Some of my best experiences eating food never make it to the page: If a dining establishment doesn’t merit a first look, dish of the week, point on a map, or paragraph in a feature story, it often disappears. Those fleeting encounters with restaurants are often the most enjoyable. Accordingly, I resolved to keep an informal diary reflecting my unvarnished daily experiences. Here’s the first one.
When I manage to get a friend to drive me to one of the city’s far-flung corners to check out some specific restaurant, I often visit an extra place or two while I’m out there. After a recent visit to Lenny’s Clam Bar in Howard Beach, I couldn’t help but stop by New Park Pizza, too, which is on the same thoroughfare that leads to Rockaway Beach called Cross Bay Boulevard.
As we drove up, I was happy to find the most diverse crowd I’d seen at a restaurant in ages lined up for pizza (actually, there are two lines, go inside for faster service), and that there was a bonhomie among the customers.
The pizza maker pulls a pie from the oven every two minutes or so, and they’re instantly distributed. The crust is super thin and damp, and doing the New York fold is impossible, so you pretty much have to hang the tip over the plate and inhale it inch by inch. The customers like their pies soupy, and I heard one guy ask for extra sauce on his pie. The price for a slice: $3.25. 156-71 Cross Bay Boulevard, near 157th Avenue, Howard Beach
The rush on the part of the restaurant industry to turn every type of inexpensive restaurant into a sterile, cookie-cutter fast-casual counter is depressing. I keep my eyes peeled for old-style eateries that relish human contact and regular customers, and don’t insist on contactless anything.
Since the turn of the century, many of Greenpoint’s cheap Polish places like Happy End and Old Poland on Nassau Avenue have disappeared, sometimes directly attributable to gentrification or the pandemic, but ultimately because their hipster coefficient was near zero.
In my quest to find a replacement, I stumbled on Restaurant Relax, a nicely decorated space with murals of castles on a side street off Nassau Avenue east of McGuinness. It was established in 1997, making it one of the newer Polish places of its type, which historically displayed signs that said simply, “Obiady” (lunches). After going in the medieval-looking entrance, a friend and I made our way to the counter at the rear where a single employee, an elderly woman, takes orders, assembles them from an unseen steam table in the back, and delivers them to the table. She was so vigorous, it made us tired watching her.
We had a wonderful tripe soup, featuring cow stomach and herbs, mellow as hell; a plate-flopping pork schnitzel accompanied by two scoops of potatoes laved in brown gravy; a massive serving of bigos, a hunter’s stew like a sauerkraut hash; a choice of two salads, of which we picked cucumbers in dilled sour cream, and cooked cabbage that was better than it sounded. Washed down with a pair of large-size Polish beers, the tab came to $60, including tax and a generous tip. 68A Newell Street, near Nassau Avenue, Greenpoint
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone past Superiority Burger in the old Odessa space on Tompkins Square, hoping against hope to find it open. Well, I’ve given up. The last time, a few days ago, it was still papered over and I decided to drop into a nearby spot I’d never tried before just to get hunger out of the way. That place was Tabetomo, and I couldn’t really tell by peering in the window exactly what kind of Japanese restaurant it was.
It turned out to be an exceedingly low-key one, with a quiet and pleasant staff that brings food to the table with no fuss or chitchat. I instantly felt relaxed. Not paying the amount of attention I should have, I scanned one side of the menu and quickly ordered house pickles, shrimp tempura, and a fried chicken donburi, not realizing the place was famous for its ramen. Oh, well.
The food came in a gradual succession so I could enjoy each dish, and I washed them down with the first sake on the menu (miyozakura junmai, $10), ritually served by placing a glass in a wooden box and pouring the beverage into the glass till it overflowed into the box: an exercise in some logic I didn’t understand but thoroughly enjoyed. The guy next to me struck up a conversation, and I wish I’d asked his name. He, too, had looked in the window and ventured in because the place was so chill. 131 Ave A, near 9th Street, East Village