Empire Eats: The Most-Iconic Dishes in New York

Dine like a local in the Big Apple and beyond with these New York state classics from the vast state's farms, orchards, waters and boardwalks.

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Photo By: Russ & Daughters

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Nosh in New York

When it comes to food, New York brings a lot to the table. Manhattan alone seems to account for many American culinary traditions, including pizza, hot dogs and bagels with lox. But beyond the city, iconic dishes abound. From whether you're craving bar-style buffalo wings or fancy lobster Newberg, here are the iconic foods of the state of New York.

 

Illustration by Hello Neighbor Designs

Pastrami on Rye

Pastrami is made by curing meat with salt and spice, then smoking and steaming it until tender. It was brought to NYC by Romanian Jews in the late 1800s, during a period of mass Eastern European immigration. Many of those newcomers opened kosher delis and somewhere along the way, the combination of hot, sliced beef pastrami and spicy brown mustard on lightly seeded rye bread was born. Although hundreds of Jewish delicatessens opened in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, one of the oldest remaining is Katz’s Deli on the Lower East Side. Opened in 1888, the cash-only cafeteria-style icon is a local and tourist favorite for its towering hand-cut hot pastrami sandwiches, sliced by gruff cutters, many of whom live in the neighborhood. It’s as classic a New York City experience as one can find.

Go to: Katz's Deli

Coal Oven Pizza

Since 1905, when Gennaro Lombardi started slinging America’s first coal-fired pies out of his eponymous Little Italy pizzeria, New York City has been known as a coal pizza town. Three of Lombardi’s acolytes opened their own iconic coal-oven shops — John’s, Patsy’ and Totonno’s — all still firing pies today. Opened by Antonio “Totonno” Pero in 1924, Totonno’s is hailed as one of the best pizzerias in the entire country, landing itself on lists like Top 5 Restaurants’ best pizzas, and earning a prestigious America’s Classic award from the James Beard Foundation. Pero’s grandchildren run the Coney Island landmark these days, using Pero’s same secret dough recipe that’s made daily, never refrigerated and topped with handmade mozzarella and imported ingredients. Go early: The shop closes once the day’s batch has sold out.

Go to: Totonno’s Pizzeria Napolitana

Chicken Riggies

Pasta has long been a staple in New York. One of America’s most-influential restaurants, Mamma Leone’s, was the first Italian restaurant to gain a serious following when it opened around the turn of the century. The ties between the Empire State and red sauce run deep. Up in Utica, the usual spaghetti and meatballs gives way to a unique regional specialty, chicken riggies. Rigatoni (i.e. riggies) are mixed with chicken and hot or sweet peppers in a spicy cream and tomato sauce. The dish is so popular and so beloved that it has its own festival, Riggie Fest. Many locals have a favorite, but when Guy came to town on Triple D, he dove into the Wicky-Wicky Chicken Riggies at Pastabilities, under scallions and freshly grated cheese.

Go to: Pastabilities

Cronut

Often imitated, never duplicated, Dominique Ansel’s Cronut kicked off a national fixation on hybrid food items. So many replicas have been created that Ansel’s team had to copyright the pastry. Ansel thought up the groundbreaking dessert when someone pointed out there was no doughnut on his eponymous bakery’s menu. As a Frenchman, he’s said, he knew nothing about doughnuts. So, he decided to mix the American favorite with a classic French staple. Two months and close to a dozen recipes later, Ansel nailed it. His creation is made from sheeted, laminated and proofed pastry dough that’s fried like a doughnut, rolled in sugar, filled with cream and topped with glaze. The monthly changing, never-repeated flavor selections started with Tahitian vanilla cream, rose glaze and rose sugar. Other flavors have included coconut, fig mascarpone and peanut butter-rum caramel.

Go to: Dominique Ansel Kitchen

Bagels and Lox

Bagels and lox make for the ultimate melting-pot dish. Both had long culinary histories before they were sandwiched together in the new world. Bagels arrived on the Lower Side East with immigrating Polish Jews. Lox are a bit trickier, an amalgamation of both Scandinavian salmon saltwater tradition and Native American smoking and drying techniques. The sandwich also throws in some American cream cheese and, sometimes, onions and Italian capers, too. The combination can be found at every bagel shop in the city, but Russ & Daughters is a piece of living history. Opened in 1914, the iconic “appetizing store” specializes in the Jewish tradition of serving the foods that pair with bagels. Unlike delis that serve meats, the shop focuses on dairy (cream cheese) and expertly cured fish like caviar, sturgeon and salmon. 

Go to: Russ & Daughters

Garbage Plate

Garbage is for eating in Rochester, where residents go wild for the strangely named garbage plate. The story goes that a long time ago, a college student asked restaurateur Nick Tahou for a meal with “all the garbage on it.” Tahou complied, creating a combination plate with two burger patties and a choice of two sides — picks include home fries, macaroni salad and beans — slathered with ketchup and hot sauce. It’s all mixed together before eating, with rolls or white bread on the side. Now, the name Garbage Plate is trademarked, but similarly named versions are served all over the city with a variety of proteins, like hot dogs and eggs. Nick Tahou Hots is still the place to go for a taste of weird Rochester history, and an ideal late-night meal.

Cheesecake

Cheesecake was part of the world’s culinary canon long before the towering metropolis of New York City staked its claim — cakes of soft cheese go all the way back to ancient Greece. However, an American created the breakthrough that would become New York Cheesecake. In an attempt to replicate French Neufchatel cheese, a man named William Lawrence of Chester, New York, stumbled upon an even richer and creamier un-ripened result. That cream cheese became the base for New York’s simple cheesecake (along with cream, eggs and sugar), which grew in popularity through the early 20th century. The most-venerable rendition came out of the Junior’s kitchen in downtown Brooklyn in 1950, resulting in a dense, smooth and almost pungent dessert that still attracts fans from throughout the region and around the world.

Go to: Junior's Cheesecake & Desserts

Black and White Cookie

The black and white cookie is the unofficial cookie of NYC. It’s so deeply ingrained in the Big Apple’s identity, it was featured on Seinfeld twice. The ebony and ivory rounds can be found in nearly every bakery, bagel shop and bodega throughout the five boroughs. They come from glass pastry cases and in shrink-wrapped parcels over lacquer-like icing, half chocolate and half vanilla. The title is a bit of a misnomer, as it’s not really a cookie at all, but a drop cake. The base is softer and spongier than traditional cookies. Amy’s Bread in New York City’s Chelsea Market offers a fine interpretation with a fresh, fluffy, cake-like base slathered with airy chocolate and vanilla frosting.

Manhattan Clam Chowder

Tomato-based chowders became popular in America in the mid-1800s, as newly arrived tomato-loving immigrants from Italy (in New York) and Portugal (in New England) sarted cooking. What is now referred to as Manhattan Clam Chowder was once called Fulton Market Clam Chowder and Coney Island Clam Chowder. Packed with clams, the best version comes from Brooklyn’s Sheepshead Bay. For a century, Randazzo’s has specialized in Brooklyn-Italian dishes, serving an infamous red sauce and a just-as-popular red chowder. The clam-studded soup is rich and full of zesty flavor.

Buffalo Wings

The favorite finger food of sports fans, Buffalo wings get their name from the city of their inception. There’s seemingly no such thing as a bad wing in Buffalo, but the establishment that rises above all others is the place where the wing was born. It started almost by accident as an experiment, on March 4, 1964. Anchor Bar co-founder Teressa Bellissimo’s son Dominic asked his mother to whip up a snack for his intoxicated friends late one night while he was tending bar. Teressa deep-fried the wings that were normally used as the base for stock, then flavored them with a secret sauce. While similar recipes have become mainstays on menus across the US, Teressa’s tightly guarded master recipe is only available at Anchor Bar.

Go to: Anchor Bar, Buffalo

Lobster Salad Roll

The lobster roll is most closely associated with the state of Maine. And though the Pine Tree State may have the best crustaceans in the world, its relationship to the sandwich is not as straightforward as most believe. According to some, the hot buttered lobster roll was actually invented in Connecticut and the lobster salad roll — the version with cold shellfish tossed in mayo with celery — originated on the east end of Long Island at a place called The Lobster Roll. That old-time Amagansett spot still exists and the lobster salad rolls are still very good. When the wait is too long, though many locals head to Clam Bar, just down the street. There, locally-caught lobster is delivered in bite-size morsels with just the right amount of mayonnaise and crisp celery on a soft, lightly toasted potato bun.

Go to: The Lobster Roll Restaurant

Eggs Benedict

Eggs Benedict is another dish with uncertain origins. One account claims it was developed by a Waldorf Astoria patron, named Lemuel Benedict, who was seeking a hangover cure. Another says the recipe came from Commodore E.C. Benedict. Even Delmonico’s has staked a claim in the genesis of the infamous brunch dish. No matter which story is true, everyone can agree that Eggs Benedict was invented in NYC. It’s on nearly every brunch menu in existence, but Norma’s at Le Parker Meridien serves a banner version. The lavish diner-inspired restaurant dedicates an entire section of its menu to “Benny.” The signature take features poached eggs, Canadian bacon and grilled asparagus over buttermilk pancakes with a hearty dose of rich hollandaise. Other variations include artichokes with truffle-porcini sauce; smoked salmon; and Caul Me Benny, with a crispy cauliflower-potato waffle on the bottom.

Go to: Norma's at Le Parker Meridien

Lobster Newberg

A Financial District institution, Delmonico’s is one of the most influential restaurants in the United States. George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt sat in its mahogany-covered dining room. As the first fine dining establishment in the country, the storied establishment has a stake in numerous beloved American dishes, including Lobster Newberg. Delmonico’s regular Ben Wenberg showed owner Charles Delmonico a new lobster preparation. The restaurateur was so taken with the dish, he asked his chef to make adaptations and put it on the menu. When Wenberg and Delmonico had a falling out, the dish came off the list. But the cognac- and sherry-laced dish was so popular that guests demanded its return. The title was changed to Newberg, an anagram of Wenberg’s name.

Go to: Delmonico's

Hot Dogs

When German immigrants began selling sausages on street corners in the mid 19th century, New York City and hot dogs became — pardon the pun — inextricably linked. To this day, hot dog carts dot corners throughout Manhattan. The city has recently gone through a gourmet frank renaissance, with a slew of fast-casual joints and even high-end restaurants shelling weenies with creative toppings. Even so, the old-school storefront of Gray’s Papaya reigns supreme. The canary-yellow shop serves crisp, griddled Sabrett dogs on classic white bread buns, nestled in a traditional white paper wrapper. Get one loaded with sauerkraut and onions for just $2.50.

Go to: Gray's Papaya

General Tso’s Chicken

Named after Tso Tsung-t’ang, a fearsome 19th-century general from China’s Hunan province, General Tso’s chicken is considered the most famous Hunanese dish on planet. It’s actual origin, however, is rather complex. The fried, slightly spicy dish is most popularly believed to be created by a talented Hunanese native, Chef Peng Chang-kuei, at some point in the 1950’s, somewhere outside of China. Chang-kuei’s creation evolved into its current incarnation when he opened his first restaurant in Midtown in New York City in the early 1970’s, adding a bit of sugar to cater to sugar-loving Americans’ palates. Henry Kissinger became an adoring fan, and so did the rest of New York. Chang-kuei left the U.S., but his legacy remains on Chinese menus around the country. Try it at Wo Hop, a Chinatown stalwart since 1938.

Egg Cream

The New York Egg Cream contains neither eggs nor cream. Instead, it’s a strange-sounding, highly delicious combination of milk, seltzer and chocolate syrup (preferably Fox’s U-Bet), stirred together in a Coke-style glass just before serving, so it develops a nice, frothy head. Most historians say the egg cream was created in the early 1900s by Louis Auster, a Jewish candy shop owner, who sold 3,000 of them a day in his Brooklyn storefront, Ratner’s Dairy Restaurant. These days, the egg cream can be found at delis and diners throughout the boroughs. Shopsin’s, a tiny diner inside the Lower East Side’s Essex Street Market, serves one of the top renditions in town: rich and invigorating with a thick head and plenty of cascading, miniature bubbles.

Go to: Shopsin's

Ramen

David Chang did not invent ramen: He merely sparked a national obsession. In 2004, he opened the doors to Momofuku Noodle Bar, spreading the ramen-ya gospel to NYC. His stark storefront follows the traditional Japanese format, with counter dining, late-night hours, booming music, no reservations and lots of pork. Thanks to his quality product and runaway popularity, similar shops can now be found across the United States. His signature bowl has been tweaked and modified since its inception, at one point using Benton’s bacon dashi. These days, springy noodles are topped with pork belly, pork shoulder, a poached egg, scallion, nori, bean sprouts and a fish cake.

Go to: Momofuku Noodle Bar

Oysters

In the early 1800’s, Blue Point oysters were the must-have food for wealthy New Yorkers. Healthy populations of briny mollusks, found off the coast of Blue Point on Long Island’s Great South Bay, were so popular that populations dwindled to near extinction. Now, the term represents bivalves throughout New York and Connecticut, including their sustainable oyster farms. Try oysters from all around Long Island at Little Creek Oyster Farm & Market. Set on the North Fork in Greenport, the market offers one of the largest selections of local oysters in the region, with rotating picks like Summer Blues, Peconic Gold, Shinnecock and Montauk Pearls. Guests can order oysters on the half shell or learn to shuck themselves — the staff will provide a glove and a quick tutorial.

Beef on Weck

The wing may be Buffalo’s most-famous dish and export, but it’s not the only food specialty that hails from the City of Good Neighbors. Beef on weck is not as widely known, but it’s just as good. It starts with the kummelweck (or kimmelweck) roll — essentially a seasoned Kaiser roll crusted with caraway seeds and copious amounts of pretzel salt. The bun serves to enhance the juicy, flavorful beef and freshly grated horseradish cradled inside. There are plenty of places throughout the city serving the sandwich. Charlie the Butcher is a top choice among in-the-know locals and visiting celebrity chefs, like Geoffrey Zakarian, who, on Best Thing I Ever Ate at a Deli, deemed it “incredibly delectable,” promising,” “you’ve never had a roast beef sandwich like this.” The beef is cooked for 18-hours, then sliced and dipped in au jus with all the traditional accoutrements. 

Go to: Charlie the Butcher's Kitchen

Riesling

Grapes have been grown in New York state for centuries. For a long time, that fruit was better suited to jelly and grape juice, but wine-making pioneers grafted vinifera grapes onto American rootstock, and a wine industry was born. Hermann J. Wiemer is one of those early trailblazers who helped turn the Finger Lakes into a world-class region for Riesling, starting in the 1960s. Set on a hill overlooking Seneca Lake — the deepest of the district’s many glacial bodies of water — his eponymous winery sells a variety of Rieslings, each with unique flavor profiles derived from their contrasting soil and microclimates. The best-selling bottle is the signature Dry Riesling, a vibrant and aromatic bottle with crisp minerals.

Knishes

Basically a puck-shaped round of starchy fillings tucked into dough, the knish is one of the many inexpensive, immigrant food items that fueled generations of new New Yorkers, whether Russian, Polish or Ukrainian Jews. At the height of its popularity, the knish was just as important as the hot dog still is to this day — a dining photo op for city politicians wishing to demonstrate their commitment to the city. Visitors can still get a taste of the Lower East Side’s original knisheries at Yonah Schimmel. Since 1910, the shop has sold blistered and browned knishes filled with hearty ingredients like cabbage, sweet potato, caramelized onion and potato, and blueberry and cheese.

White Hots

German immigrants may have introduced hot dogs to the US, but Americans have turned the tubular meat into an edible icon. There are cleverly adapted regional spins all throughout the country; in Central and Western New York, the Rochester white hot rules. The frank is a combination of unsmoked, uncured pork, beef and veal, in a natural casing. The best-known producer is Zweigle’s, and the top place to try one is Schaller’s Drive-In in Rochester. Open since 1956, the retro lakeside stop seems to have changed little in the decades since. Their classic white hot preparation is topped with the usuals, including meat-based “hot sauce,” mustard and onions.

Frozen Custard

Frozen custard is a creamier version of ice cream, owing to a higher percentage of butterfat and egg yolk. Though its origin story is conflicted, custard is exceptionally popular in New York. Since Arthur Abbott opened his shop on the shores of Lake Ontario, in 1926, Abbott’s Frozen Custard has been a summer pastime for Rochester residents. Abbott’s recipe is thicker and flavorful after a slow churn in a custom-made machine. Flavors include classic vanilla and chocolate, as well as black raspberry and coffee. With a large franchise operation, the stores are available to fans throughout the Northeast and, even, the South.

Grape Pie

Some claim the Finger Lakes region is the grape capital of the world. Though the moniker is probably hyperbolic, the area does grow tons of grapes. The town of Naples, a short drive from the southern tip of Canandaigua Lake, has its own special twist on the fruit, with grape pie. Those pies have been an area tradition since the 1960s, when Monica Schenk started baking her family’s Concord grape crop into pies and selling them from a farm stand on the side of the road. Now proprietor of a shop called Monica’s Pies, she sells about 10,000 grape pies throughout the year. Schenk sets her pies apart by baking the crust separate from the sweet grape filling, so the filling remains as juicy as possible. Each one is topped with either a crumb crust or Schenk’s signature floating crust — a browned circle of pastry that floats atop the purple, jelly-like interior. 

Spiedie's

When immigrants from the boot moved to New York, they brought along their technique for skewered meats. Originally, lamb was the chosen protein, marinated and roasted on a spit until crisp, then nestled in airy Italian bread. Somewhere along the way those sandwiches came to be known as spiedies — in Italian, the term “spiedo” means a spit. Along the way, the main filling became chicken, and the Italian-American creation entered the Triple Cities classic culinary canon. Restaurants prepare the sandwiches all throughout the region, but Lupo’s S&S Char Pit in Binghamton is the favorite. Every piece of meat sits for 24 hours in a marinade made of oil, vinegar and a blend of secret Italian spices, before it hits the grill. It’s then tucked inside a six-inch Italian-style roll from the original spiedie bread bakery, Felix Roma Bread.

Tomato Pie

New York City has thin crust pizzas; Utica has thick and chewy tomato pie. Created by Italian-Americans right around the cusp of the 19th and 20th centuries, tomato pie is a far cry from the pizza popularized in the Big Apple — it’s more closely related to Sicilian pizza than anything else. Hefty focaccia-like dough is first covered with cheese (in many cases) and other toppings, then slathered with thick and tangy tomato sauce, and served at room temperature. Try a whole pie, half pie or a slice at Roma Sausage & Deli in Utica. Here, guests will not find a layer of mozzarella between the base and the sauce. Each one is covered with thick tomato gravy and a hearty sprinkling of Romano cheese. The bakery-deli hybrid is more of a market than a restaurant, so take these pies to-go.

Boston Shake

Not just a shake and little to do with Beantown, the Boston Shake is one of those hybrid dishes that long predates the hip hybrid-food trend. It’s a specialty at the Troy summertime favorite, the Snowman. Since the early 1950s, the seasonal ice cream stand has made incredible hard-packed homemade ice cream in a variety of flavors, from classic vanilla and mint chip, to Blue Moon and salty caramel. The Boston Shake combines a traditional milkshake and a hot fudge sundae. Each one starts with any flavor shake, layered with a scoop of ice cream, rich hot fudge, airy whipped cream and a cherry on top.