Arizona has an up-and-coming food scene, and there's a lot to be proud of, for sure. But when Chow Bella published a list of things that make Phoenix a better food town than New York City, I just had to laugh. The difference in size alone makes the two incomparable. Since moving back to New York six months ago, I've come to miss the food at Phoenix haunts like Short Leash Hot Dogs, La Tolteca, St. Francis, and -- quite obviously -- dessert at top restaurants like Cowboy Ciao. But, by comparison, I still miss a lot more from the food scene in Portland, Oregon, where I lived for four years. So for me, Phoenix is small potatoes, but to give the Valley something to shoot for, here are 10 food favorites New Yorkers take for granted that Phoenix will likely never see.
Cheap Food After Midnight (that's not greasy Mexican fare) When I first lived in NYC in 2004, this was one of the attributes that hooked me on the city. If you want off-hours food in Phoenix, you'd better be in the mood for a burrito, quesadilla, or a few tacos. The salsa bars at these late-night hubs for greasy Mexican food can be surprisingly good, but overall, the options in the Valley are really lacking after regular dinner hours. Not so in New York. Near Washington Square Park, the original Mamoun's -- first opened in 1971 -- sells $3 falafel and $6 shawarma until 5 a.m., a college kid's dream come true. Even where I live now, in a residential part of Bushwick, there's a cheap restaurant on the corner, OMG Pizza, selling staples like falafel, salads, and burgers until 3 a.m.
Bodegas, Bodegas, Bodegas I miss being able to drive my car to a giant grocery store, à la Fry's or Safeway, but it's a fair trade to be able to run to my choice of countless bodegas or dollar stores when I'm in a pinch. Need ice cream after the grocery store is closed? A six-pack with no detour on the way home, no matter where you're coming from? A single stamp so you can stick that letter in the mail right away? Best of all, a lot of bodegas have healthy options for snacks and sandwiches, including organic juices and protein bars. Most also will make a sandwich on the spot, slicing meats and cheeses from a fully stocked deli case.
Fresh Mango on the Street This is the city of ultimate convenience. There's plenty of food for passersby in New York to snag on the street: bagels and coffee in the morning, hot dogs and roasted nuts in the afternoon, and skewers of grilled meats for a snack anytime. There also are food vendors in the subway with candy bars and homemade churros. But the most unique of these offerings is perfectly ripe mango cut up at a little table right on the street to grab on the go. This is infinitely better than the fruit salad in the grocery store. The fresh-cut pieces are usually packaged in convenient plastic containers, and there's chili sauce on hand in case you're craving a savory kick.
More than One South African Restaurant This can be said about cuisine from every corner of the Earth. New York City has at least five restaurants that specialize specifically in South African cuisine, featuring dishes like kappse vis parcel (deep-fried hake fish and calamari) and ribbetjies (char-grilled pork ribs with spinach, truffle-coconut polenta, and rooibos-chocolate glaze). Other hard-to-find global flavors available in NY include Serbian, Danish, and Barbadian. You name it, you can probably find it -- something that definitely can't be said about Phoenix.
Fresh Markets Everywhere, Every Day Ever go walking or driving through Phoenix on a weekday afternoon and suddenly find yourself smack dab in the middle of an outdoor market with fresh fruit, locally raised beef and goat meats, and made-from-scratch baked goods? Didn't think so. For New Yorkers, that's a regular occurrence, especially around Greenmarket spots like Union Square. And when the weather's bad, there are indoor havens like The Chelsea Market, home to several bakeries, wine stores, groceries with rare finds, specialty retailers like The Lobster Place, and go-to spots like Spices and Tease.
Chinatown This famous neighborhood earns a well-deserved spot on any NYC food list, and -- in case you've never been for yourself -- rest assured that everything you've heard/read/seen about it is absolutely true. There's no better place in the United States to score dim sum, and you don't have to watch prices to score brunch or lunch with friends for $5 a person. Order three or four things to share, like American standard beef and broccoli along with an unusual taste like crab or pork soup dumplings. There are also delightful bakeries with Asian-style pastries in both savory and sweet varieties, groceries with hard-to-find Asian ingredients, and stores with cheap woks and other cooking supplies.
Smorgasburg In addition to the regular farmers markets, street vendors all over the city, and indoor food wonderlands like Chelsea Market, Brooklyn hosts an unmatched meeting of food lovers every weekend from April to November. This Brooklyn Flea Food Market, held in Williamsburg on Saturday and DUMBO on Sunday, regularly has 75 to 100 vendors, many of whom sell artisanal ingredients and dishes that can't be found anywhere else. Favorites include BeeHive Oven's fried chicken biscuit sandwiches with yellow squash pickles and honey mustard sauce, Liddabit Sweets' finely executed confections like banana bread caramels, Lumpia Shack's Filipino-inspired spring rolls in flavors like chicken adobo and Peking duck, and -- now that the original storefront is closed -- award-winning Kyotofu's inventive Japanese desserts.
So Many Celeb Chefs That You Can't Throw a Spatula Without Smacking One in the Face New York City has such an impressive restaurant scene that it has its own Best Chef category for the James Beard Awards, and there are too many big names and rising stars running restaurants to count. This might sound annoying at first, but what it really means is recognition for chefs that the entire Southwest region just can't offer. Even those who don't read cookbooks for fun, invent their own recipes at home, and follow restaurant menu changes more closely than politics support local eats and know a thing or two about food fads (like Dominique Ansel's newest creation, the cronut).
Crazy Good Delivery New York might be best known for pizza, but when city dwellers order in for lunch or dinner, that's rarely what they choose. Why would they with numerous global fusion menus, gourmet sandwicheries, and authentic ethnic restaurants (including, of course, Chinese) from which to choose? Thanks to the Internet, delivery has become even easier and more convenient, thanks to websites like Seamless and GrubHub. In my 'hood, there are more than 100 restaurants -- and it regularly takes me an hour to figure out what I want -- such as my favorites Arepera Guacuco (Venezuelan), Chimu Express (Peruvian), and Bon Spice Café (with dishes like Japanese fried chicken and waffles and bulgogi omelets).
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Bars with Free Pizza You don't need to have visited New York to know it's the country's pizza capital (sorry, Chicago, but thin crust is the overall American favorite). And yes, it's true that you can get a large slice (think Sbarro sizes) for $1 at countless cheap joints around town. But what outsiders probably don't know is that there are bars with free pizza, namely Crocodile Lounge and Alligator Lounge. Buy a drink, get a ticket for a personal-size pizza. An extra buck or two will buy you toppings. And you might think free pizza must be totally disgusting, but it's edible enough even when sober. The crust is even pretty good, a little crunchy, a little chewy. Oh, and did we mention bars stay open until 4 a.m. in NYC?