Three friends and I set out to have a foodcentric tour of Manhattan. I ended up asking lots of questions on this board and received lots of recommendations, so thanks for everything! I'm posting a HUGE string of reviews, with the larger format tasting menus on their posts, so hopefully that makes it easier to read.
tl;dr: EMP > Ko = Jungsik > Per Se
Shake Shack, Times Square
We got the SmokeShack burger and thought it was quite good. It definitely wasn't the best burger we've ever had and it was probably impossible for it to live up to the Shake Shack hype, but it was one very good burger. The bacon was good, but the peppers are what made the burger shine. They provided the acidity to cut through the rich burger and the lingering heat was a nice touch. The crinkle fries were very good and my friend had a strawberry milkshake, which he said was pretty good. I'm not sure I'd choose the SmokeShack over my beloved In-N-Out Double Double, but it was an excellent burger. Through our entire meal, we kept seeing people walking by us with these burgers that had this fried hockey puck-looking thing. We finally realized it was the fried cheese-stuffed portabello mushroom. We really wished we had gotten that instead of the SmokeShack.
Stumptown (West 8th)
We arrived too late to be able to go to the Brew Bar for a nitro cold brew. We ended up with just the normal hot coffee, which at the time was Indonesia Sulawesi Toarco Peaberry. It had great flavor with some floral notes I really enjoyed. I liked it so much I ended up buying a bag of beans. I also really liked the coffee shop itself. It was warm and inviting, without seeming snooty.
We arrived at Flushing Main Street with the goal to get a few things to eat and then get a cab to go to Sik Gaek for some live squid. While walking towards Golden Mall, we saw smoke coming from a stand and I excitedly walked over hoping it was a skewered meat stand like the ones in Taiwan. And it was! It turned out to be the Xinjiang BBQ Cart operated by a very nice husband and wife team. All skewers were $1.25 and we got a variety of chicken, beef, lamb, chicken heart, and squid. The chicken was the clear winner. The meat was beautifully cooked over hot coals and the spicy seasoning was perfect. Every skewer we had was excellent, but I still crave that chicken one. We then walked to the Golden Mall basement food court and found a dumpling place that sold us 12 handmade pork and cabbage dumplings for $3. With the black vinegar and the chili oil, they were delicious. If anyone knows the name of the place, I would love to find out.
Halal Guys (53rd and 6th, SE corner)
Our conference hotel was right by Halal Guys, so we gave it a try even though I knew I have only gotten really good Halal plates from the original stand at night. The one we went to during lunch had the official Halal Guys shirts and signs, but the food just didn't hit the mark. The chicken was dry and the lamb had no char to it at all. By the time we got it back across the street to the hotel, the meat and rice was cold. The lamb had almost no flavor and reminded me of those little sausage chunks you get on cheap frozen pizza. They really need to get some char onto that lamb. Both the chicken and the lamb were sitting on the grill area, so not sure why they had no grill flavor. The white sauce was great and the red sauce was as spicy as ever, but altogether the meal missed the mark.
See reply for Jungsik.
Halal Guys (original location, 53rd and 6th, SW corner)
We went back to Halal Guys around 1am. We once again ordered the lamb and chicken over rice and, this time, the platter tasted like what I've had in the past. The lamb was seasoned and browned with little charred bits. The chicken was tender and flavorful. The rice was hot and the salad was ice cold. It was amazing how different this platter was to the one I had 12 hours earier across the street.
There was only minimal wait becauase of the bad weather. We tried both the original Shiromaru Hakata Classic and the Akamaru Modern. Both broths were wonderful, but the Akamaru Modern was the winner. The secret "Umami Dama" miso paste really made the flavor of the broth more rich and complex. The noodles were much more "toothsome" than I'm used to at a ramen house, but I liked it a lot since it was a nice texture contrast (I'm used to everything in the bowl being sort of soft). One problem was the chashu pork was pretty bad. It was thick, tough, lacking in flavor, and was a very unappealing brown color. It looked like a boiled piece of pork that had been rolled and sliced. I was expecting a much more delicate pork sliced thin with intense flavor and at least some pork fat. All three of us left most of the chashu pork untouched.
Second time at Stumptown and this time, we came while the brew bar was in operation. We opted for the nitro cold brew instead of getting something custom brewed in one of the many brewing contraptions. Looking back, I wish I had gotten something brewed with the siphon. We all got the nitro cold brew and, while it was creamy and good at first, the creaminess went away as it settled and became this soft of sour iced coffee that was a bit offputting. Maybe I just don't know enough about good coffee, but the sour coffee taste did not sit well with me. I was hoping there would be a simple syrup at the bar so I could add a little, but had to settle for normal granulated sugar. The sugar helped, but it was still pretty sour. I also tried their Winter cold brew with the mulling spices and it was exceptional! Tasted like what I wish a Starbucks gingerbread latte would taste like. I got one to-go and happily sipped it throughout my subway ride back to the hotel.
See reply for Per Se.
Halal Guys (original location, 53rd and 6th, SW corner)
Went back to Halal Guys since our fourth person had joined us and wanted it. This time, we still went to the official original location, but the lamb once again had no char to it. They had the lamb and chicken in two hotel pans placed over the grilling surface. When I saw that, my heart sunk and I knew it would not be as good as it was the night before. Indeed, the lamb lacked any browness. The flavors were still good, but not great. Why keep the meat steaming in hotel pans when you have a grill right there? Maybe that's what they do when it's really cold and snowing, but I wish they would take some out of the hotel pan, get it on the grill, sell it, then take more from the hotel pan and transfer it to the grill. I have never had such bad luck with Halal Guys as I did this trip.
See reply for Ko.
Momofuku Ssam Bar
We came here right after Ko to try a famed David Chang pork bun. We really wished we had not. The pork bun was pretty awful. The pork itself lacked flavor and the bun was slightly soggy. Altogether, the pork bun as a whole just sucked. It felt like a component was missing. It's very strange since I had a pork bun at Ssasm Bar a couple years ago and loved it more than the one at Ippudo. But this time, it was such a disappointment. I could have sworn my pork bun last time had a kimchee puree, but it was not present this time. It was definitely not a good idea to follow up the perfection of Ko with a Ssam Bar pork bun.
Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream
Holy crap, this place is expensive. But the ice cream is delicious. The earl gray flavor was exactly what we needed to clense our palates after the pork bun debacle. I also got the hazelnut, which I enjoyed a tad bit less. The hazelnut had so many nuts in it that it disrupted the smooth creaminess of the ice cream and made it feel icy instead. I wish I had room to have also tried the hot chocolate made with 99% chocolate. I'm always on the hunt for nice rich hot chocolate that is not too sweet or vanillay. I bet this place could have provided that.
Momofuku Milk Bar
Third David Chang place of the day and this experience was, unfortunately, more like our Ssam Bar experience than our Ko experience. The famed Crack Pie was ridiculously sweet to the point of being inedible. I thought the cereal milk ice cream was decent, but everyone else hated it. There was something strange about the flavor, but at least it was light and somewhat refreshing. I also picked up three cookies, although I've only eaten the peanut butter one so far. It's a great cookie with lots of peanut butter flavor, but boy, I don't even want to guess how much butter is in that one cookie.
We then walked from Milk Bar all the way to Chelsea Market and then walked the High Line for a while. We ended up getting coffee at Ninth Street Espresso, which served us some nice coffee, but I think I prefer Stumptown. I did like that they had simple syrup available. The surprise of the night was Ronnybrook Milk Bar. We ended up buying chocolate milk in glass bottles and it was so good that I drank a whole cup of it even though I know my body cannot handle drinking milk (I'm a bit lactose intolerant). $4.75 for chocolate milk or $4 for normal milk and you can keep the glass bottle? I'm a bit embarrassed to say I bought a quart of milk just for the bottle and ended up pouring the milk down the drain. My friend also bought a blueberry milkshake which was the best milkshake I've ever had. It tasted exactly like a frozen blueberry pancake without the bready pancake part. So good! Unfortunately, we were too full to try a sandwich at Num Pang or to get the artichoke pizza from Artichoke Basille across the street.
I'm sad that there is only one location remaining of my favorite dog and papaya drink shop. The recession special is still going strong. The papaya drink stands on its own as one of the most delicious and thirst-quencing drinks I can think of. The hot dogs are probably more debateable, but I do enjoy them still. I doubt I'd pay the $2 they ask for a hot dog, but as part of the recession deal ($5 for two hot dogs and a papaya drink), it's great. It might not be a good hot dog, but to me, it tastes like New York. Nothing better than eating hot dogs and drinking papaya drinks while the rest of the city is at Valentine's Day dinner.
Prince Street Pizza
Late night trek to get pizza. We came here because one of my friends saw a reddit post by Kenji Lopez-Alt (The Food Lab) where he claimed this place to be his favorite pizza spot. My friend looked the place up and saw that they use the pepperoni that cooks up "into a cup full of pepperoni grease" with charred edges, so we were sold. We ordered an entire signature pepperoni Sicillian pizza (8 large square slices) and it was as good as it looked. They were very generous on the amount of pepperoni used as, as advertised, the pepperoni curved into cups full of pepperoni grease. It was one heck of a pizza!
Came for the famous banana pudding and ended up with a few pastries as well. The banana pudding is fantastic. Thick and full of banana flavor, yet somehow still light. It felt almost like I was eating ice cream. It's a good thing I don't live nearby, since I think I would want that banana pudding all the time. I also got a chocolate cranberry cookie, which was excellent. The lemon bundt cake, the mini blueberry crisp, and the lemon bar were all good. I think the only item I didn't like was the coffee cake which was supposed to have Peet's Coffee in it. There wasn't much coffee flavor at all.
We made the trip to the original location in East Harlem and ordered a a whole pie from the take-out store. Whole pie with fresh mozzerella and basil totaled $17 and it came out hot and fresh from their coal oven. Wow, the pizza was so good I wanted to eat the entire pie myself. The thin crust was light, the sauce tasted like fresh crushed tomatoes, the whole pizza was delicious. It's impossible to get a pizza like this where I'm from. Somehow the pizza felt light and refreshing to eat and the complete opposite of what I normally get when I order pizza. Patsy's has ruined me on pizza since, whenever I order it now, I'm going to be comparing it to the pie I had at Patsy's.
We came pretty late in the day and many flavors were sold out. We ended up getting a dozen to eat later on. The creme brulee DoughSeed was the standout, with the not-too-sweet filling and the nicely carmelized top. The coffee cake doughnut would be my second favorite with a nice dose of coffee flavor. The Blackout was good as well, since it was intensely chocolate tasting without the sweetness. We also tried the passionfruit and the rose water, both of which I was not fond of. Unfortunately, we had arrived too late to be able to try the Green Tea doughnut.
Eleven Madison Park
See reply for EMP.
Shake Shack, Upper West Side
We started the trip with Shake Shack, so it was only appropriate that we end the trip with Shake Shack. This time, we got the Shack Stack, which is a normal burger with the addition of the fried cheese-stuffed portabello mushroom (from the 'shroom burger). This is the burger that meets the Shake Shack expectations. It feels a little weird to spend $9 on a fast food burger, but I took a bite and realized it was definitely NOT a fast food burger. The flavors were so complex with the cheese filling oozing out of the mushroom and the fried mushroom itself adding texture and umami to the burger. If I'm ever at Shake Shack again, I know what I'm getting. For some reason, this location uses fresh-cut fries instead of the crinkle fries. It's unfortunate since the Shake Shack crinkle fry was so tasty when I had it at the Times Square location. Maybe because it's the Upper West Side, they tried to be "healthy" with fresh-cut fries, but they end up limp and mushy and lacking in flavor. The Shack Stack burger beats out In N Out, but the fries here are worse than In N Out fries.
And that's it! A six-day eating adventure which I think was a pretty good representation of food in New York. We had a ton of other places we wanted to try, but there was just not enough time or stomach space. In terms of our tasting menus, I think the final order would be EMP > Ko = Jungsik > Per Se. Thanks for being great hosts, New York!