Expert Picks

Off the Eaten Path With Jess

Beyond-good bites you probably wouldn’t find on your own, from our expert foodie, Jess Bender.

Jess Bender is a hero around our parts. A human restaurant app, programmed with excellent taste, we go to her every time we’re looking for the perfect restaurant in Williamsburg (The Commodore, she says), a fun place for lunch with friends in Tribeca (Lupe’s East L.A.), a great bar in Queens (Diamond Dogs), or a date-night spot in the East Village (Edi and the Wolf). And her recommendations always turn out to be spot-on, whether she’s talking about hot dogs or duck embryos. So we pay attention to what—and where—she eats on the reg. It’s hard to keep up with her packed culinary schedule, but it’s fun (and yummy!) trying. Here, she lets us in on what she’s been loving lately.

1. Underground falafel in Forest Hills

Practically a hole in the wall underneath the Forest Hills LIRR station, Pahal Zan is an unpretentious Israeli shop delivering some of the best falafel you could have in the city. Do yourself a favor and get yourself falafel with a buffet of sides. I usually pick the Moroccan beet salad, tabbouleh, and baba ghanoush; they always last me a week, minimum. 106-12 71st Avenue, Forest Hills

2. Beer cheese (and plenty of beer) in Harlem

You would never think you’d have an excuse to hang out underneath the West Side Highway. Then again, you probably never knew you needed to make the indoor-outdoor Bierstrasse your new local hangout. Day drinking on a budget calls for $7 half liters of German hefeweizens and pilsners with a side of the beer garden’s monstrous double-twisted Bavarian pretzel with beer cheese. The rays and pleasant buzz are what Sunday Fundays are made of. 697 West 133rd Street (between Broadway and Riverside Drive), Harlem

3. Bronx-to-Brooklyn tacos carnitas

Denisse Lina Chavez is considered a cheap-eats living legend. Her rustic blue corn tortillas (a rarity on NYC’s Mexican food scene) and fatty crispy bits of carnitas have been praised since her early South Bronx bodega days. A rent increase forced her to move El Atoradero to Prospect Heights; and while you’d never find Kings County touches—including hand-painted pineapple walls and unflattering photos of Brooklyn natives inside each check—presented across borough lines, her beloved recipes fortunately haven’t changed. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better dinner deal in the city: fresh pico with three intricate salsas for starters; your choice of three tacos, a quesadilla, or a burrito; and either a frozen margarita or beer to cool you off…all for $20. 708 Washington Avenue, Prospect Heights

4. Sunnyside’s famous 10-stack sammie

The team behind popular Smorgasburg Mexican pop-up Cemitas El Tigre consistently stuffs its devoted fan base at its sunny brick-and-mortar in the lively Sunnyside. The restaurant’s namesake dish is a towering feat of sandwich artistry with layers of black bean puree, avocado, pickled onions, and crumbled Oaxaca cheese—and the Southern fried chicken varietal is the ideal mash-up of two distinct cultures and cuisines. For those less prone to open wide for the 10-layer sandwich, the perfectly crisp fish tacos paired with crispier crinkle-cut fries are hard to resist. 45-14 48th Avenue, Sunnyside

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5. Rugelach, “baked by a brother”

Butter-and-cinnamon breezes waft out of the bright Lee Lee’s Baked Goods in a section of Harlem (unfortunately) booming with luxury condos and upscale dining destinations. The owner, Lee Lee Smalls (the self-proclaimed “brother” from his shop’s slogan), has been a neighborhood legend for more than 50 years, and it’s easy to see—and taste—why. His approach to the Jewish staple rugelach stays true to its roots—he makes each tiny pastry by hand and sings the praises of good old-fashioned butter—and he’s not afraid to not compete with the prices of other trendy bakeries (they cost only $1.25 each, so there’s your excuse for buying a dozen at a time). The honey-soaked classic version, along with a decadent chocolate take, are weekend staples in my kitchen. 283 West 118th Street (between Frederick Douglass Boulevard and St. Nicholas Avenue), Harlem

6. Venezuelan plantain sandwiches, way uptown

Smack-dab in the middle of this Washington Heights stretch with lavish clubs and freelance car washers is Venezuelan food truck Patacon Pisao, wooing the likes of Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern since 2005. A patacón is a sandwich with deep-fried green plantain patties playing the role of bread, and the dinner-plate–size juggernaut is overflowing with fried cotija, pernil, and a special condiment reminiscent of In-N-Out’s secret sauce. I’m in grave danger of gaining a pound (or 30) thanks to Pisao, especially now that it has added locations in Coney Island, the Lower East Side, and Elmhurst. 431 West 202nd Street (between Ninth and Tenth Avenues), Washington Heights

7. Ramen with punch on the Lower East Side

Admittedly, I first discovered the tiny ramen spot Nakamura because it has the same name as one of my boyfriend’s favorite eccentric wrestlers. The WWE star and the man behind these noodles—chef Shigetoshi Nakamura, aka a ramen god in his native Japan—have at least one thing in common: They can both throw down. The broths here are umami pools—especially the vegetarian-based XO Miso, made with roasted barley tea and fermented rye—in which the delicate noodles bathe. Heaven in a bowl. 172 Delancey Street (between Clinton and Attorney Streets), Lower East Side

8. Astoria’s diet-breaking cheesy bread bombs

I can pop pao de queijo into my mouth as easily as popcorn, so it was highly dangerous for the 24-7 La Sabrosura Bakery to be a short walk away from my local gym when I lived in the neighborhood. Pro tip: Get the cassava bread and make your dream BEC (bacon, egg, and cheese) at home. 38-02 Broadway, Astoria

9. Curbside Cubanos in midtown

There are only three places that have never disappointed me when it comes to making a proper Cubano: a sandwich spot off the side of a dirt road in San Juan, my boyfriend’s mom’s kitchen, and the hole-in-the-wall haunt Margon. The ham is juicy without filling your mouth with grease, the cheese is perfectly melted, the bread is crusty enough to fill your lap with a respectable amount of crumbs, and the pickles and mustard give the entire lunch a little extra crunch and depth. 136 West 46th Street (between Sixth and Seventh Avenues), Midtown

Feeling extra hungry? We can arrange a Jess-approved eating tour around town.