Western cuisines vs "ethnic" dining in NYC

Though I do cook, I also dine out fairly regularly. For a long time, I frequented mostly western cuisines, eg French, Italian, Spanish, New American, etc. In recent years I’ve gravitated to “ethnic” restaurants, Chinese (in its various regional styles), Thai, Malaysian, Vietnamese, Mexican & Indian among others. The first group usually had nicer decor, more service and higher prices. The second group had mostly no frills decor, minimal service, often robust to explosive flavors & budget friendly prices. Higher end restaurants serving cuisines in the so-called “ethnic” group often seemed dumbed down a bit, to cater to middle of the road American tastes.

Currently NYC, including the outer boroughs, has a wealth of choices among the world’s cuisines and price levels from dirt cheap to astronomical. Where do YOU fit in? Do you go out to be pampered a bit? Do you love to find hidden gems in dive restaurants? let’s hear the highlights and the lowlights of your dining experiences.

Lowlight: bad on me on not having done any research. But one morning years ago I showed up in Flushing Chinatown after a red-eye flight with no sleep. Walked into a place next to the subway station and asked for a bowl of Cantonese noodle soup since the menu had a vast Cantonese section. That place was most definitely not Cantonese. The bowl was a miserable one.

This is not a condemnation of “ethnic” dining, however. But more a cautionary tale that one must figure out what the restaurant’s true strengths are versus menu items that are just there just in case some ignorant guy like me shows up and ask for something totally irrelevant to the restaurant. This is especially true for Chinese restaurants that sometimes want to be all things to all people, and end up with a menu with 500 items.

I think the expectation that ethnic places are “mostly no frills decor, minimal service, often robust to explosive flavors & budget friendly prices” is problematic. People expect the food to be cheap so you get cheap food with no frills and service.

If people would get over not paying more than $X for chinese, thai, indian, et. al., the food would get a lot better along with the frills and service. I haven’t been in a while but some of the best Indian food I’ve had was at Tamarind in Tribeca. I have two very good Indian friends who agree that the food there is comparable to high end food in India. The flavors are not toned down. Lots of people I know would go all googly eyed if they walked into the place and see Indian dishes priced in the $30s.

I eat in all sorts of places. High to low. Why does ethnic equal no frills, minimal service and cheap? Plenty of crappy western food available at the low end too. The $1 menu burger at McD doesn’t mean that the $25 burger at your local gastropub can’t be happily enjoyed.

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In NYC, I tend to stick almost exclusively to the extremes - either we indulge in high-end fine dining (mostly for celebrations, etc.) or we do inexpensive/ethnic. I largely ignore mid-range places because I am a good enough cook that I can do most of what they can do, much less expensively and more to my liking. Thanks to the wealth of ethnic markets nearby, I can also cook delicious Indian, Thai and other ethnic cuisines at home, but sometimes the convenience factor of having someone else do it for me wins out.

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I think both you and @rmis32 are right. Because most non-American/ European joints start out serving cheap, no-frills food from immigrants, it helps form the expectations for the price-point/ decor. Most of these immigrants cook as a way to make a living in the New World so anything other than holes-in-the-walls are out of the question for them as small business owners. It takes many years for a gradually more informed and less price sensitive dining population to demand and willing to eat upscale version of these cuisines. Italian and Japanese cuisines took a while to move beyond their initial no frills status too.

But yes, partly because the generally dining population haven’t seen it, they don’t necessarily realize there is an upscale version of, or have an appetite to spend that much for, these cuisines. But of course, these upscale versions can be just as spectacular as the typical places that garner mainstream recognition from like Michelin.

One problem I often have with low priced ethnic places is the quality of some of their ingredients, especially meat. The prices of the dishes are low because it is very often very low quality meat (cafo) which is often “covered up” by “aggressive” spices but if you only try to eat some of the meat you easily taste the low quality. I like ethnic food but try to hit places which are bit more expensive and I know that they use better quality ingredients

Basically, I agree. However, I think that a lot of us who grew up finding & eating good inexpensive Chinese, Indian, Greek, Italian pizza place “cuisine” (like DiFara), etc. because we couldn’t afford the higher prices of eating out in upscale Italian, French, “American”, etc places have been willing to spend more to get better versions (as many of us became more financially able) but, truthfully, a lot of the higher priced Chinese places (for example) have not served better food but only given nicer presentation in more convenient or “classier” rooms. When I, many years ago, realized that my favorite cheap E.6th St Indian places were not representative of all the culture had to offer (to say the least) and were basically the equivalent of my local mom and pop pizza places w/heroes and dishes, I didn’t hesitate to find better versions of that down-home cooking in Jackson Heights (which had recently become a center for this - especially the original Jackson Diner) but, whereas I was able to upscale my dinners vis a vis Italian, Greek, American foods, I couldn’t really find much better Middle Eastern, Chinese or Indian (yes, there were some rare exceptions) But, luckily, I do think that things slowly evolved and, as I didn’t hesitate to become a regular at Devi and other creative higher end Indian places when they emerged (and did the same w/Middle Eastern), I think some higher end Chinese seems to be emerging (some midtown Szechuan places come to mind, as well as (maybe) Biang or even Red Egg?) & will find its niche. I guess what I’m saying is that I think the market is now there for the higher end of all cuisines & it remains to be seen if those ethnicities who haven’t yet taken their share of the upscale market get the funding to open and bring kitchen talent.

Of course, now that I’m older and more experienced (both here and abroad), I’m pretty sure that some ethnicities’ foods have more of a separation between their ends. I mean, do I need a Sasso chicken in my dumplings?

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Hey, there are 7 days a week and, unlike you, my wife and I don’t really eat at home much. Given this wealth of opportunity, we pretty much divide our time among all levels. The highlights (this year) have ranged from (on the upscale side) Aquavit’s unexpectedly great tasting menu to this past week’s opening of Tapestry (Suvir Suran’s new place in the Village). On the downright criminally inexpensive side of life, I’ve found (with lots of help) & returned to great hole in the wall places like Fu Run & Little Pepper, and am even going out tomorrow night to an Uzbek place (Nargis, near Brighton Beach in Bklyn) with a group of CH, ex-CH and others with high expectations. I also think that the “middle ground” places in NYC are, as a group, better than ever but since there are so many of them, you really can eat some crappy dinners in some trendy places if you’re not careful. But a solid shout out to the best opening of the year in this category to my good friend Daniel (& his wife Alicia) for Mekelburg’s. And a hope that David Santos will find a new home soon now that Louro is gone.

People expect it because that is what is widely available. Nevertheless, Asian restauranteurs like David Chang & Danny Bowien have been successful operating more upscale, updated versions of Chinese food, sometimes borrowing from other cuisines. lower priced meals make it easier to eat out more often, so that is part of the attraction. Also, Asian cuisines lend themselves to family style sharing. it;s easier for me to assemble a group for a $25 dinner than for a $50 dinner. When i can get 8-10 people together for a family style dinner, we get to sample a good percentage of a restaurant’s menu. When we walk out of there, we feel we can more accurately rate the strength of their cooking.

In any case, it seems to be a wonderful time to be a food lover in New York. There is a wide variety of cuisines, price points and locations from which to choose.

His pizza is better than all the high end Italian places combined… and I’d pay just to watch this guy make his pies - amazing!

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I find the best ethnic foods in NYC - but anywhere in the US for that matter - are the authentic restaurants that people of that ethnicity patron - ask them where they like to eat… and you’ll find the best food and the most reasonably priced. Win Win.

I will add a caveat though. If I am in an immigrant neighborhood, all the restaurants are pretty much frequented by the immigrant population, so one will need a different way to find the gems.

“Food is a pretty good prism through which to view humanity.”

― Jonathan Gold