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NEW YORK -- "You have to try this!"
A giant, built-in smoker fanned the scent of smoked meat to the entrance of Mighty Quinn's, a barbecue shop in New York's East Village.
On a late Saturday afternoon, I walked in with my friend Robert Sietsema, food critic for The Village Voice. We had just finished lunch across the street and, as food writers are wont to do, we headed for a second round of eating. He wanted to be sure I didn't miss a favorite barbecue spot.
In New York spartan single-concepts or inexpensive ethnic restaurants jockey with fine-dining for diners' attentions -- a trend that's also evolving in Pittsburgh. These pared-down restaurants are edging out competition because diners want authentic or inspired regional cuisine. A tepid economy adds incentive.
This was reinforced on a recent January weekend when I visited New York to explore what's stirring the city's appetites. If you want to eat well -- and to eat like food-focused New Yorkers -- here's a primer for places to go right now.
Robert ushered me toward the back of the wood-paneled shop, where behind a plate-glass window, prep cooks chopped a mound of peppers.
Since he joined the Voice in 1993, Robert sows seeds for the city's food cravings. His vast knowledge and witty reviews have helped New Yorkers navigate restaurants with origins ranging from small-town America to the far corners of the globe.
At Mighty Quinn's, my friend explained the highlights of Texas barbecue style, one that he knows well, having grown up in the Lone Star State.
He recently decreed in the Voice that New York is becoming a barbecue capital, "up there with Kansas City; Memphis, Tenn.; Lockhart, Texas; Owensboro, Ky.; and Lexington, N.C."
Barbecue is one of Robert's culinary passions, which I learned upon first meeting him at a conference in Charleston, S.C. We embarked on a barbecue day trip with many stops (and many meals) in rural towns along the way.
Brought to Manhattan from Texas pitmaster Hugh Mangum, Mighty Quinn's coats brisket with salt and crushed peppercorns, then smokes it for 16 to 20 hours, which results in beef with a near-gelatinous texture.
So I learned by the butcher block, where my friend mentioned to a couple of prolifically tattooed employees that I was visiting from Pittsburgh. As they responded with enthusiasm for Primanti Bros. and Gooski's, a guy asked for my hand and, using tongs, dropped a slice that licked my palm with glossy fat. It was so fantastic I was momentarily speechless.
Robert's response met my enthusiasm. I went back to Mighty Quinn's with a friend that afternoon (103 Second Ave., 10003; 1-212-677-3733).
Barbecue is one genre taking shape in New York. Other meat varietals are displayed in sandwiches at newly opened stylish delis, if you can believe an ethnic sandwich shop could be a dining destination.
These delis with origins in international cities include Aamanns-Copenhagen (13 Laight St. 10013; 1-212-925-1313), which opened its New York outpost in SoHo this past December. Picture very photogenic open-faced sandwiches called smorrebrod on dense brown breads. Capers, cornichons and potato chips pair with beef tartare. Pickled herring lies on crisp rye toast with capers, egg and onions. I had been to the one in Copenhagen, which, like the New York sibling, offers ingredients both accessible and obscure, such as a forager's findings from a spring forest.
Quite soulful are the sandwiches at Mile End Delicatessen, the Montreal-inspired Jewish deli that started in Brooklyn (97A Hoyt St., Boerum Hill; 1-718-852-7510) and recently expanded to NoHo (53 Bond St.; 1-212-529-2990) last summer.
At the Manhattan location, the thick-cut, ruby-red pastrami lulled Robert into "culinary nirvana," he said when he nominated it for his favorite sandwich of 2010. What makes it different from a version at a traditional New York Jewish deli is that a Quebec-style sandwich is a pastrami and corned beef hybrid.
The Ruth Wilensky is also a highlight at Mile End, named for the owner of Wilensky Light Lunch, a Montreal deli. The sandwich features salami and mustard on an onion roll that's pressed on a griddle, so fat renders into the bread like a condiment.
It's not just cured and smoked meats making an appearance on New York menus. Rabbit also is gaining popularity. A favorite dish is the Sichuan rabbit salad at Hot Kitchen (104 Second Ave.; 1-212-228-3090) in the East Village, one of a handful of fashion-forward Chinese restaurants to migrate to lower Manhattan recently. Garnished with scallions and peanuts, the dish features searing chili oil and numbing peppercorns characteristic of ma-la dishes.
Also worth noting at Hot Kitchen are the clear sweet potato noodles that arrive as squared tentacles in a broth-filled bowl, a dish that's compelling for its slippery and crunchy textures.
New Yorkers' focus on Chinese cuisine isn't a straight line to the Sichuan province. It includes fusion creations from Danny Bowien at the impossible-to-get-into Mission Chinese (154 Orchard St., 10002; 1-212-529-8800) on the Lower East Side.
The Korean chef, with long blond surfer hair and Bermuda shorts, offers braised meats, lively flavors, fermented goodies and plenty of heat. The backdrop for the experience includes chairs hanging from the ceiling, Chinese lanterns, an eclectic playlist and a restroom that's a shrine to Laura Palmer of David Lynch's '90s cult favorite, "Twin Peaks."
Less chaotic to the senses is Lotus Blue (110 Reade St., 10013; 1-212-267-3777), the tucked-away Yunnan restaurant in TriBeCa. Dishes from the region near Burma and Laos offer more harmonious flavors than the punch of a Sichuan dish.
Menu items include the showstopping banana blossom and mango salad garnished with fresh herbs and ground peanuts, presented on a giant plum-hued leaf. The bitter, spicy chrysanthemum greens seasoned with black vinegar is also one of my favorites.
And the traditional steam pot of mushrooms, chicken and ginger is a welcome winter bowl. My table hadn't even ordered it, but rather the owner insisted we try it because the steam pot is a traditional Yunnan dish. The scent of ginger and aromatics enveloped the table as she passed along bowls laden with chicken and a medley of mushrooms.
A meal here isn't terribly filling, so it should not be a problem to save room for unusual yet alluring desserts such as gummy-sweet mochi in sake or purple yam cakes.
A visit to New York always requires a pizza stop, which I wedged in as the trip's last meal. At Forcella (334 Bowery, 10012; 1-212-466-3300) in the East Village, I planned on ordering a straightforward Neapolitan pie. Yet I could not resist the striking contrasts on the burrata pizza with pecorino, arugula and paper-thin lemon rounds.
Lemon pizza may not be as uncommon as the rest of the weekend fare. Yet it falls under inexpensive meals in pared-down restaurants where Robert's advice resounds:
"You have to try this."
Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or on Twitter @melissamccart.