In 2018, exhausted and burned out from work, I quit my job and bought a one-way ticket to Cebu City in the Philippines.
I spent the next six months hopping from country to country in Southeast Asia. Along the way, I sought the best parts of each country’s cuisine, slurping spicy bowls of noodles and gnawing on skewers of meat at roadside plastic tables. Having been to several Southeast Asian countries before, I’d already established an affection toward the variety of food and culture in the region.
When I returned home, I quickly came to crave the delicious meals I had overseas. I wandered the side streets and back alleys of New York City with a voracious hunger. Once those options were exhausted, I branched outward to neighboring states. The following list is my recommendation for Southeast Asian restaurants in the Northeast.
After a night of drinking with friends in Jakarta, there was no better food to fill a late-night craving than martabak (pictured above). Papa Don’s martabak manis – a dessert version of the buttery, fluffy, pancake-like bread – comes with sweet fillings like chocolate, Nutella, peanuts and sprinkles.
On Tuesdays, Chef Dewi Tjahjadi cooks up Indonesian classics in the back of Indo Java, an Indonesian grocery store in Elmhurst, Queens. Originally from Surabaya, Chef Dewi’s dishes represent multiple locations from Indonesia’s 16,000 islands. The menu rotates weekly, often offering two options. If you’re lucky, you might get to try my favorite, soto betawi, a beef soup from Jakarta that sends my endorphins flying. The space rotates chefs, so if you can’t make it on a Tuesday, Thursday’s feature, Warung Kamis, has similarly excellent options.
Brooklyn and Manhattan
Ratih Wulandari Del Valle started Jakarta Munch in 2019 after leaving an office job, and we’re all better for it. Her salad and rice bowls feature well-known dishes from Jakarta, like spicy beef rendang. And on special occasions, you may find my favorite Jakarta breakfast, bubur ayam, a rice dish not unlike congee or rice porridge, made with shredded chicken and an array of tasty condiments like fried shallots, sweet soy sauce, peanuts and chicken stock. Find the food stall at the Smorgusburg food market in Prospect Park on Sundays and in front of the World Trade Center Oculus on Fridays.
Jersey City, N.J.
Go to Little Quiapo for a traditional longsilog breakfast of eggs, sausages and rice. But if you want an authentic sweet treat, you need to try the halo-halo at this Southeast Asian restaurant. This mixed dessert features ice cream, condensed milk, corn, fruit, beans, shaved ice, tapioca and jellies. Commence sugar rush.
Erika Costa is the cook behind the Filipinx pop-up in New York City, cooking up Filipino comfort food and classic street food. Fried tilapia, chicken adobo and pork lumpia (traditional crispy spring rolls), often grace her menus. Follow Patikim’s schedule on Instagram and try to get there early as it is sure to sell out. Bring a group of friends, order everything and share.
Like many Cambodian restaurants in the Northeast, Heng Lay serves a mixture of Cambodian and Thai dishes. For a dish that’s distinctly Cambodian, I recommend the terk kreung, a traditional fish-based dip for raw vegetables. It has a deep, savory flavor that comes from tamarind and fish paste. You will be lapping it up when you run out of veggies.
East Hartford, Conn.
I was sitting at a plastic table on the second floor of a restaurant overlooking the street in Saigon when a torrential downpour rained angrily on the passing motorbikes. I took in the scene while slurping noodles from a mammoth bowl of bun bo hue. This spicy bowl of beef, pork pieces and cilantro haunts my dreams. Go to Pho 501 on a Saturday, which is the only day the soup is offered, and yes, you should ask for it with pig’s feet.
My favorite banh mi in New York City is found at Ba Xuyen. I want the classic sandwich of pate, head cheese, ham, butter and pickled vegetables, wrapped in a fresh baguette without any flair. It reminds me of early morning runs to a local street vendor in District 1 of Saigon, who sold me sandwiches wrapped in newspaper.
Bun rieu is perhaps the greatest single dish I’ve eaten anywhere, ever. I first tried it in Saigon, but this magical bowl is also sold at Saigon Social in New York City. It features crab, pork, shrimp, tofu and rice vermicelli in a pork and chicken broth.
There are many incredible places to get Malaysian food in New York City, yet I keep returning to Kopitiam. In Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur, I ate plate after plate of nasi lemak, which I think is the perfect introduction to Malaysian cuisine. At Kopitiam, this national dish has coconut rice, ikan bilis (fried anchovies and peanuts), cucumber, hard-boiled egg and a side of house sambal sauce. And, of course, you must order kopi (coffee).
When the summer heat in Thailand was at its most oppressive, all I wanted to do was relax with a cold Chang Beer and a plate full of street food. At Mao Mao, you can have a similar experience while watching classic films on a big screen and munching on Thai drinking snacks. But don’t expect a fine dining experience; this is the real deal. The plastic plates, cold drinks and dim ambiance take me back to Bangkok.
Boat noodle soup is an underrepresented Thai dish, and that needs to change. Pye Boat Noodle in Queens has you covered. The soup comes as a big bowl of murky broth with fiery chilies, fresh garlic and cilantro, pork and rice noodles. Often, the dark broth is flavored with pig or cow blood.
Khe-Yo is New York City’s only Lao restaurant. There have been excellent Lao pop-ups throughout the five boroughs, but this is the sole brick and mortar. I recommend the pork curry noodle bowl and as many small plates as you can eat.
Lao food is somewhat elusive, as many Lao chefs and restaurant owners have historically run Thai restaurants in the United State due to the idea that it is more marketable and familiar. It’s time we familiarize the American palette with this truly wonderful cuisine.
Regrettably, I haven’t made it to Myanmar yet. Therefore, my love of Burmese food isn’t tied to memories of my travels, but I can recommend Amayar Kitchen all the same. Order the traditional Burmese tea leaf salad with fermented tea leaves, crunchy peanuts and fried shallots. And don’t forget to try the kyae oh noodle soup, a pork bone broth with meatballs, offal and other chewy bits and rice noodles.
Do you have a favorite Southeast Asian restaurant in the Northeast? Share it with us in the comments below.