Most people know New York City is the country’s cultural melting pot, but not everyone would guess that foreign-born New Yorkers outnumber the entire population of Chicago. It is no wonder the city has almost as many Chinatowns as it does boroughs. NYC’s three million immigrants, the most of any city in the world, often cluster into specific enclaves. From food to fashion, the best way to experience the Big Apple is a journey through its many ethnic neighborhoods.
Mulberry Street claims century-old restaurants and a mob-hit history, but the Little Italy of modern Manhattan now feels more like a ride on “It’s a Small World” at Disneyland. For a less touristic Italian experience, head north of Yankee Stadium to Arthur Avenue. Green, white and red flags wave proudly as family-owned shops line the streets selling cured meat, fresh cheese, homemade pasta and brightly colored pastries. Step into the main dining room at Zero Otto Nove for walls painted in the trompe l’oeil style that evoke images of a southern Italian village, or visit its sibling restaurant Roberto’s to discover why Zagat voters rated it the borough’s top restaurant for 2014. For dessert, honor The Godfather quote, “Leave the gun, take the cannoli” by watching the Madonia Brothers Bakery squeeze sweet cream into a pastry shell for a freshly made cannoli. If looking to take something home, crowd into the long and narrow Casa Della Mozzarella for deli meats and hand-pulled cheese that would make an Italian grandmother proud.
Richmond Hill, Queens
Guyana, a small country in northern South America, supplies NYC with its fifth largest foreign-born population, but the ethnic heritage of the Guyanese splits between Afro-Caribbean and South Asian descent. Stretching down Liberty Avenue, Little Guyana primarily features the latter, and the Asian influence makes for shops selling colorful fabrics, sari dresses, exotic spices and Guyana’s famous mango chutney. Pictures of the Kaieteur Falls, the nation’s top natural treasure, decorate the walls of many businesses, and the long lines at Singh’s Roti epitomize why it is a top dining choice for what the uninitiated might describe as Indian-style fajitas. The Little Guyana Bake Shop is an equally popular place with enough business to warrant two locations, though their sluggish service makes a spoiled Bushwick barista look like a mongoose. Unfortunately, none of the local bars has enough dark humor to serve alcohol-spiked Kool-Aid in honor of notorious cult leader Jim Jones.
Brighton Beach, Brooklyn
The Soviet Union loosened its emigration policy during its final decades, and if you migrated from an ice bucket like Russia or Ukraine, you too would feel the draw of beachfront Little Odessa in Brooklyn. Just like the crowded Black Sea beaches back home, Brighton will not win any Dr. Beach awards anytime soon. Still, a march down breezy Brighton Beach Avenue conjures up images of the motherland with colorful characters, stuffed pirozhok, Cyrillic signage and boutiques that offer a gaudy mix of Putin coffee mugs, fake fur coats, animal print boots and the type of loud shirts that recall summers in the real Odessa. Whether your vice is vareniki or vodka, boardwalk spots like the related Tatiana Grill and Tatiana Restaurant and Nightclub have you covered.
Jackson Heights, Queens
Any true exploration of NYC’s ethnic enclaves will involve the 7 train, and the Jackson Heights stop is home to both Little Colombia and Little India. With the subway tracks hanging overhead, a loud and shady walk east on Roosevelt Avenue takes travelers through a Colombian neighborhood once dominated by money laundering drug dealers in the 1990s. Today, the frantic street booms with salsa and cumbia music, soccer-hungry watering holes, discount retailers and immigrants proudly wearing James Rodriquez jerseys. The neighborhood, shared by a large Mexican and Ecuadorian contingent, best honors Colombian cuisine with the Arepa Lady, a late-night food truck legend serving up her beloved flatbread with meat, cheese and other savory accompaniments.
The last stop on the 7 train is Flushing, home to the 1964 World’s Fair and the largest of NYC’s four Chinatowns. After exiting the subway, it is immediately clear that personal space is as foreign to Flushing as buying live frogs at the market might be to you. For those who ever wondered if Kermit tastes like chicken, this is your chance, but the better bet is trying the soup dumplings (note: the soup is in the dumpling) at Nan Xiang or the hand-ripped biang biang noodles at the original Xi’an Famous Foods. Head into the New World Shopping Center—billed as the city’s largest indoor Asian mall—for Chinese groceries, fashion and accessories.
To the east of Chinatown, an ever-expanding Koreatown starts in Flushing and stretches all the way to Long Island. Stroll NYC’s version of Busan’s Meokja Golmok (“Let’s Eat Alley”) for neon-lit bars, karaoke lounges and restaurants serving dishes like cow head’s soup, chicken feet and high-risk fugu (pufferfish) stew. Better yet, follow in the footsteps of Anthony Bourdain and visit Sik Gaek, a party-style restaurant with burners built right into the tables. If Instagram was born for elBulli’s molecular gastronomy, YouTube was destined for Sik Gaek’s fresh octopus. The Fear Factor cameras might not be rolling, but the legs from this freshly killed octopus are. Imagine sitting at a table, chopsticks clumsily in hand, trying to pick up twitching tentacles before they crawl off the plate. Unless soy sauce counts, the octopus is raw, and the legs might squeeze your tongue. While unclear how popular this dish is in Korea, Clash of the Titans fans will love the chance to proclaim, “Release the kraken!”
Tompkinsville, Staten Island
Staten Island, home of The Wu-Tang and The Tenderloins, usually attracts visitors who only want slices at Denino’s or a ferry-perched shot of Lady Liberty. What most New Yorkers do not even know is that Staten Island is home to one of the largest Sri Lankan populations outside the island nation, which sits off the southeast coast of India. Little Sri Lanka, which fills several blocks along Victory Boulevard, has restaurants like New Asha serving food-IQ-testing dishes like string hoppers, kothu, pittu and lamprais, while specialty markets let you browse shelves stocked with lotus root, jaggery and sambal. The walk to Little Sri Lanka from the ferry stop is long and uphill, and the trek will feel like you just walked to Big Sri Lanka. Take a taxi or bus from the port if possible.
There is a “dancer” in Las Vegas named Brazil, and when asked something in Portuguese one day, she apparently responded, “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Brazilian.” Sadly, that level of authenticity epitomizes Little Brazil in Manhattan. West 46th Street might boast a “Little Brazil Street” sign and an annual Brazilian Day party, but the area offers little more than Brazilian flags, Havaianas flip-flops and the most over-played Brazilian dishes. Buzios Boutique, a second-floor store with a buzzer, might have a few items like caju and catupiry, but it pales in comparison to Rio Bonito Market in Astoria, Queens. In recent years, Little Brazil and other ethnic neighborhoods in Manhattan underwent a Times Square-like transformation into tourist zones. This means the most authentic experiences now await your presence in the outer boroughs.
David is a Los Angeles native. He has covered entertainment, restaurants and travel for more than 20 years as a writer and editor.