The common complaint that New York is turning into a city full of identical chains and nondescript glass towers is not wrong, exactly, but it also misses the countless designs that were commissioned by store owners through the decades in hopes of enticing a wandering neighbor to actually stop in: The carnival of colors at places like 188 Bakery Cuchifritos, the old hand-painted signs of bodegas, neon beamed into the night. James and Karla Murray have made a career out of photographing these places, first getting their start — perhaps not coincidentally — when they were looking for street art in the outer boroughs. They’ve released several books on the subject and today they’ve published their latest, Store Front NYC: Photographs of the City’s Independent Shops, Past and Present. It was all the reason we needed to comb through and pick out some of our own favorites while talking to the Murrays about why they love these Technicolor, mismatched, hand-hewn designs so much.
Bialys remain Kossar’s calling card, though the Murrays recommend another item: the pretzel, a round flatbread with onion and poppy seeds. “A mega bialy, I guess you could say,” Karla explains.
The Lower East Side dive should be celebrated for its dog-friendly policies: “In the summertime, they set up two doggy swimming pools outside,” Karla notes. “And you can sit out there with your dog and have a treat.”
Owner Bill Li and family have been spreading their roast-pork gospel lately, opening new locations in Hell’s Kitchen and Williamsburg. Still, you can’t beat the atmosphere at the Chinatown original, where you can supplement your roast pork with sweet you tiao (a cruller) and — Karla’s favorite — chow fun.
“To us, that is the quintessential mom-and-pop drugstore,” Karla says. “One time we went in there. And James, the doctor had given him a prescription. He’s like, ‘Oh, no, James. You can’t go on that. That’s going to interfere with your blood-pressure medication. Let me call up your doctor and find out what’s what.’ It’s not just the old signs that they love — it’s also the good service.
“We get that mozzarella at least once a week, and we recommend Russo’s to everybody for sandwiches,” Karla says. The Murrays like the mozzarella here so much they don’t bother with meat between the bread. “Our favorite is their Caprese, which is just fresh mozzarella, roasted red peppers, and sun-dried tomatoes with some balsamic vinegar and olive oil.”
Hector’s looks like a metaphor, a squat diner being crushed by the High Line. It’s an oasis of cheap food in the otherwise glitzy neighborhood overrun with $36 lobster rolls. “They make an absolutely fantastic hamburger,” James says. Karla agrees: “I drown everything in ketchup, but at Hector’s, I don’t even put ketchup on that burger.”
This is the best bakery on Arthur Avenue, bar none. Anyone who tells you otherwise? Stop letting them tell you where to go. The Murrays are partial to the loaves of pane di casa, which they buy three at a time (so they can eat one while making the trip home), and the cannoli, but whatever you do don’t leave without the lard bread.
Some would argue that you should be fined if you leave Arthur Avenue without making a pitstop at Borgatti’s. We’ll leave that up to the authorities. What we can say is that the best time of year to visit Arthur Avenue is around Christmas, when it’s packed with crowds.
Rightly celebrated as a temple of pork, this counter-service restaurant is a carnival of colors and fried foods from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. They’ve mastered the art of alcapurrias — the chewy, oblong yucca fritters stuffed with seasoned beef — and what is probably the borough’s finest mofongo, which, of course, you can get with chicharon. Scratch-offs, too.
The residents of Carroll Gardens can be divided into two groups: Monteleone people and Court Pastry people. The Court Pastry people swear by the Italian ices, which are available into the second week of October. “Unlike the Lemon Ice King of Corona, you can get a tub and they’ll put in different flavors for you,” Karla advises. As for the pastries, it’s all about the sfogliatelle, the shell-shaped, layered treat.
You can’t miss Landi’s and its aqua-blue storefront. What you can miss is its skin braciole, seasoned pork skin rolled around sausage meat. Call a day ahead of time to make sure they have it. Sitting just outside Mill Basin, in a transit desert, Landi’s is not the easiest place to get if you don’t have a car or live nearby. “It’s out there,” Karla says. “I don’t remember the closest subway.”
Yes, people fish in New York, and yes, this is a fishing store — but you’ll want to go for more than live bait and lead sinkers. “You want to find out the latest gossip of what’s happening in Sheepshead Bay?” Karla says. “Hang out in there for 15 minutes. It’s all you need, and you’ll catch up on it.”
Morscher’s is one of the few remaining pork stores in Ridgewood. The shop offers lots of German, Austrian, and Eastern European specialties you won’t readily find just anywhere else in New York, such as the bologna-like schinkenwurst; schwartenmagen or German-style headcheese; and krainerwurst, a garlicky sausage from Slovenia.
Pure Americana, by way of Queens. When you go, you may as well go big, meaning a banana split with hot fudge flooding down the slopes of your scoops like lava.
Many people go to Brother’s for the famous Sicilian slices. Staten Island native (and former Vulture editor) Tara Abell suggests getting the noodles, too. “The pasta is underrated and overlooked,” she says, including the baked ziti. “It’s got that good brown crunch around the edges where the cheese meets the dish.”