Thanks to the contributions of helpful chowhounds, I visited some excellent neighborhoods during my recent visit to New York. (I've attached a link to the "chow walking tours" that they helped me put together.) Some people asked me to report my impressions, so here they are. I am not yet a New York chow authority, far from it, so I doubt that the experts will learn much from me. I do have some corrections and other details to offer, though.
I went to these places: Bay Ridge, Brighton, Flatbush, and Greenpoint in Brooklyn and Astoria, Flushing, and Jackson Heights in Queens. I did not make to Midwood, Richmond Hill, or Woodside, though I did work in an early-morning pass through Manhattan's Chinatown.
Top of the list was Brighton. Brighton Beach Avenue belongs in the snacking hall of fame. I got off at the Brighton Beach subway stop, walked east for a couple of blocks, and then turned around and walked along to the Ocean Parkway stop. Along the way I bought stuff to eat at six or eight places. I'll never keep them straight from memory, but here's what I can recall. First, I only went to places on the odd-numbered (north) side of the street. That's where most of the interesting stuff seemed to be. It was fascinating to have that total-immersion Russian cultural experience. It didn't quite match Chinatown (e.g., in Flushing) for cultural total immersion, but it was something.
The best thing in Brighton was a grocery/deli store east of the Brighton Beach stop, maybe several storefrontss along from Mrs. Stahl's (which is on the corner opposite the subway stop). They had outrageous sweets and deserts all laid out on tables self-serve, and I grabbed some of those. I also got a knish at Mrs. Stahl's, though I soon learned that a wide variety of things get called knishes, and I liked best one of the cabbage knishes I got at another deli east of the Brighton Beach subway, smaller and more seasoned than the others.
Working back along Brighton Beach Blvd, there was an unbelievable number of interesting places, easily twenty places. I got a slab of some potato-and-egg thing, a really excellent hunk of what they called shishkebob chicken, a pancake made from bulgar or something, and I can't even remember what else. The downside is that I had totally fed my face, so that I would hardly be able to eat anything else the rest of the day.
One thing I liked about Brighton Beach and some of the other areas, e.g., Jackson Heights and Astoria, was the elevated "subway" tracks over the main shopping street, which lent the neighborhood a strange intimacy. On the other hand, I did get annoyed at the subway service, which I found erratic in Queens and slow because of the innumerable local stops in Brooklyn. I just had to bring reading material and slow down.
After Brighton I went to Bay Ridge, which is a whole different thing. I walked up Fifth Avenue from the 86th Street subway stop to the Bay Ridge Avenue stop (which is apparently misnamed, since it's actually the Bay Ridge Parkway if I recall correctly). It turns out that the person who posted a message about Bay Ridge was slightly confused about the Danish Bakery there. It's called Leske's (7612 5th Ave, 718 680 2323). (Leshko's is in a different part of town.) The people at Leske's were nice and I got some cookies. They had real Danish pastries, though unfortunately not as spectacular as the ones you see in Denmark.
Because Bay Ridge is such a mixture of different ethnicities, you don't get the same total immersion effect as in Brighton and elsewhere. You have to look closely to see the diversity. It seems like a nice neighborhood to live in, though, if you don't have to make the endless subway ride to Manhattan regularly.
The contrast between Brighton and Flatbush was funny. It's hard to imagine cultures that are more different. I got off at the #1 Utica Ave subway stop, walked south through the restaurant area, grabbed the 46 bus as recommended to Church Ave, and walked the mile or two east to the subway at Nostrand Ave. Because I had fed my face in Brighton, I couldn't eat anything. But I got some cane juice from a guy who was feeding the cane into a juicing machine along Church Ave.
The most interesting area (to me) was the restaurant district right below the Utica Ave stop. There were at least a dozen interesting places. I stopped at Joyce's Cafe to get something to drink, but they seemed to be out of everything. I don't know what was going on with that. I was dying for a roti and there were at least a few interesting roti places, but the results wouldn't have been pretty.
Someone on the board asked where they could find a Guyanese place. There's a place called something like Guyana Roti on Church Ave a block or two east of the subway stop at Nostrand, which I think is called Church Ave on the 2/5 (as opposed to the Church Ave stop on the Q -- the sun was going down so I didn't try to walk that far).
By the time I got to Greenpoint (close to the end of my trip -- I'm not writing about the places in the order in which I went to them) my feet were dying. A blister opened up on my heel, in fact, as soon as I got out of the Greenpoint subway stop, so I stumbled into the first Polish restaurant I came across, which was Krystyna's (or some Polish spelling like that), on the west side of Manhattan Ave. It didn't look that promising, actually, but I didn't have much choice. It's a very basic, cheap kielbasa-and-potatoes type place. Service was slow (the place, though small, was packed), the kielbasa wasn't completely warmed (i.e., microwaved), the green beans were overcooked, etc. But I got out of there for $7, so what am I complaining about.
The more interesting places in Greenpoint were further along. I walked along Manhattan Ave, south from the subway station to a place where the road bends to the left and there's a park on the right; that's where the shopping district seems to fade out, a mile or two along. The most interesting places were toward the bottom of that shopping zone. Of the several kielbasa places, by far the most interesting was on the west side of the road toward the south end. They had a long line of people waiting for the sausages that were hanging all over the place. The sausage aroma was most impressive. There was a promising-looking mid-scale Polish restaurant across the street, but I'm afraid I didn't take notes about names or addresses.
I also went to Good Friday services at the Catholic Church toward the north end of the road and generally took in the Polish culture. Lots of Polish was being spoken, etc.
In Astoria, I got off at the Ditmars Blvd stop and walked south along the subway line until I think 36th Avenue. There wasn't the same sense of total immersion here as elsewhere, but I did go into several interesting Greek places. Titan Foods (25-56 31st St, 718 204 6856) is, if I'm remembering correctly, the Greek supermarket where I got an interesting small shocking-orange cake. There were several other Greek places to look into; I didn't investigate the restaurants though.
At the bottom of my walk through Astoria, I took my fellow hound's advice and had dinner at the Brazilian restaurant called Malagueta (25-35 36th Ave, 718 937 4821), though it's three blocks west of the subway stop, not three blocks east as our friend had said. It was a pleasant, relaxing white-tablecloth Brazilian place, not real busy on a Thursday evening. After due deliberation I got a slab of salmon with spinach and mashed potatoes -- a pretty standard sort of dish, though Brazilian food with a few exceptions does not emphasis wild invention. The spinach was interesting, marinated or something though a little wet for my taste, and the mashed potatoes were good and plentiful.
I did have one complaint with Malagueta which is common to many restaurants. When the waiter asks me how I want my meat or fish cooked, I have a bad habit of saying "medium". What I'm really trying to say is, "I don't want to think about that -- just cook it so it tastes good". But what they hear is, "I am a rube who thinks that meat/fish is going to give me disease if it's even slightly red inside, so cook it to death to make sure I don't complain". Needless to say this isn't the best way to get good food, and here as elsewhere I ended up with fish that was a bit dry and hard to eat. It was interestingly seasoned, though, and might have been excellent if they chose one of the three dozen cooking methods that prevents salmon from drying out.
Jackson Heights was actually the first neighborhood that I visited on my trip. Even though I have visited outlying neighborhoods in dozens of cities, each time I have to break through this barrier of ignorance that makes each place seem like a dangerous jungle until I actually get there, and so it was with Jackson Heights, though you'll have to admit it's an intense experience at first.
I tried to go to Sripaphai, which has been mentioned so often on this site, but unfortunately it was closed (not open for lunch?). So instead I navigated along and ended up going to Ihawan (40-06 70th St, 718 205 1480). Even though it's advertised and reputed as a barbecue place, I ended up ordering a fish soup, tilapia in tamarind broth with vegetables I think. It was great, this very unfamiliar-looking fish simply cut in half and cooked with some beans and greens in a light soup. I also, as recommended, stopped by Krystal's Pastry Shop for a purple pastry. I forget what they called it (it's their version of something standard). It was pleasingly strange and quite the sugar rush -- not suitable for anyone operating heavy equipment.
The best thing I had in Jackson Heights, though, was from a South American bakery on Roosevelt Avenue a block or so along from Ihawan. I *think* it was MiraCali Bakery (76-04 Roosevelt Ave, 718 779 7175) -- I have their business card, but I'm not 100% certain that the card is for the same place where I got this. "This" might be described as a guava Danish, if that's not a logical contradiction, only not refined like a Danish Danish but more dangerous somehow. I don't know what it is, maybe the sugar on the pastry having been caramelized in the oven. Partly it was the novelty value of guava jam in the pastry, which was a new concept to me. But overall it was one of the best things I had in New York, and I watched my waistline expand in real time as I ate this enormous thing while walking along Roosevelt Ave.
I saved Flushing for last because it was an easy bus ride from Laguardia. By the time I got there, though, it would not have been wise to eat much of anything. So I walked around at random and took it all in. I found interesting the crowdedness you associate with Chinatown in this neighborhood of relatively new and shiny buildings, all surrounding this big shiny new library. I did end up getting some Chinese bean pastries from a random bakery near the airport bus stop, but they weren't anything out of the ordinary.
I mention that, outside of Brooklyn and Queens, I also made a pass through Chinatown in Manhattan. It was early morning (I had just been to Ground Zero early early to beat the tourists), and I was hoping I might find a shop that had some dim sum steaming. Though things were gearing up for the day, I was disappointed in my dim sum search. I ended up getting a chicken-shaped almond cookie that turned out to be stale, so that I had to pretend it was a zweiback cracker. In any case, I had a list of places that had been recommended on this site. The only datum worth mentioning to you is that Oriental Garden Seafood (14 Elizabeth St, 212 619 0085) is closed for renovations through the end of April I think.
The place I ended up eating breakfast instead, after further peregrinations, was Shopsin's (63 Bedford St, 212 924 5160). With its funky decor obviously accreted for decades and its owners sprawled eccentrically over the furniture, it's the sort of place you expect to like right away; it has "institution" written all over it, so you swallow your concern at the high prices. Looking at their huge menu, I ordered peach pancakes, which sounded like a great concept. Great concept, but not in the end quite what I was paying so much money for. My image was that the cook would cut up an actual peach. But in fact the (quite good) pancakes had peaches from a can in them. Of course -- what did I expect? Well, for the money I expected real peaches. If peaches weren't in season and in stock, well, for that money they shouldn't have been on the menu.
The nature of Shopsin's became clearer to me as I chatted with the owners and the other eaters. The guy next to me, it turned out, was doing exactly the same thing I was doing. He was visiting from Denver for a concert, and he had maps drawn by the same Web map-drawing service that I use. One of the owners started carrying on about her clientele of people who eat there when they pass through town, so-and-so being semi-famous and so on. The owners' eccentricities wore thin much more quickly than I had expected, and to be honest though I should have hung out for an hour and read the newspaper while waiting for places in the West Village to open, in fact I couldn't get out of there fast enough.
I also ate at a couple of other places in downtown Manhattan that have been recommended here. At Snack (miniscule Greek place at105 Thompson St, 212 925 1040) I had an excellent not-cheap-but-still lamb sandwich for lunch, though they didn't seem to be clear on the meaning of "go easy on the aoli". And at Sobaya (Japanese place near the St. Mark's St book-and-record-store district, 229 E 9th St, 212 533 6966), the hyper-friendly people served me a very good udon "casserole" for a reasonable amount of money.
Finally, I hope you'll permit me a single non-chow note. I did a ton of other stuff in New York besides hunt for chow, but the most virtuous thing I came across was a jazz club called Small's (183 W 10th St, 212 929 7565), which offers 10 hours of jazz for $10 every night at 10pm, with no obnoxious requirement to buy expensive drinks at the bar -- in fact, no bar at all. You buy your alcohol elsewhere and bring it in. Although I did have to watch an obnoxious English tourist punch out an obnoxious French tourist, that was clearly a total aberration amidst a relaxed, informal, unpretentious jazz experience. Recommended.