As Untapped Cities columnist, Luke Kingma, who boldly took us to the depths of Chinatown and to the wildest of NYC parties, moves on to the West Coast, he reminisces on his life in New York City in the best way he knows how–through its food.
It is no simple task to summarize 3.5 years spent in a city that has at once asked so much of me and given so much to me. I arrived in December 2010 with a paltry pile of personal items stacked in the corner of an old friend’s Upper East Side apartment. I’ll depart tonight with a similar haul, bound for Los Angeles and the inevitability of a car payment. (Do they still run on gas? Did we figure that out yet?)
As my mind criss-crosses the boroughs in search of a compelling narrative, I can’t help but distill my experience down to the food I’ve eaten during my stay here. From the $.20 pork & chive dumplings on Eldridge Street to the finest cuts of Pat LeFrieda beef in Tribeca, there has been meaning and memory in every morsel. So I began revisiting the restaurants where my own story was written, hoping to find remnants of myself if not one last warm meal.
It would begin precisely where you’d expect it to nearly two decades ago.
America’s Largest T.G.I. Fridays, Times Square
It all began at T.G.I Fridays, but not just any — America’s largest, a distinction so specific they had to steal the title from themselves. When I was young, the restaurant and others like it (turn up, Applebees and Olive Garden) were the headlines of my early experiences in Manhattan. I was young, just 11 or 12, when I first saw Times Square. “Overwhelmed” would be an understatement for me, as I imagine it is for many. It was here my skewed and stubborn impression of the city would take hold.
As far as I could tell, New York was simply an exaggerated and excessive version of what I already knew. The restaurants here were three times the size, and the prices even bigger (as my father would never let us forget). We’d spend our days busily wandering the bubble of Midtown West, never stopping to wonder what might lay beyond. When I was offered a job in Flatiron many years later, I rode in expecting my life to become as large as the billboards and neon signs of 42nd street. I would scoff at $16 chicken finger baskets and $4 Pepsis. “I can afford it now,” I’d tell myself.
Then reality hit. Hard.
Two Brothers Pizza, Chelsea
From day one I was pulling in a scant $28,000 a year as an executive assistant at a tiny ad firm on 31st street. What’s more, I had just started paying off student loan debt that was immeasurably bigger. The easiest sacrifice for a young professional without an alternative source of income was, unfortunately, food. The quinoa salads and prime rib sandwiches that peppered my office weren’t in the cards for me. Fortunately, Two Brotherswas there in my hungriest hour.
The bare bones signage and all-taxes-included messaging were beacons for entry level New Yorkers. For just $1 cash, you could have a slice of something that was filling and certainly almost pizza. The Two Brothersqueue, which would often stretch a half block or more, was a lesson in humility. We waited with our heads down and headphones in, careful not to make eye contact with passersby nursing $13 wraps from that French place whose name I still can’t pronounce. In the beginning, Two Brothers was enough, because it had to be. But it wasn’t sustainable. Each slice was taking precious time off my life — you could feel it with every bite.
There had to be a better way to do this.
Xi’An Famous Foods, Chinatown
It was Anthony Bourdain who first compelled me to visit Chinatown’s vast network of dim sum houses and pulled noodle shops. A small restaurant called Xi’An Famous Foods had recently grown beyond its humble roots in an underground mall in Flushing, and opened a location on Bayard Street in Manhattan. Bourdain paved the way for the rest of us, preaching on the wonders of a $3 Spicy Cumin Lamb Burger on No Reservations. By all accounts, it looked like the answer to my prayers.
It was that and so much more. One lamb burger in, and I became the biggest advocate of Chinatown the city had ever seen. I’d spend hours there on the weekend, carefully strategizing how to spend my meager food budget like a boy who just got his allowance. I would eventually consummate my love for the neighborhood by documenting my experiences in a weekly column forUntapped Cities. Nearly all of Chinatown’s restaurants were on the table — they were cheap, and each one felt like an authentic adventure in some far away place. Best of all, I felt welcome there (except Mosco Street Dumpling — that place is run by a horrible, horrible tyrant).
The city was beginning to feel like home.
Brasserie Les Halles, Flatiron
As I continued to explore the city, meet new people, and move forward in my career, I began to let my guard down. Suddenly there was occasion for finer dining in the city, though not always money for it (Les Halles felt like Per Se in 2012). But it didn’t matter — you could always justify it— a girl; a new apartment; a promotion; a reunion; a farewell. There is a whole side of New York’s dining scene that you simply can’t experience alone, and it’s a rite of passage to discover it.
My relationship with the city would grow alongside those I held with its people. Everyone was family, and there were endless dinner tables across the boroughs to gather around. New York was home. For some, this feeling never really goes away, and part of me envies them. There are a lifetime’s worth of experiences here for those who find they can stay. For me, I think, it was never meant to last. There was a wanderlust in me I couldn’t suppress, and a road ahead of me I couldn’t ignore.
It was time to go.
The Halal Guys, Midtown
To say I’m no good at farewells would be an understatement. If it were up to me, I’d slip out of here unnoticed like I do from the pub most Friday nights (sorry, friends). But leaving New York is a bigger deal. I felt there needed to be some majestic exit, a last supper worthy of an art museum. Time and time again I found myself on 53rd and 6th instead. The Halal Guys was the first “New York spot” I fell in love with when I moved here, and I’ve been loyal ever since. In many ways, the unassuming street cart personifies life in New York better than anything else I can think of.
You arrive excited by everything you’ve heard and read about it. Enthusiasm is quickly replaced with skepticism, because nobody told you what it was actually going to look like. You risk it though, because isn’t all of this one big risk? What you’re given is far from glamorous, and it’s more than you could ever handle on your own. But it’s wonderful. You promise yourself you’ll never go anywhere else — there can’t possibly be anything better. You could be right, but you come to realize you’ll never know for sure unless you keep searching.
So away I go. For now.
Get in touch with the author @lukekingma and follow his explorations from East to West Coast.