We could measure our year by the average weekly time we spent on our phones or how often we cried during the not-sad parts of movies, but we’ve decided to measure 2021 by counting the exceptional new dishes we ate at NYC’s restaurants. These dishes range from whole dry-aged ducks that arrived on beds of flowers to takeout salads that came with plastic flatware. Whether we ate them in a glitzy converted bank in Williamsburg or in the middle of an Ozone Park baseball field, they were undoubtedly the best parts of the year.
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Yun Cafe in Jackson Heights represents one of two self-identified Burmese restaurants in New York City, and it’s the only subway station bodega that matters. Nearly all of Yun Cafe’s halal-friendly food hits you with sourness, bitterness, umami funk, and sweetness in every bite, but you’ll especially notice this harmony in the laphet thoke. This cold salad involves fermented tea leaves in a citrusy fish sauce with thin strands of cabbage and refreshing hunks of red and green tomatoes. It’s topped with a blanket of puffed soy nuts, crunchy peanuts, and sesame seeds. We ate this in 28-degree weather outside on a pedestrian plaza, and it was paradise.
When you’re selecting your meat by the pound at Bark Barbecue, a pop-up that started on the side of the road in South Ozone Park, the pitmaster Ruben might advise you to “not sleep on the turkey.” We can’t stress Ruben’s point enough. The first time we ate this smoked turkey, we instinctively drenched it in sauce in order to hide whatever dryness might be present. That was wrong, and we apologize. This turkey is as moist as the star of a skincare advertisement, and it comes covered in a dry rub of paprika and chili powder.
We divide our lives into periods called Before Aguachile Negro (BAN) and Post-Aguchile Negro (PAN), and you will too once you eat this Mexican dish from casual counter-service restaurant Mariscos El Submarino in Jackson Heights. Served in a molcajete as large as a classroom clock, this aguachile negro gets its color (and name) from a blend of smoky, charred green and red chiles that you’ll see in the lime and soy-based sauce. After a couple of sinus-clearing bites straight from the bowl, build your own tostada with soft tilapia, shrimp, and octopus, then top it with creamy avocado slices, crunchy raw red onions, and half-moon cucumbers.
Cucumber Salad With Mussels & Dill
The first time we left Dame, we were only thinking about two things. The first was how grateful we were to our former selves for bending over backwards to get a reservation. The second was this mussel dish. Even if you’re not usually starstruck by cucumber hunks, dill flowers, and plump smoked mussels, you will be when the chefs at Dame combined these ingredients together on a plate. The best thing about this dish is the garlic-heavy emulsified mussel sauce underneath. It almost tastes nutty like sesame, and it perfectly compliments the refreshing cucumber and salty mussels. (There’s a chance this might not be on the menu when you go to Dame, since they rotate their seafood-heavy menu fairly often. If it isn’t, we’re deeply sorry, and we mean that.)
Chili Fried Chicken
For $35, Pecking House offers three large pieces of their tingly fried chicken with sides like smashed cucumbers, dirty fried rice, and beans in sesame oil. You can either get it delivered (and experience the eight-week waitlist) or visit Pecking House’s Fresh Meadows location, which is only open on weekends. Whatever you decide to do, this is hands down some of the best fried chicken in the city. You’ll get a tingly component from all the Tianjin chilies, but this also comes with homemade hot sauce, if you want to ratchet up the heat. The crust is crackly, and the chicken is always juicy.
This goat testicle and kidney dish exemplifies what we love best about Dhamaka: their rich, balanced food that you’re probably not eating elsewhere. It comes in a chunky tomato-based sauce full of ginger and garlic that you’ll want to soak up with buttery pao buns, as well as iron-y testicles and kidneys in a thin casing. Our only regret was not ordering rice on the side.
Chalupas Poblanas El Tlecuile is an elusive, cash-only chalupa stand in Jackson Heights that typically only operates from 6-11pm, Friday-Sunday, and it’s worth planning your entire weekend. The tortillas for the chalupas are cooked in pork lard on a charcoal-fired comal, and they get doused with salsa, shredded pork, and onions. These are significantly less crispy than chalupas we’ve had in the past, but that’s not a bad thing. The tortillas are heavily sauced, browned on the bottom, and each bite tastes wildly porky from all the lard. Stop by with a friend, and show them one of NYC’s best new Mexican dishes.
Detroit-Style Pepperoni Pizza
Your first move at Ace’s, a pizza spot in Williamsburg, should unquestionably involve some iteration of their Detroit-style pizza. Get it topped with pepperoni. For $15, you’ll get four slices with light, airy dough, a zesty tomato sauce, and a crispy, cheese-webbed crust that will fill you up and inspire profound joy. Soon enough, you’ll start telling anybody who will listen about Ace’s—where you can eat delicious pizza, sip on beer and wine, sit in a big booth with a red-checkered table, and get your ass whooped in Mario Kart.
There are only a handful of Uyghur restaurants in NYC, and Tengri Tagh in Midtown is one you need to visit, if only for their pearl noodle dish. It’s loaded with peppers, onions, tingly cumin lamb, and thinly chopped noodles that almost look like kernels of corn. Instead of twirling or forking these noodles, spoon them up with all the other elements that are tossed with a mild chili oil. This is a noodle dish that guarantees you get a little bit of everything in each bite.
Dark Chocolate Brownies
Kelewele, a vegan restaurant inside Dekalb Market’s food hall, works magic with plantains, and their dark chocolate brownies are the perfect example of this. Take one bite, and you’ll assume you’re enjoying a classic, freshly-baked brownie made with eggs and lots of melted butter. But, in reality, every moist crumb is made of plantains, sugar, and lots of cocoa powder. Each chocolate chip-covered hunk is firm on the top, but pillowy soft in the middle. So if you want to catch a glimpse of how truly special plantains (and vegan pastries) can be, stop by this counter and order a few of these brownies ASAP.
Dry-Aged Crown Of Duck
If you’re having a big night out at Francie, you need to order the duck. The whole roasted bird arrives at your table for its glamour shot before reappearing as a neatly sliced-up version of its former self. The skin is crispy, and the meat is some of the most tender duck we’ve had anywhere in the city. And, since it comes with a large side of creamy mashed parsnips, rich soppressata jam, and sauteed swiss chard, a single order can easily feed four people. Francie’s dry-aged duck felt like an introduction to an exciting new era of restaurants in 2021, and we’d gladly come to this Williamsburg spot just to eat this dish all over again.
Soba With Duck & Leek
The hot soba with sliced duck at Sarashina Horii is our definition of a noodle soup masterpiece. Our favorite dish at this high-end soba restaurant, the soba comes in a massive bowl of bonito broth filled with handmade noodles that are firm on the outside and tender on the inside. Each noodle is cut to the exact same size, which allows for a harmonious blend of carbs and broth in every bite—but the thick pieces of roasted duck floating on top are what take this noodle soup from perfectly good to undeniably great.
After an encounter with Xilonen’s masa pancakes, we were tempted to disown classic flapjacks altogether. These light and fluffy hot cakes taste like plump corn tortillas but with a slightly sweet taste from the corn. Served in little triangles with maple syrup and salted butter, these are yet another example of how fresh masa can make a great dish even better. Plus, unlike most breakfast carbs, these remarkable corn cakes are available on weekdays from 12-4pm and weekends starting at 10am. Try them the next time you want to eat something that’ll make you dissociate from reality on a Wednesday afternoon.