For decades, food writer Robert Sietsema has been pounding the pavement to find the best NYC has to offer, constantly reminding New Yorkers that you can eat remarkably well in the five boroughs without ever following the zeitgeist. The outer-borough food adventurer once ate 48 tacos in 3.25 hours on Roosevelt Avenue to find the best of the bunch. The guy is a true professional, and we’re all feeling blessed that he dropped a book this week, titled New York In a Dozen Dishes. In the tome, Sietsema explores the history of 13 of New York’s great dishes—from pizza, to black-and-white cookies, to Mexican pambazos. He also suggests the best places to eat them, and provides recipes so you can make them at home.
We chatted with Sietsema about his new book, his first slice of Di Fara pizza, and the future of food in New York City.
How do you define a dish as iconic of NYC, and how did you strategize your 13 selections for the book?
Iconic is kind of a dangerous word. I would say that not all of the dishes that I discuss in the book are “iconic.” Certainly the pizza is iconic, and the black-and-white cookies and things like that are iconic. But I’d say the cuy [guinea pig, popular in parts of Central America] is not so iconic. Although, maybe it is—I don’t really know what iconic means.
The way that I picked them was I wanted to have some dishes that are really well known to the point of exhaustion, and I wanted other dishes, like the pambazo (the Mexican sandwich dipped in chile sauce), that fewer people know about and are kind of hard to find. Because a city is defined by not only its popular dishes but its obscure dishes, too. And, of course, the beauty of having such a big population of people interested in eating good stuff is that a dish that was barley known at one point could become really popular in the future. Like, I could see the pambazo really catching on.
A city is defined by not only its popular dishes but its obscure dishes, too.
I would say that some of the 13 dishes are iconic, and all of them have the potential to become iconic—except maybe brains. Do you like to eat brains? I’m kind of scared of them. I eat them because I feel like I ought to, and I actually enjoy them when I eat them, but when I’m contemplating it I go, “Oh gee, I would rather eat almost anything but brains.” They’re one of my picks because, once again, that kind of defines food at the edge. It’s just as interesting and fun to talk about food that challenges us as food that’s instantly comfortable and easy to think about and eat.
If you were to wait another 20 years to write this book, would there be new dishes on the list (other than the pambazo)? What would those dishes would be?
It depends on the food supply in the future—on what becomes available and what remains available. For example, one of the chapters in my book is about brisket. And brisket has become wildly popular in New York, but then as a result of hipsters making it popular—and, of course, old-time brisket eaters making it popular—that coalition of people who all craved brisket created this situation where, like, Arby’s started serving brisket, and they just sucked the life out of the brisket market. Brisket has risen so quickly in price that a lot of old-time barbecues can’t really afford to serve it without jacking the price way up beyond what it used to be. I mean, the whole point of barbecue was that they were serving meats that nobody really wanted, and they were transforming them magically. The thing about a brisket is it has a lot of fat, it takes a long time to cook, and requires a lot of fuel. The idea is that this thing which is considered garbage meat was transformed into something ultra-stylish. That can happen to anything.
I’m hoping that Chinese-American food becomes more popular, in a small way as a result of the book, but also just in general. Chinese-American food is disappearing from the dining landscape as these old-guard Chinese places close down in favor of Thai food and regional Chinese foods that have appeared with more recent immigrants. Chinese-American food dates to the 19th century, and unfortunately, it’s kind of going out of style.
What’s your go-to Chinese-American spot in NYC?
This place over by me in the West Village called Golden Woks. They seem to have a pretty much straight-lined Chinese American menu. Wo Hop and Hop Kee down in Chinatown are the two really old-fashioned ones—so old-fashioned that they don’t even serve soy sauce, really. Gradually, as a lot more Chinese people got here and they found ways to import the things that they love, we started seeing ingredients like soy sauce and fish sauce. But the early Chinese-American cooks had to make do with what was around; and also, keep in mind they were tailoring their food to non-Chinese Americans. They went from cooking for just their own immigrant pals, then at one point (certainly, during the ’50s and ’60s), Chinese-American restaurants became probably the most important restaurants in the United States. One of the reason those restaurants were so popular is that after WWII there was suddenly a lot of women in the workforce, and a lot of families with both parents working, so carry-out Chinese food became a really important thing nourishing the nation. Egg Foo Yong is one of the great fusion dishes of all time. In the book, I also talk about chow mein, chop suey, pepper steak, and even General Tso’s chicken, which was the last known Chinese-American dish to be invented in the 1970s. After that it just died, partly because of the Sichuan revolution—suddenly you could pick Sichuan food that would blow the top of your head off instead of kind of bland Chinese-American food. Then you go back, though, and that Chinese-American food is like our comfort food; it’s like meat and potatoes.
We have a large population of people that are obsessed with food. I mean, not only do they like food, but they’re obsessed with it.
With any of these 13 dishes, were you thinking about a version made by a particular chef, or are they dishes you can and should get at any old joint?
I would say that it’s more vernacular food. In other words, nobody owns any of these dishes; although, they’ve just been revived by celebrity chefs. Look at the way Daniel Delaney or Billy Durney has taken the traditional Texas-style brisket and tried to not only make it as good, but even make it better in some ways. I was just in Austin and I ate at Aaron Franklin’s restaurant. Man, it was just astonishing how someone with an inquisitive mind can kind of tweak things a little bit—and I’m not talking about inventing things outside of the cannon, I’m talking about really paying attention to what makes the barbecue work. There is a place for celebrity chefs, and they did the same thing with pizza: a few chefs—including the guy at Roberta’s—tried to take the New York pizza and fiddle with it. They asked: What is the essence of pizza and how can we maximize the wonderfulness of it? If there’s anything that we have during this era, that people might not have had in previous eras in New York, it’s that we have a large population of people that are obsessed with food. I mean, not only do they like food, but they’re obsessed with it. They’ll do anything to get it and to get a better version of something. There may be no limit to how good food can be—maybe in a successive age it’ll be better, but at the moment, we’re living in a wonderful age for food.
Do you think that people’s obsession with food has in any way detracted from the experience of eating in NYC?
It’s true that there are pros and cons, and one of the cons is once we became obsessed with food, some of the plebian value of the food disappeared. You know, if you’re going to go and stand in line for three hours for a Cronut or a slice of Dom DeMarco’s pizza, in a way, you’re distorting the meaning of the food. You’re fetishizing it to the point where it’s values have changed and it’s not the same thing. Eating a pizza you waited three hours for is not the same thing as really enjoying a slice that you can just step up and get.
One thing that worries me is that with the food revolution here in the U.S., we seem to be sucking foodstuff out of the rest of the world. There are too many people that are starving around the world and this creates too much of a contradiction in a way. We’re willing to ravage all of these specialties for ourselves. Just look at coffee, and our insistence on buying expensive coffee, and turning agricultural land—that could be used to grow crops that people can eat—into land to grow coffee as a cash crop. That can’t be good in the long run, nor is it necessarily good for us. We’ve become these coffee addicts, these irritable monsters.
Any advice for novice food explorers? How does one cut his or her teeth?
The best thing to do is not to believe any food writer and go off on your own. Just close your eyes and get a Hagstrom atlas and pick a point on the map, and just go there and have a food adventure. Because the food is everywhere—it’s in all five boroughs, it’s in all of the areas around New York. It’s in Jersey City, Stanford Connecticut, Westchester, Dustchess County, Long Island. Use your own smarts to read Yelp reviews, Chowhound reviews, and critics reviews. Have an idea, first of all, of what you like to eat, and then go after it. But like I say, there’s nothing better than going to an unfamiliar area and exploring and eating the best thing that you can find. It’s one of the best and cheapest things that New York has to offer—it costs nothing more than $5 and a couple of trips on the subway. (Your bike is good, too).
The best thing to do is not to believe any food writer and go off on your own.
What’s your strategy for trying multiple restaurants in a neighborhood and not getting too full?
You don’t really have to gorge yourself to enjoy something. As a matter of fact, it’s the bite before you get too full that’s often the best one. That’s one thing that restaurant critics and food writers have to learn. The hardest lesson to learn is that, if you eat too much, it’s no fun. If you feel miserable after you’ve eaten, then you ate too much. Less is more when it comes to food.
Do you have a favorite food neighborhood in New York?
That varies from day to day. At the moment, I’m extremely excited by Bensonhurst because there’s a new Chinatown growing there. I just stumbled on an amazing Vietnamese restaurant [Little Saigon Pearl] off the main drag of 86th Street. It just kind of blew my mind—it’s the Vietnamese restaurant I’ve been looking for for years. It didn’t have that many dishes, it was just a couple of ladies cooking in a small kitchen, and they only made one version of pho and one version of bun bo hue. And they made these little rolls of shrimp wrapped in rice paper and deep fried that were absolutely astonishing. And you look at the menu, and it doesn’t have a hundred things on it, it only has 20 or 30 things—all simple, well-prepared peasant dishes. I’ve been looking around the rest of the neighborhood and there’s an amazing 24-hour Turkish restaurant. That’s the greatest reward of looking for food in the five boroughs: stumbling upon some little neighborhood that’s just coming together food-wise, and you have a lot of cheap choices.
What’s your #1 most memorable NYC food experience?
It may have actually been eating a piece of Di Fara pizza. Going with a friend way before it blew up, and seeing it just as a neighborhood pizza parlor that was kind of like dozens of other neighborhood pizza parlors. Then getting a Sicilian slice and biting into it and just having my mind blown. Because it really extended the limits of neighborhood pizza. Anytime you eat something that’s 20-percent better than any other example of the same thing that you’ve eaten before, you have that sort of crystalline moment where everything comes into focus.