Most major cities can lay claim to one or two signature dishes. San Francisco has sourdough and cioppino. Boston is known for cream pie and baked beans. Philly is associated with cheesesteaks. Cincinnati piles chili on top of spaghetti. But the vibrant, incomparably diverse food culture of Brooklyn has truly shaped the way New York eats, with an unprecedented array of undeniably iconic foods.
Who hasn’t strolled the Coney Island boardwalk in the summer, attempting to shield their mustard-slathered Nathan’s hot dog from swooping seagulls and swirls of sand? What would a Sunday morning breakfast be without crusty, everything bagels topped with schmears of cream cheese and ribbons of salty lox? And who does pizza like Brooklyn does pizza, whether you’re waiting for hours for a basil-strewn, hand-patted pie at the famed DiFara’s in Midwood, or grabbing a quick slice to go from the charmingly dingy shops and ramshackle pizza parlors that line the borough?
In my recently released cookbook, the Brooklyn Chef’s Table, I examine the evolution of Brooklyn’s food scene as told through the stories of (and recipes from), 60 of our most influential restaurants. And while only a few true landmark places remain to mark the genesis of certain dishes in Brooklyn, newer eateries seem to cement their relevance far into the future. So from the locally sourced hot dogs at Bark in Park Slope to the quirky pies at PeteZaaz in Crown Heights, here are a few of the new school faces of old world Brooklyn cuisine.
Bark Hot Dogs
474 Bergen St., btwn. 5th & Flatbush Aves.
It may seem like sacrilege to try to gourmetize hot dogs, one of Brooklyn’s most iconic foods. And Bark makes no bones about listing all of their virtuous purveyors, from Hartmann’s Old World Sausage, who make their private label dogs, to Deep Root Cooperative, which supplies the cabbage and carrots for coleslaw, and Hawthorne Valley Farm, which keeps the eatery in lacto-fermented sauerkraut. But at its core, Bark remains resolutely straightforward and traditional — pork-and-beef franks, mustard, ketchup, onions, kraut, pickles, chili, relish — albeit mostly made in-house, and with ingredients that are a cut above. “We’re not being gimmicky about it. We don’t have off-the-wall, frou-frou toppings,” promises owner Joshua Sharkey. “But instead of using cheap canned beans for our baked beans, we use really great heirlooms and quality smoked pork. It’s about taking time-honored items and adding terrific ingredients and skillful technique.”
Shelsky’s Smoked Fish
251 Smith St., btwn. Douglass & Degraw Sts.
Shelsky’s Smoked Fish in Carroll Gardens is Brooklyn’s answer to the gravlax-pushing, whitefish salad–peddling, sour pickle–purveying, Lower East Side businesses of yore. “I got tired of trekking to Russ and Daughters in Manhattan to get the kind food I grew up with,” says owner Peter Shelsky. “Jewish delis and appetizing shops are such a huge part of New York’s fabric, yet when the Jewish communities in Brooklyn got too religious, it sort of pushed out the appetizing shop.” In addition to carrying everything from traditional Gaspe Nova to Jamaican Jerk Spice-cured Gravlax, Shelsky has fleshed out his menu with a variety of tongue-in-cheek sandwiches, like the Dr. Goldstein Special; duck fat–laced chopped liver and apple horseradish sauce served between two schmaltz-fried potato latkes. He also transforms whitefish into a delectable Chowder; a tasty play on the traditional New England favorite(sans the bacon, of course). “It’s great. It mixes the best of both worlds, you know; a New England–style chowder with smoky Jew foods,” exclaims Shelsky. “What could be better than that?”
27 N 6th St., btwn. Wythe & Kent Aves.
Brooklyn’s favorite dessert has been downsized. “You know how you buy one of those big globs of cheesecake and then you can only have so much of it?” asks Tyreece Johnson, chef and co-owner of the diminutive dessert company, BiteMe Cheesecakes. “You don’t get bored with these. Two bites of cake and you’re ready to try something else.” Not that we haven’t happily eaten our way through oversized slabs of Junior’s iconic Cherry Cheesecake before (and gone back for seconds). But Johnson is definitely onto something. Instead of over-taxing ones taste buds with a single, tooth-numbingly sweet flavor, it’s a pleasure to graze through a number of unique options, like Peanut Butter and Jelly, Sweet Potato Rum Crunch, Apple Bacon, and Limoncello Meringue. No wonder BiteMe Cheesecakes is a reliable favorite at Brooklyn’s infamous all-food flea market, Smorgasburg!
Brooklyn Farmacy & Soda Fountain
513 Henry St., btwn. Union & Sackett Sts.
Peter Freeman and Gia Giasullo are real jerks. No, really, it says so right on their shirts. That’s because the brother and sister team has revitalized one of Brooklyn’s most beloved institutions, the classic and near extinction ice cream parlor and soda fountain. “My mom always said I should open a diner or be a sixth-grade social studies teacher. And this is like a diner for sixth-graders,” jokes Freeman. In addition to carrying an extensive line of nostalgic sweet-shop favorites, like Milkshakes, Malteds, Cherry Lime Rickeys and Orange Whips, they specialize in traditional (and not so traditional) Egg Creams. Purists will swoon over basic Vanilla or Chocolate, made exclusively with milk, seltzer, and Fox’s U-Bet Syrup, but modernists will appreciate inventive versions, like the Butterbeer Egg Cream, a salty-sweet slurry of steamed milk, whipped cream, and warm, silky caramel sauce.
766 Classon Ave., btwn. Sterling & Park Pl.
Growing up in Marine Park, Pete Entner was raised on some pretty iconic slices. “L&B, all the way,” he says, solemnly raising a fist. But when it came down to opening his own, out-of-the-box pie shop on an undeveloped strip of Crown Heights, he wasn’t content to play it safe with tomato sauce and mozzarella. Take the best-selling Baked Potato Pie, which he tops with purple spuds, crème fraîche, cheddar, bacon, and green onion, and the Coconut Tofu Pie, a Southeast Asian assortment of coconut milk béchamel, fried tofu, Thai basil, and bean sprouts. “My whole plan was to bring a gourmet style of food down to a level everyone can afford,” Entner says. He also gathers the forward-thinking staff together for regular brainstorming sessions, in order to come up with wacky new combos that toe the line between being crazy delicious (Cold Fried Chicken), and just plain nuts (Pickled Blueberry)!inventive versions, like the Butterbeer Egg Cream, a salty-sweet slurry of steamed milk, whipped cream, and warm, silky caramel sauce.
Brooklyn Chef’s Table can be purchased on Amazon
All photos courtesy of Eric Isaac