Saturday, February 12, 2011

Best Restaurants and Food Retailers in NYC's Union Square

Aerial Shot of NYC's Union Square

Union Square NYC has proved to be a difficult neighborhood for me over the years.  For starters, 6+ years ago when I migrated to NYC I couldn't hear "Union Square" without conjuring up visuals of San Francisco's Union Square and all it represented for my city and my childhood.  SF's Union Square is beautiful, iconic, historic, showcased as the center of the city, and well touristed.  And, over the last 5-6 years, the restored SF Union Square has inspired a face lift for the entire shopping and dining district in downtown.  Obviously, I love it.

NYC's Union Square carries its own great tales but all of them were initially lost on me when I saw it.  The square itself is more of a maze of dog runs, statures and fenced in grass areas than a park - but it does provide some much needed outdoor space in the area.  It also provides a venue, outside of it's maze of long, low fences for stalls and vendors which is also great for an area surrounded by primarily brand name stores.  Most famously, the Union Square Greenmarket which hosts 140 farmers, fishermen, and bakers each week calls this square home.  The best produce I've had in NYC has come from farmers at this market and it holds a very special place in my heart.  If you've never visited the market, which is best early in the morning and particularly good on Saturday and Wednesday mornings before all the top chefs in the area pick through the goods for their restaurant menus that night.

The Union Squre Greenmarket

Now I've grown to love NYC's Union Square for what IT represents and have spent many a warm evening sprawled out on it's steps watching the skateboarders and BMXers pull tricks on the plaza.
And, I utilize the area for a wider variety of things than I used SF's Union Square for.   It's conveniently located between Harlem and Williamsburg (where several of my friends live), and within spitting distance of most of my friends workplaces.  And, during the warmer months you can walk to the East Village, Lower East Side, West Village, SOHO, and Flatiron neighborhoods from here. 

But, the one thing I think the area lacks is winter meeting spots.  Finding a good bar close to the train that isn't overcrowded with students, sterile and uptight, a "scene" bar, or charging $15 for drinks is a tough task.  Also finding restaurants that fit this criteria has proven tough, but not impossible.  Which is why I'm excited to share a couple of my recent finds in the area that will help me on my quest to expand my resources in the area.  If you have a favorite spot in the hood, be it a bar, restaurant, or shop in the area I'd love to hear about it.  In the meantime:

Num Pang Sandwich shop (21 E. 12th Street) - I discovered this little gem through Blackboard Eats.  The entryway is easy to miss, right next to a parking garage and across the street from a large, sleek burger shop.  But, the search is well worth it.  You enter on the ground floor which offers a 4' counter, standing space for 5 and a spiral staircase.  Once you review the menu, or obtain a recommendation from the amazing staff you can take yourself up  the spiral staircase, one person at a time, to find a seat.  The upstairs loft space offers counter seating for about 10 people and 4 child sized stools next to the windowsill for smaller people.  I visited with my friend Bonnie who is quite comfortable in small seats, so we selected the mini seats by the window.
Upstiars Seating at Num Pang

The sandwich menu offers several top-notch choices, all priced between $7 and $9.  Since it's labeled as a Cambodian sandwich shop, Bonnie and I decided to try out two of the classic sandwiches including the pulled duroc pork with spiced hone sauce and grilled skirt steak with crushed coriander and peppercorn, alongside a plate of white pickles and a bottle of root beer.  Vegetarian options such as roasted cauliflower and yam sandwiches also looked alluring but didn't get out vote this time.  I'll surely be back to try them out.  The skirt steak sandwich offered fresh, beautifully seasoned and marinated cuts of rare steak.  The juices from the steak married together with the peppercorn sauce, carrots, cilantro and cucumbers.  It was the best steak I've had this year.  And, tied for first place in the taste test competition for the evening was the pork sandwich which featured succulent (yes, I actually used the word succulent in my review) pork mixed with a veggies, sauce and spices piled high of a crispy roll - also with chili mayo sauce, carrots, cucumbers and cilantro.  We couldn't decide which one we liked better but we instantly choose this as our new favorite spot in the area.  I even picked up a sandwich for Jerome on my way out since I couldn't imagine explaining how good it was without him tasting it.

East Village Cheese Shop (40 3rd Ave) - My friend Stephanie took me here for the first time, which is certainly saying something since Steph seems to uncover some of the best, most interesting spots in NYC.  The street facing windows of the small shop are covered with butcher paper signs shouting out the specials of the day (or week, or year....I'm not sure how long the signs had been up).  You enter the small shop at the front of two lines, one for the register and one for the cheese counter.  Once you guide your way through the lines and take your place in the back of the cheese counter line you realize just how NY this store is.  The mix and match items on the shelves leading up the the counters feature a selection of items you'd find in your local bodega as well as several items you'd pair with your cheeses, like honey and delicate jams. 

As you approach the cheese counter you are faced with the rules of ordering your cheese.  Several cheeses can only be selected in 1 pound or 1/2 pound qualities while others are available for sample and can be purchased in slivers.  The counter, separated from the customers by a glass wall is piled high with more cheeses than you can count, from Miso Cheddar to Soy Swiss.  The prices are all very reasonable, particularly for my regular purchases like ricotta and Parmesan.  But, the ordering process is rapid fire and direct.

So, I choose some Greek Feta, grated Parmesan, and low-fat Ricotta and moved along to the counter.  The price of the 3 cheeses shocked me, coming in under $10, and I realized that it had been way to long since something shocked me with it's cheapness. 

And a few of my staples include:
  • Ippodo - The house made ramen noodles are incurable, and the decor is intriguing but the appetizers steal the show everytime.  Sit down restaurant with a fancy feel.
  • Momofuku Ssam Bar -Another David Chang creation with a refined space and some of the city's best pork.
  • Repulic - A relaxed restaurant with an Asian flare that has wonderful appetizers and healthy, relatively cheap entrees.  It can get pretty loud, but is usually worth the noise.
  • Chat 'n' Chew - Comfort food, chilled out wait staff and cake....seriously, if you're in the mood for it, it's a perfect fit.
  • Dos Toro Taqueria- The only San Francisco Mexican food that qualifies as "good" in my book.  Authentic, tasty tacos and burritos wrapped in freshly made flour and corn tortillas.  Worth the wait. 
  • Irving Plaza - A divey venue that brings some of the best punk, rock and ska bands to NYC. 
  • Trader Joe's and Whole Foods - A perfect combination for a healthy dinner and some cheap wine.

What am I missing?

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