Block Rockin’ Eats

New York is the kind of town where you can find everything from dollar-a-slice pizza to shell-boiled duck embryos in the space of a single city block. And no matter what time of day or night it might be, someone, somewhere, is serving delicious food at reasonable prices — whether a Jewish deli, a Chinese dumpling bar, or a Punjabi food counter frequented by legions of late-night taxi drivers. It helps to have a local guide, of course. So, who better than the musicians who live, work and play at all hours, from one side of the city to the other?

“People need to eat well no matter what their income is,” says local rap legend El-P, tucking into a salmon bagel at the Jewish deli he part-owns in Brooklyn. “That’s the beautiful thing about New York: you can go anywhere and get a good meal. The delicacies and truths of life aren’t expensive; they’re available — you just have to know where to find them.”

To road-test this theory, we invited some of the city’s musicians, rappers and producers to show us exactly where they like to dine. From Spanish Harlem to the East Village and all the way out to Flushing, we downed dumplings, slurped smoothies, smashed back cocktails and gnawed ribs with electronic explorers, rock experimentalists, hip hop heavyweights and at least one band named after a spicy sausage.

Words: RODERICK STANLEY Photography: BEN RAYNER
Originally published in The Gourmand, October 2017

IAN WILLIAMS, Guitarist and founder of experimental rock trio Battles
TIANJIN DUMPLING HOUSE, Golden Shopping Mall, Flushing
Lamb and green squash dumplings, pork dumplings with chive, shrimp and egg

“The dumplings here are so great. I generally avoid fine dining — this kind of thing is more direct and honest. Like, ‘Here is our food, just sit down and enjoy it.’ The three of us in Battles got taken to Alinea in Chicago, though. It was super high-end, the best meal I’ve ever had. Insane. There was a pillow full of violet-scented air you press down on while chewing your food.

“I guess I could see a connection between that and my music-making. Like, ‘Someone put a plum on my plate, but it tastes like an egg. How did that happen?’ Similarly, I like playing the guitar and making it sound like an organ. Like, why don’t I just play an organ in the first place? For some reason, it’s just fun to do that. It’s like that with experimental cuisine — it’s transformational. This is going to be something unlike what you are used to. That’s a liberating experience.”

Chip, OJ, Lyla

CHORIZO, Purveyors of Spanish-language punk-rock love songs
JEEPNEY, 201 1st Avenue, East Village
Kamayan feast (almost everything on the menu, served on banana leaves, plus a few cocktails)

Lyla “We sing in Spanish, though we can’t really speak it very well. All our songs are about sex. It’s really explicit, filthy stuff I’d be way too shy to sing in English. But the songs are also romantic! One of our love songs is a ballad — and it’s about greasy chicken. There are a lot of sexual allusions that are food metaphors.”

OJ “I’m actually Filipino, so we thought this Filipino place would be unique. When I was a little kid, we didn’t have utensils, this is how we’d eat. We always had rice, always longanisa, which is this sausage with chicken and pork. And garlic fried rice… banana ketchup ribs. This all tastes exactly like what my mom would cook. And this is a balut — a fertilised duck egg. It’s like a boiled egg, but with more feathers.”

Chip “This meal is just like the Chorizo attitude, it’s a real brouhaha. There’s stuff everywhere, everybody gets their hands dirty and you don’t know what’s going to happen. We had someone throw a chorizo at us on stage once. We embrace it. I mean, we’re named after a sausage.”

“We embrace it. I mean, we’re named after a sausage.”

LOGAN TAKAHASHI, Electronic explorer and half of dance duo Teengirl Fantasy
HAWA SMOOTHIES AND BUBBLE TEA, 181A East Broadway, East Village
Almond butter acaí bowl, wheatgrass shot

“I come here multiple times in a week. Not only is the food and juice incredible, you feel great afterwards and it’s reasonably priced. I got an almond butter açaí bowl, which is very refreshing; nice, clean energy. Looks pretty, too. I also had a wheatgrass shot. I like to read the poster on the wall about its myriad health benefits while drinking one. It ups the experience for me.

“I’m even more health-conscious when I’m on tour and having to deal with no sleep, the air on planes and so on. I think there’s a connection between food and music. Both deal with assembling harmonies, textures and timbres in ways that fit within themselves. You can make a meal have its own internal logic and unfold much like you can a track.”

GOBBY, Boston-born, Brooklyn-dwelling producer of twisted-up beats
NAM SOM, 245 Grand Street, Lower East Side
Xe Lua (an extra big bowl of rice noodles and beef soup with brisket, bavel, frank, tendon and eye of round)

“I used to live next door to this place. It has huge portions that come out really fast. And it’s great value. This is the eye of round, this is brisket, and this thing which is chewy with little bumps all over it is tendon, I think… it’s like beef chewing gum. I always order this. It’s number 1 on the menu. And I’ve noticed that with most restaurants the closer a thing is to being first on the menu, the more of a staple it is. I usually trust that. When I’m on the road, though, I mostly just snack. My favorite is radishes. Just a bag of radishes. I focus more if my stomach’s lighter.”

EMEL MATHLOUTHI, Singer-producer and ‘voice of the Tunisian Revolution’
HOT JALAPEÑO, 219 East 116th Street, Spanish Harlem
Shrimp ceviche, beef taco, homemade lemonade

“It was my first trip to New York, and it was Valentine’s Day. We walked past here and the crowd was mostly Mexican, there was loud karaoke, we were warmly welcomed and the food was delicious. Yeah, I sang! I found a song I knew, ‘Gracias a la Vida’ by Violeta Parra, and people really enjoyed it.

“There’s no good Tunisian food in New York. I bring all my spices back from Tunisia, and olive oil, everything I need to cook with. The grains for couscous I get from my grandmother, she makes them herself. She’s 85. I actually want to open a real Tunisian restaurant and cook all the authentic recipes from my grandmother and mom. I’ve already devised the menu. I think when you have good taste in music, you have good taste in food. Cooking is like writing a song. And I’m a very good cook.”

WIKI, Solo rapper and member of hip hop outfit Ratking
PEPE ROSSO, 149 Sullivan Street, SoHo
Penne alla vodka

“I spent a lot of time round here when I was younger, I used to hang on a stoop over there. This place is good, easy, low-key. I just get pasta. I’m not really into gourmet shit. I got a song where I talk about Noodletown. We talk about delis a lot. That shit works itself into the music naturally. When we travel, I try to eat what they’re eating. We were in Germany, having currywurst. Then in London, they got the bomb Jamaican and Turkish food. Sometimes, I’m with fools that be trying to eat McDonalds — I can’t be doing that.

“My fantasy meal? For free? Anywhere? Steak frites. At Lucien. I don’t want to sound like a bougie bitch — that’s the only steak frites I’ve had. I mean, it’s steak and French fries. Obviously I had that shit before, but that ain’t steak frites! I figured out French food is just the best American food, done right.”

“I figured out that French food is just the best American food, done right.”

EL-P, Local rap legend and one half of Run the Jewels
FRANKEL’S, 631 Manhattan Avenue, Greenpoint
Bagel with pastrami salmon, scallions, cream cheese & dill cucumber

“I’m a part-owner of this place, I knew the brothers and came in on it. It really struck a chord with me. My father’s family was Jewish, and all this stuff you used to be able to get everywhere, I wanted to make sure it was available to a new generation. To make sure a piece of the city’s culture stays on. And when a friend comes here, they are immediately connecting with me about something that’s real. Having Killer Mike — the other half of Run the Jewels — come here, enjoy himself and have a good meal was important to me.

“Food plays a role in the studio because we constantly smoke weed. It could be four in the morning, but one of the awesome things about New York is you can always get something good to eat — places like Punjabi on Houston, where the cabbies go.

“Rap is grounded — we revere the minutiae of our lives. And we can cram in a lot because we have a lot of words in our art form. It’s hard to sing mournfully about a bagel. But you could probably drop a line about one and make it sound funny.”

“Food plays a role in the studio because we constantly smoke weed”

KELLY ZUTRAU & JOE VALLE, Brooklyn-based indie-R&B duo Wet
ASHBOX, 1154 Manhattan Avenue, Greenpoint
Umeboshi, plum onigiri, Japanese pickles

Kelly “My grandma was Japanese, and the food here is just like what my mom and grandma made when I was a kid. I grew up thinking of ume as a treat, because it’s so salty. Then as I introduced other people to it, they were like, ‘That’s the saltiest, sourest, grossest thing!’ But you get used to it. Eating was always how I related to my family. Fighting with my siblings to get enough.”

Joe “I forget how good New York is for food until I leave. Touring is tough. You realise how hard it is to stay healthy and sane. There’s a great shared doc among bands, actually. It tells you that if you’re driving on I-whatever, you should stop at a certain place because there’s nowhere else to eat. I don’t know who started it but it’s a huge resource.”

Rod and Ben will soon be back with another one of those Block Rockin’ Eats. 
Stay tuned to
The Gourmand for more