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Tasty Surprises
(Photo-illustration: Mary-Louise Price Foss, Photos: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images, iStockphoto)

New York’s Culinary Diamonds in the Rough

When it comes to these holes in the wall, looks can be deceiving. The 8 best ugly duckling restaurants in the city

With restaurants, you can’t be blamed for judging a book by its cover – the overall appearance of a place can be a good indication of whether or not to continue inside and try the food. Unfortunately, some of the city’s most aesthetically-pleasing restaurants can also serve overpriced, blasé meals with a side of pretentious service. And on your way to that stylish spot featured in every guide book, you could very well walk right past a dingy, unassuming storefront that happens to have the best Sicilian food this side of the Mediterranean Sea (and a sweet nonna who serves it with love). But unless you’re a seasoned local, these hidden gems are hard to find, so we did the work for you. Below, our roundup of the best ugly ducklings in New York, those rare restaurants that might not look like much from the outside but fully deliver on taste, value and service on the inside.

 

Shanghai Cafe

Shanghai Cafe (Photo: Mary-Louise Price Foss)

Shanghai Cafe

Forget Joe’s Shanghai, the tourist favorite recommended in all the guidebooks. For our money, when it comes to soup dumplings, Shanghai Cafe reigns supreme. And if you’ve never had soup dumplings before, prepare your mouth for a burst of steamy deliciousness. The specific flavors of regional Shanghai cuisine—sugar, alcohol and seafood—run deep in the cooking at Shanghai Cafe. Don’t be surprised to read the word ‘tiny’ on the menu; Shanghai is known for serving food in delicate, civilized portions. From the outside, it looks like any other restaurant in Chinatown. Inside, you’ll find a clean, ample room with a mix of booths, two-and-four person tables and several large communal tables, with neon lights overhead. But you’re not here for the ambiance, you’re here for the xiao long bao—soup dumplings in English. Pork and/or crab are stuffed inside dumpling dough and injected with hot broth before being sealed and steamed in a bamboo basket. One order is eight dumplings which come with a side of vinegar sauce for dipping. Other menu highlights include the uncommonly good beef and broccoli, fried salt and pepper squid and scallion pancakes. But take our word for it: almost everything is good here. 100 Mott Street, 212-966-3968

 

Tehuitzingo Deli Grocery

Tehuitzingo Deli Grocery (Photo: Mary-Louise Price Foss)

Tehuitzingo Deli Grocery

Tehuitzingo is named after a town in Puebla, Mexico, but it could very well be the Spanish word for deli/taco stand/grocery store hybrid, because that’s exactly what this charming eatery is. Outside, you’ll see a marquee with the Mexican flag and a sign in Spanish advertising “we have a large variety of Mexican products.” Inside, you’ll find pinatas on the walls and colorful blinking lights, but head straight to the kitchen in the back where customers queue up for authentic, mouth-watering tortas, burritos and tacos stuffed with fresh cilantro, onion slices and your choice of tripe, chicken, chicharron, chorizo, beef or tongue for the purists. Limes, red and green salsa and spicy chili are self serve, and a bottle of Corona or Dos Equis costs three dollars. 695 10th Ave., 212-397-0343

 

Margon

Margon (Photo: Mary-Louise Price Foss)

Margon

Hidden away between a barbershop and a pub on a nondescript block of Midtown is Margon, one of the best places in New York to get a Cuban sandwich. For the uninitiated, Cuban cuisine is a mix of Caribbean and Latin flavors with an emphasis on slow cooked meats and seafood—and they do it incredibly well here. The employees at Margon are laid back, friendly and will definitely recommend the octopus salad. Most orders come standard with a side of yucca, sweet plantains and yellow rice with black beans. The clientele is a varied mix of people who work in the neighborhood, those who are grabbing dinner before or after a nearby Broadway show and Cubans homesick for perfectly seasoned pulled pork. 136 West 46th St., 212-354-5013

 

Saigon Vietnamese Sandwich Deli

Saigon Vietnamese Sandwich (Photo: Mary-Louise Price Foss)

Saigon Vietnamese Sandwich

When famous food writer Calvin Trillin took thirty-five participants on a “Come Hungry” tour of New York City, one of his first stops was Saigon Vietnamese Sandwich (formerly Bahn Mi So 1) for a classic Banh Mi. Easily missed—the place isn’t much more than a sandwich counter with a handful of chairs—you’ll know you’re in the right spot by the smell of freshly baked baguettes. Each hoagie is made to order, slathered with homemade paté and topped with grilled pork or Vietnamese sausage, along with fresh strips of cucumbers, carrots, radish and sprigs of cilantro that give the concoction a bright crunch. For only $4.50 per sandwich, you can spring for stuffed summer rolls and a Vietnamese iced coffee to accompany your order. 396 Broome St., 212-219-8341

La Bonbonniere (Photo: Mary-Louise Price Foss)

La Bonbonniere (Photo: Mary-Louise Price Foss)

La Bonbonniere

Two vintage Coca-Cola advertisements flank the sign above the door at La Bonbonniere, which is the French word for a small trinket box, but you won’t find anything dainty inside this diner known for its stellar all-day breakfasts and friendly staff. They do serve great burgers and sandwiches, but your focus here should be on the sweet pancakes, fluffy scrambled eggs and crispy bacon. The syrup comes in sticky pitchers and the coffee is actually palatable, an impressive feat in a city notorious for bad diner coffee. The space is on the smaller side and there’s no hostess, but patrons queue up and orderly take tables once the staff has cleared them. 28 8th Ave., 212-741-9266

 

Miss Maude's Spoonbread Too (Photo: Matthew X. Kiernan/New York Big Apple Images)

Miss Maude’s Spoonbread Too (Photo: Matthew X. Kiernan/New York Big Apple Images)

Miss Maude’s Spoonbread Too

Norma Jean Darden, the owner of Miss Maude’s (named after Norma’s aunt), has put some effort into the decor of her restaurant in Harlem. There’s a white picket fence out front and neat curtains hang inside the windows. But one glance at the menu shows that the most attention has been paid where it really matters. All the favorite Southern-style soul dishes are here: catfish with macaroni and cheese, fried chicken and waffles, collard greens and cornbread stuffing with cajun seasoning. Daily lunch specials like Southern fried chicken with candied yams for $7.95 are worth the trip. A sister restaurant, Miss Mamie’s Spoonbread Too, is near Columbia University and was famously visited by former President Bill Clinton. 547 Lenox Ave., 212-690-3100

 

Sole di Capri (Photo: Mary-Louise Price Foss)

Sole di Capri (Photo: Mary-Louise Price Foss)

Sole di Capri

From the outside Sole Di Capri could be mistaken for an Italian owned bodega, a place to grab a soda and a newspaper before getting on the train. Once you pass through the front door and see an Italian cook slicing homemade strips of pasta for ravioli, you’ll realize just how mistaken you were. Everything from the starter course of mozzarella to the cheesecake for dessert and the tagliatelle in between is freshly made in the restaurant. The Italian family who owns (and serves the food at) Sole di Capri are still waiting for their liquor license, but they encourage guests to bring their own bottles in the meantime. 165 Church St., 212-513-1113

 

Corner Bistro (Photo: Mary-Louise Price Foss)

Corner Bistro (Photo: Mary-Louise Price Foss)

Corner Bistro

Corner Bistro calls itself the last of the bohemian bars in the West Village. And though the divey feel, nine item menu posted on the wall and taps of Budweiser for $2.50 bolster the claim, the clientele isn’t quite bohemian (it tends more toward after-work male). But burgers are the main draw, and Corner Bistro makes them an inch thick and tops them with cheddar cheese before sandwiching the whole dripping patty into a sesame bun. Order the Bistro burger if you want bacon and cheese, which is highly recommended. Tomatoes and pickles are usually served on the side. Don’t expect anything other than a paper plate and plastic cutlery, but you’ll be eating with your hands anyway because that’s how bohemians would do it. 331 West 4th St., 212-242-9502

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