Best Hot Chocolate
Champurrado at Tulcingo del Valle (665 10th Ave.)
If you’ve not already been converted to the Mexican version of every kid’s favorite snow-day drink that adds a grownup level of spicy complexity to the sweet treat, stop reading now and catch up to the rest of us. Done? Good. Now take it to the next level with this variation, a Mexico City refinement, which merges the traditional masa-thickened drink atole with that cinnamon- and vanilla-spiked chocolate. The result? A drinkable chocolate pudding that warms all the way down. The texture is an idiosyncratic pleasure that never stops being a surprise; if you can keep it around long enough to let it cool, it’ll even form a skin on the top—the best part of any pudding, natch.
Best Christmas Tradition
Speculoos at Wafels & Dinges (truck locations change daily; check @waffletruck)
Seems like lately we’ve been catching up to the Dutch and their way of life in some important ways—just call Washington state the New New Amsterdam thanks to their Initiative 502. Add Christmas treats to that list, now that the (OK, so they’re Belgian) Wafels & Dinges fleet has begun offering speculoos as a topping for their already celebration-worthy waffles. Ever flown Delta and wondered where they found those cookies they hand out? Those are speculoos, a spicy, wintry shortbread that’s everything a gingerbread cookie ought to be—with more butter. They’re so well-loved in Northern Europe that a spread made of the crushed-up cookies is sold year-round for breakfast-time toast-capades. The Wafels & Dinges people carry the spread; but in season (this season!), they also make ice cream out of the stuff, for a full speculoos explosion. We’re not going to say it’d be especially tasty after a trip over to Washington state, but … the Dutch may just have had the right idea all along.
Best Farmers’ Market Find
Neighborhood Honey from Andrew’s Honey (Mondays and Wednesdays at Union Square)
OK, so winter farmers’ markets are a stripped-down version of their summertime explosion, with fewer vendors and a more limited stock, but many of the city’s neighborhood markets are in it for the long haul (check grownyc.org to see if yours is sticking it out). There are plenty of root crops and hardy greens that are just coming into their own, as well as apples and pears that, if stored correctly, are just as juicy in January as when they first came off the tree. All of these will keep scurvy at bay during the dark months, but the most beneficial of all may be Andrew’s neighborhood honeys. Harvested from rooftop apiaries around town, each batch is clearly labeled with its microclimate of origin. Live near Lincoln Square? The UWS blend is for you. Further downtown? Try the LES. It’s said that one of the best ways to prevent pollen allergies is to eat honey made from the same local flowers that surround you; start topping your yogurt now and sneeze less in April.
Best Food Gift
The Holiday Six-Pack from the Brooklyn Salsa Company (Stall at the Union Square Holiday Market; bksalsa.com)
We’re generally not big fans of the food gift. There is only so much candy one person can eat in a month; after your eighth box, even the most lovingly made, super-artisanal truffles may as well be Russell Stover’s drugstore delight. Those towers of boxes are padded with the snacks that nobody will buy on their own (cheese puff Chex mix, anyone?), and apparently the only way to ship pears is to dip them in concrete first, if those rock-hard four-pack specimens are to be believed. But food can be a great gift, especially for that friend who already has every kitchen gadget known to man. Brooklyn Salsa’s six-pack runs the gamut of flavors, from mild curry to hot, dark mole, with a stopover in green tomatillos and a seasonal coconut milk-scented blend that will spice up any holiday party. Great with chips, they also make amazing recipe additions; get ready to spend the next six months hearing about your pal’s latest salsa experiment.
Best Excuse to Overeat
Hurricane Sandy Relief Continues
Think that 12-12-12 concert was the last chapter on Sandy fundraising efforts? Think again. While you’d think The Boss alone has enough pocket change on him to get hurricane-affected neighborhoods back on their feet for good, it turns out NYC still needs help, and badly. At No. 7 Sub in the Ace Hotel (1188 Broadway; no7sub.com), special guest chefs are contributing a special sandwich design every week, the proceeds of which will go to hurricane relief. This week is the last but will likely be the best, with hotel-mate April Bloomfield submitting what is sure to be a Brit-tastic construction. Then there’s the ongoing effort to rebuild destroyed Brooklyn and Queens restaurants, like the Save Governor campaign, which is raising $150,000 through a Kickstarter-esque website as well as hosting special dinners to fund repairs to the beloved Dumbo spot. Check facebook.com/dineoutnyc or ny.eater.com for up-to-the-minute event listings and special offers.
Best Starbucks Substitute
Coconut Milk Latte at Hu Kitchen (78 Fifth Ave., hukitchen.com)
It’s been easy to pick on Starbucks for a good long time now, with the multi-hyphenate drinks on offer and its Big Gulp-adjacent sizing, but when you cut out all of the snark and sugar-shaming, the place was still a good option for a last-ditch buzz. They basically pioneered the concept of daylong caffeination, taking coffee out of the morning ghetto and dressing it up as a midday treat. Admit it, you loved the Frappucino when it was first introduced, before it came in flavors like Cinnamon Dolce Crème and lost what little coffee hit it ever had. That’s the real travesty of the place now: There’s no coffee in the coffee anymore. Thankfully, a welcome side effect of Hu Kitchen’s super-paleo, anti-industrial philosophy is a myriad of milk options at the coffee bar that goes beyond skim or soy. Housemade almond milk in a cappuccino gives an amaretto-like grownup buzz, while a coconut milk latte is an instant trip to Aruba—a treat that’ll pep you up without relying on artificial sugar syrup.
Tourist Tradition That’s Really Worth It
Ice Skating at Bryant Park
No, not Rockefeller Center—the massive tree, while genuinely beautiful, is not enough to get us fighting toe-to-blade with the hordes that descend on the ice rink there. And Central Park, while picturesque in the right light, is too much of a trek from civilization to warrant the long lines and traffic jams. But Bryant Park has the best of both worlds—a green surrounding and easy subway access—and is somehow, miraculously, the least populated rink in the city. Even better, it’s got multiple snacking options for post-skating revival that are worlds better than the tragic pretzel cart in the park or the jam-packed Rock Center food court. Head for the ’Wichcraft Southwest Porch, an outpost of the Tom Colicchio-helmed sandwich stand that steps things up with hearty options like short rib chili and tomato soup, plus warm drinks like real Irish coffee and spiked greenmarket cider, to thaw out your fingers and enjoy the closest thing you’ll get to ski chalet living without getting on a plane.
Best Soup That’s Nothing Like What Mama Used to Make
Tasty Hand-Pulled Noodles (1 Doyers St.)
Unless mama spent a lot of time throwing noodle dough around and roasting ducks in the window, that is. And if that was a common occurrence for you, we’re inviting ourselves over immediately. For the rest of us, raised on Lipton’s instant chicken soup packets and cans of Campbell’s concentrate, the soups at Tasty Hand-Pulled Noodle are a revelation of textural contrast and deep, intense flavors. Tender, chewy noodles are the anchor of every bowl here—you can swap for the thicker, shorter knife-peeled noodle if you want, though they work better in stir-fry than soup—and the slight variations of thickness from strand to strand make every bite a delight. Toppings range from bok choy-heavy vegetable to beef stew; for a down-home experience miles from your own home, go for the beef tendon, which melts into the hot broth, leaving behind a bowl of rich, unctuous goodness. Bring your mom, and if you get lucky, maybe she’ll take notes.
Most Exciting New Arrival
The Smith Lincoln Center (1900 Broadway; thesmithnyc.com)
If you have, are related to, or otherwise know any little girls between the ages of 3 and 13, it’s guaranteed you’ll be making the trip up to Lincoln Center for the annual Nutcracker ballet pilgrimage. In years past, this was a hungry chore; for a neighborhood that practically screams for an oversaturation of cheap and cheerful pre-theater dining, it’s been slim, expensive pickings for way too long. Thankfully, the owners of The Smith, a nouveau comfort food mini-chain with locations in the East Village and Midtown, have swooped in with a 300-plus-seat savior that’s got something for everyone, from picky kids to hard-to-please grandmas. From breakfast to post-performance drinks and dessert, the expansive menu of Southern-inflected favorites will have you enthusiastically buying tickets for next year’s performance before you get through this one.
Best Way to Indulge in Weather Denial
Grilled Shrimp Salad at New Tu Do (109 Bowery)
Vietnamese food, with its emphasis on fresh herbs, bright citrus flavors and exceptionally fresh seafood, is sunny-day food, no matter how lousy the weather may actually be. Even pho, that cold-weather classic soup, comes loaded with enough cilantro, lime wedges and jalapeño slices to lift spirits from the lowest winter depths, warming you so effectively that by the end of the bowl, you’re ready to throw on a pair of flip-flops and go outside to sunbathe. For the full summertime experience, get the grilled shrimp—sweet, fish-sauce-marinated shrimp are thrown over a searingly hot grill and served, caramelized and blackened, over an herbal, crunchy salad. It’s straight from the world’s best backyard barbecue, but without the mosquitoes and threat of heat stroke. Who needs the summer?
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