are clad in these adorable pink and green outfits. The way I see it, the bakery's only got one problem, and that’s that doughnuts are fucking disgusting, and forcing candied rings of aorta-clogging sucrose down your face-anus first thing in the morning is the mark of a truly degenerate person. 

That’s why, when I find myself late to work and stomping around Manhattan Avenue on a Tuesday morning, I skip the menu entirely, belly up to the counter, and slur out an order for my all-time favorite Brooklyn breakfast—Peter Pan's off-menu sausage, egg, and cheese on a fresh, toasted bialy. As long as there are bialys in stock, this hangover slayer is available to those in the know. You can’t order it for takeout, and you have to sit at the counter to snag one. It’ll set you back a paltry $3.30, which is worth it for the knowing smile your waitress will flash when you order one.

The eggs will be cooked by a balding line cook who can’t speak English and looks like the coach from Rocky, and when your order arrives, your eggs will be fluffy and firm, your sausage will be sweet, and the whole thing will be smothered in the cheese of your choosing. Peter Pan can become a real mess during peak hours, so this perfect meal is best consumed alone, with sunglasses on, your hood up, and oversized headphones blocking out the throngs of Greenpoint media people there to horf down sugared dough."


Bolois says: "I picked up my first Major Key™ in the unlikeliest of places—Brooklyn's Carroll Gardens, a family zone that tries to keep it quiet for cradle-rocking. After a group of us finished dinner at Ferdinando's Focacceria around 11pm, we were lead by one of my friends to an Italian bakery called Mazzola (192 Union St, 718-643-1719). The lights were off inside—it had been closed since 8pm—but we walked straight to the side entrance and rapped on the door a few times. A man appeared and we handed him a $5 dollar bill. "One lard bread, please." He returned with a fresh loaf studded with Genoa salami bits, and streaked with black pepper and provolone cheese. The bakery preps in the wee hours of the morning for the following day, and can be open as late as 2am, according to my friend. Whether the baker opens the door is a gamble you'll have to take." 

Schonberger says: "The lunch-only burger at Peter Luger (178 Broadway, Williamsburg, Brooklyn; 718-387-7400, consistently holds its top billing in the city's ever-evolving patty rankings, thanks to its beautifully simplistic formula of dry-aged beef and American cheese. But getting to Williamsburg by 3:45pm is a pain the ass for most of us. Here's the secret, though: The iconic steakhouse will actually serve the burger at night, but only to kids. All you have to do is procure a child (your own or someone else's), order on their behalf, and grab that juicy two-hander right off his plate like the Machiavellian savage you are. Sam Sifton was correct when he said you shouldn't disgrace Peter Luger with kids, but if it's an evening burger you're after, I say you get a pass. #IconicDadAlert"

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