Yankees Magazine: Food Tour

There’s a line that we like to use here in New York City, maybe you’ve heard it a time or two (possibly even while exiting Yankee Stadium after a Yankees win). It’s a bit brash, a bit grandiose, perhaps evocative of a citizenry a bit too sure of its place on the human hierarchy.

“If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.”

And if there’s one thing we New Yorkers are particularly proud of, it’s our food scene. Our chefs know what they’re doing in the kitchen, whether you’re looking for a luxe dinner at a Michelin-starred establishment, or a meal on the go from an outer-borough counter serving food from a corner of the planet you’ve never particularly considered. That, though, brings up a fair point to consider: What really is New York food? And — at least when it comes to our cuisine, do we have that lyric backward?

That pizza slice on the corner, the prototypical New York bite? Yeah, that’s from Italy. The Nathan’s hot dog, perfect in its simplicity and maybe the most accessible snack you’ll find? You’ve got to go to Frankfurt, Germany, for that origin story. Even the humble bagel, so synonymous with weekend mornings in the five boroughs, was brought here by Polish immigrants. If you really want to find a New York original, you might need to stop by Katz’s for a pastrami sandwich, although your cardiologist would kindly ask that you limit such indulgences.

Or, put another way: If they can make it anywhere, they’ll make it here.

“Incorporating so many different cultures into mainstream food is what New York’s known for now,” says Matt Gibson, the senior executive chef of culinary at Yankee Stadium. Gibson has worked the kitchens at the ballpark since 2010, and he strives to put together a food program that is unique and inventive, complementing the core requirements of hot dogs and chicken fingers with playful options evocative of the city at large. “There’s so much available in stadiums nowadays,” Gibson says. “It’s a lot of fun to embrace as a chef, because we’re constantly meeting new partners, new concepts, new styles of cooking that are fun to bring to the masses, things that people aren’t necessarily used to experiencing at sporting events.”

To help shine a light on both the New York food scene and the vibes that Yankee Stadium tries to emulate, Gibson led us on a trip around Manhattan this past winter, crafting a cohesive food story through four spots. Different in almost every way, each does its part to create the Big Apple’s overall dining narrative. And conveniently, all four just happen to be represented in the stands around Yankee Stadium. Bon appetit!

The Halal Guys — 53rd Street and Sixth Avenue

It can be hard to explain to visitors how affectionately we New Yorkers use the term “street meat.” But the food cart scene is a crucial part of New York dining, whether supporting business-suited masses during a lunch rush or being right there with a much-needed post-bar bite at 2 a.m. Whenever you indulge, it’s hard to find a cheaper, more satisfying way to fill your belly than giant platters combining rice and chicken and gyro meat, covered in hot and white sauces. Or you can wrap it all up in a pita for a perfect on-the-go sandwich.

The Halal Guys became famous for the endless lines at the corner of 53rd & Sixth, but now devotees can enjoy their foods at locations around the country, including Yankee Stadium’s bleachers, as well as a stand outside Section 321.

“You need that patina of New York City, the hustle and bustle. You want cab drivers yelling at the guy in front of you as you wait for your gyro. And it’s important for people to try these foods. A lot of places have great concepts, but don’t necessarily have the means to start a brick-and-mortar establishment until it catches on. There are great restaurants around the city right now that started as popular carts. The good thing about New York is that all these places are inspected by the NYC Department of Health, which I think is important.

“I think that these are the types of establishments that really have to focus on high-quality food at a reasonable rate because they’re interacting with the guests one-on-one. There’s no manager, there’s no office for them to hide in.

“A place like this, it just keeps going. It keeps the workingman and workingwoman fed; it keeps the tourists fed. The bars here close at 4 a.m., and sometimes you’ve got to find something to keep it going, man. It’s the living, breathing embodiment of the city that never sleeps, right?”

Mighty Quinn’s BarbeQue — 1492 Second Ave. (at 78th Street)

It took a long time for New York to get real barbecue joints, but the last two decades have seen huge steps toward recreating authentic spots that represent their regions pridefully (and deliciously). Nowadays, you can find legit brisket — pink smoke ring and all — throughout the five boroughs, and few places do it better than Mighty Quinn’s, which now has locations in New York and New Jersey, to say nothing of the delicious smoked meats they’re slinging all the way in Tampa, Florida, and even Dubai.

Pitmaster Hugh Mangum opened his first location in 2012, having risen to acclaim by smoking meats at Brooklyn’s popular Smorgasburg outdoor food market. In fact, it’s a success story of the type Gibson spoke about at The Halal Guys, a restaurant concept that established itself as a cart while building acclaim and appetites that could support one — and now more than a dozen — locations. Make sure to check out the hype — and the smoke — by visiting Mighty Quinn’s Yankee Stadium location behind Section 132.

“Barbecue is very regional, specific to its location. This place knows what it’s doing and knows what’s working in New York. Hugh is incredible. This brisket is comparable to any Texas brisket. And the pulled pork, I mean, it’s a great representation of Carolina pulled pork.

“It wasn’t all that long ago that New Yorkers didn’t know anything about barbecue, so the spots that popped up and did it right were coming in with a clean slate. It was really important to make sure that they were sourcing and procuring the best possible meats. They’re using prime, delicious meat here, and I know that for a fact. And they’re also adapting to the culture and the vibe of New York, making sure they’re offering what New Yorkers want. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a rice bowl in any hole-in-the-wall joint in Texas or Carolina, but they’re making this work for New Yorkers in a way that makes sense for the office worker that needs to run downstairs and grab a quick lunch or to take care of the people watching what they’re eating, who aren’t going to gorge themselves on plates full of smoked meats and sides.

“Smoking meat is no joke. It’s pretty tough. And it’s an expensive thing to screw up. But ultimately, offering a superior product that people are going to enjoy is really marketable. This place is accessible. We ordered at a counter, didn’t break the bank. It has a nice and clean aesthetic, and it’s welcoming. But it still has that grassroots feel to it. There’s no right or wrong way in New York. You just have to hustle to make it work, and you have to be flexible. Listen to the people, and give them what they want.”

Red Rooster Harlem — 310 Lenox Ave. (at 126th Street)

Chef Marcus Samuelsson’s resume was already plenty interesting before he opened Red Rooster in Harlem in 2010. Born in Ethiopia but raised in Sweden after he and his sister had to flee their native country due to civil war, the chef rose to prominence at Aquavit, a Scandinavian restaurant in New York, where his cooking drew raves from the country’s most noted critics. While there, he became a well-known TV personality and began the process of opening all sorts of restaurants, each different from the one before it.

At Red Rooster, Samuelsson brought his upscale yet casual vibe to a part of the city often ignored by the tourist class. But the restaurant, even more than a decade later, remains vibrant and important, perfectly reminiscent of the fusion so prevalent in today’s New York dining culture. Leaning on Southern sensibilities (and with legendary soul food spot Sylvia’s located just a block away), Red Rooster offers astonishingly inventive cuisine, mixing fritters with guacamole; deviled eggs with hummus. But the menu also includes perfectly authentic (and unforgettable) fare, such as shrimp and grits or chicken and waffles.

Samuelsson runs establishments around the world and just opened a new restaurant — Hav & Mar — in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood. One of his spots, Streetbird, has locations in the Bahamas, Las Vegas and Yankee Stadium, where fans can pick up all manner of chicken creations — from sandwiches to waffle combinations to fingers — near Section 112.

“If you want to dive into anyone’s culture, eat their food. Taste what they grew up with, what their grandma’s grandma cooked when she was young. And the beauty of New York is that it’s constantly changing. But it’s important to be up in Harlem and eating soul food, just as much as going down to Chinatown and having Chinese food or going to Little Italy for real Italian food.

“Here, we’re eating soul food with an Ethiopian twang. I’m not sure that exists anywhere in the world other than this corner. In a way, that almost makes it more authentic. This isn’t positioned as Ethiopian food, but it’s so uniquely Marcus Samuelsson’s food. I just love it. It’s not a fad, and it’s not a flash in the pan. I grew up watching him on TV. You could see he wasn’t just coming out with great concepts for food, he was really considering the community, how he could give back, making sure to hire locally, procuring locally. That stuff is really important, and it helps popularize sustainable ways of providing food while still being evolutionary. A lot of people rely on this place. They need it. And it’s not just the people who are eating here right now.

“Guacamole with fritters? Who has seen that before? He’s all over the place, and it’s awesome. It’s vibrant. New York is the melting pot; this is what it’s supposed to be, right? There are the tried-and-true concepts that are always the same, and there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s nothing wrong with Patsy’s Pizza out of the coal oven. But he’s putting his own stamp on this, doing it the way that he wants to do it, showing off a New York that is surviving. This place gets it right. It’s an essential neighborhood spot, perfect for locals, but one that every visitor should check out.”

NYY Steak, Hard Rock Hotel — 159 W. 48th St. (at Seventh Avenue)

We end, in a sense, right at home. NYY Steak, which opened last year in the new Hard Rock Hotel New York near Times Square, brings a taste of Yankee Stadium to the Crossroads of the World. It also happens to offer some world-class food and drink options.

Steakhouse cuisine is fairly consistent anywhere you go in the country. A great steak at St. Elmo in Indianapolis won’t be a whole lot different from a similar offering in New York. But NYY Steak is about much more than the Yankees players’ autographs on the walls or the photos of the Bronx legends. Order the 56-ounce long bone ribeye, and the memory alone could be your best souvenir from a trip to New York. NYY Steak offers sustainably sourced heritage steaks, an extensive wine list and local market fish amid a high-energy soundscape, offering an experience that can hold its own against any of the legendary, ancient Big Apple meat palaces.

A grand New York steakhouse seems to exist on a different planet from the famed Nathan’s hot dog cart or a platter from The Halal Guys. That doesn’t make it better, and it doesn’t make it worse. What it represents is simply one end of a cultural spectrum, the totality of which makes New York an unmatched dining destination. You don’t have to visit the four stops on our tour to understand the city’s food culture, but you also won’t grok this culinary wonderland simply by eating your way through The New York Times’ roster of four-star restaurants. You need to save room for the slice, for the bagel, for the street meat. In that way, it’s not too different from a trip to the ballgame. Peanuts and Cracker Jack are still great. And there’s nothing wrong with a hot dog and a cold beer. Just make sure to see the whole field.

You can start your visit to Yankee Stadium by dining at the Bronx location of NYY Steak, located just off the Great Hall. It’s hard to imagine a more delicious pregame meal.

“You look at this space, and it’s just beautiful. The Yankees integration is really great for out-of-towners; it allows them to kill two birds with one stone. But a steakhouse isn’t going to be reinventing the wheel, and that’s part of the charm. You can be playful with the sides, use good products, have an ambitious cocktail program. All of that is really great. But steak is simple: well seasoned, well cooked, and we’re all set. A steakhouse is about execution. This place nails it.

“I’m a ribeye guy. Give me a bone-in ribeye, lots of salt, cooked medium rare. I want a wedge salad and some sort of fried potato. And I’m a sucker for a béarnaise sauce. I appreciate this kind of meal like crazy, but it’s not different from the way that I appreciate a dog and a beer when I’m at the Stadium.

“I think that’s the bigger point: As chefs, we want to create the experience that makes sense for everyone. It’s really important to me that you can go to Yankee Stadium and get a chopped cheese sandwich — probably the most regional, uniquely New York sandwich you’ll find — for like six bucks and change. I don’t expect anyone to come to Yankee Stadium and treat the game like a 12-course meal. But I do hope that everyone appreciates the effort that we put into making sure that there’s something there for them. Because that’s the true story of New York food.”

Jon Schwartz is the deputy editor of Yankees Magazine. This story appears in the May 2023 edition. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at www.yankees.com/publications.

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