All of us on staff at What Should We Do?! proudly considered ourselves foodies, with a more-than-decent knowledge of NYC’s culinary scene. But then we met Jess Bender, our intrepid dining and drinking expert, who put our taste buds and our name-that-restaurant skills to shame.
Want to know where to get the absolute best doughnut in the city? Just ask Jess! She knows because she has tried Every. Single. One. The tenderest Korean fried wings? She’ll point you in the OMG-they’re-so-good direction for those, too. She’s got a block-by-block gustatory memory of the best eats in the city, in fact, no matter what flavors you’re looking for.
Everyone needs a Jess Bender in their life, which is why we had to have her on our expert roster (and on staff as one of our top editors!). Want a Jess Bender in your life? Follow her Off the Eaten Path With Jess Bender columns and other WSWD stories here. And get to know more about this lady who lunches (and breakfasts and brunches and dinners and desserts and…) below.
Q&A With Jess Bender
What brought you to NYC?
I was looking for an escape from living a mundane life in the Long Island suburbs. I watched too many New York City–based rom-coms growing up, so I was looking to live a life similar to Meg Ryan’s in You’ve Got Mail: I‘d own a boutique bookstore, live on the Upper West Side with a serious journalist beau, and wear a lot of cardigans and turtlenecks. My life took a slightly different path when I realized that my love for food edged out my love of books by a slight margin, and I pursued food writing. Now I wouldn’t trade my life for Meg’s for anything.
What attracted you to the borough and neighborhood where you live?
Initially, relationship compromises. I was living in Long Island City and loving it, when my boyfriend and I decided to move in together. He loved the neighborhood he grew up in (Washington Heights), so we went apartment hunting around the area. After viewing 15 apartments, we found a one-bedroom in Inwood with a perfect view of Fort Tryon Park and the tippy-top of the Cloisters. The thought of waking up to that every day made me a Manhattan girl.
What’s the craziest thing that’s ever happened to you in NYC?
Oh, there are too many stories to tell. It’s a toss-up between tucking and rolling out of a moving cab and being shoved at Bowery Ballroom by a future late-night talk-show host.
What is your favorite season in NYC and why?
Autumn, specifically that time between early October and early November when all the leaves are starting to change. There has always been something romantic about walking through the foliage while clutching a cup of hot apple cider from the farmers’ market.
What do you consider the best part about living in New York?
Even after more than a decade of living here, I can still find myself being pleasantly surprised by new places and landmarks and hole-in-the-wall joints I unexpectedly discover on a random Tuesday night.
What one food should every New Yorker try at least once?
A torta! And you should get it from the food truck underneath the 7 train in Corona called Tortas Neza. Its Tortas Pumas is a monster and could feed a family, but you won’t regret eating the entire thing in one go.
What would a perfect NYC day look like for you?
The best mornings I’ve had involved grabbing a coffee and catching up on reading underneath the Pepsi-Cola sign at Gantry State Plaza in LIC, so I’d probably start there. Afterward I’d catch the E train to Chelsea to check out some new exhibitions in the neighborhood galleries; I’ve been a big fan of P.P.O.W. Gallery for a long while.
Then I’d take a quick stroll to the Union Square Greenmarket to see what’s in season (and probably buy a seasonal m’smen from Hot Bread Kitchen for a snack) and spend an hour or two scanning the cookbook shelves at Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks before treating myself to a pile of Korean fried wings at Turntable Chicken Jazz. I’d either cap off the day with a show at Bowery Ballroom or picking up a cone at Mikey Likes It Ice Cream.
Jess Bender’s Best of New York City
Bar Buddha Beer Bar on the cusp of Washington Heights and Inwood. Its draft list is ever-changing and highlights a lot of breweries you don’t often see at your usual neighborhood bar. Its wings are also some of the best I’ve ever had.
Ice cream Ice + Vice is a game changer in the ice cream world. The seasonal flavors are outrageous (black garlic ice cream with sweet corn crumble—what?!), but my usual order is the Opium Den (white sesame ice cream with toasted poppy seeds and a lemony crouton).
Taco I used to live around the block from Tehuitzingo in Hell’s Kitchen, so I would go there and order late-night lengua and al pastor tacos more often than I should have.
Dessert I’ve gone significantly out of my way several times to pick up a slice of Ovenly’s Brooklyn Blackout cake. It reminds me of the scene in Matilda in which Ms. Trunchbull forces Bruce Bogtrotter to eat an entire chocolate cake in front of his classmates. I’d probably do the same thing with this cake if I had the chance.
Breakfast I can talk about bagels for hours, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I’ve talked about the ones made at Brooklyn Bagel & Coffee Company (specifically the location on Broadway in Astoria). My go-to order is a whole wheat everything with lox-scallion cream cheese.
Bloody Mary The bartenders at Jacob’s Pickles put an entire breakfast in your Bloody BLT. The smoky bacon and jalapeño-pickled egg is practically its own appetizer.
Coffee shop Sweetleaf on Center Boulevard in Long Island City. I still go out of my way to visit now and then (even though it takes an hour, but long commutes are why podcasts were made, right?), and the trip is worth it for the raspberry oat bars and superstrong iced coffee.
Restaurant for dinner with your parents My parents are huge fans of Cafe Habana on Spring Street. It’s not the usual crowd that most parents go for, but they really love people-watching while eating their corn on the cob smothered in Cotija and lime juice.
Day trip One of my new favorite fall activities is taking Metro-North to Beacon and exploring all the unique large-scale sculptures among the foliage at the Storm King Art Center. If you visit the area early enough, get yourself to Beacon Bread and grab a loaf of bread to snack on.
Want to go on a culinary adventure with Jess? Or want more of her expert picks? Get in touch with our experience advisers.