In recent years, downtown has evolved into one of the most exciting dining scenes in the city. And while highly praised restaurants such as Rivera, Church & State and Lazy Ox have drawn much of the attention, there are plenty of terrific restaurants that have been waving their soup spoons for posterity, largely unnoticed by popular blogs and tastemakers.
There isn't even a sign marking Masis Armenian Sandwiches, which occupies two small turmeric-colored rooms on the second floor of the 1919 Jewelry Theatre Building. Climb a few rows of grungy stairs, past the buzz of gem cutters and the hustle of tiny offices and step inside. You'll see the same wall menu of Lebanese and Armenian dishes, dips and wraps that have been served at the restaurant by the same family for the last 45 years.
A particular treat is a tasty breakfast sandwich called meneyish, which is basically a fluffy piece of flatbread coated with oregano, sesame seeds and olive oil and wrapped around a few sprigs of fresh mint, chunks of chopped green olives, slender slices of tomato and turnips. Chef and owner Tom Shamoon makes everything from scratch, including aromatic hummus, a tart and spicy red pepper dip called m'uhammara that practically melts into warm pita bread, and an earthy fava bean foule suffused with olive oil, parsley and tomato, which is almost a meal in itself.
Have your lunch at a modest table by large open windows framed by green wooden shutters. The view of the ornate Jewelry District buildings across 7th Street is likewise very Old World in feel. Follow the meal with a cup of thick, black Turkish coffee from Arto's Deli a few blocks down in St. Vincent Court (a quaint, cobbled pedestrian street ringed by unassuming takeout restaurants and filled with outdoor tables).
If you crave comfort food that is at once exotic and familiar, head to WoodSpoon, a haven of Brazilian warmth and sunshine ruled by chef-owner Natalia Pereira. The restaurant is tiny and bright, with white walls, colorful pillows and glass milk jugs that hold cheerful sunflower stalks lining the large street-facing picture windows.
Pereira's specialty is her homemade Brazilian chicken pot pies — flaky white crust encasing chunks of tender chicken submerged in a sea of creamy gravy enriched with roasted corn, hearts of palm and olives. Be sure to begin your meal with the ubiquitous Brazilian street snack known as coxinha. Pereira's version is a large teardrop-shaped croquette stuffed with a savory mixture of shredded chicken and spices.
No Brazilian meal would be complete without black beans, rice and grilled meat. I like WoodSpoon's Brazilian sausage, which is spicy and shoots juice when you slice into it, all the better for dipping in the grainy farofa flour made from ground yucca. Finish with a heavenly Brazilian coffee, served with heavy cream — just like in the "dirty foot" bars of Rio de Janeiro — and a chewy homemade macaroon.
If you're near Pershing Square, don't miss dropping by Sultan Chicken Restaurant, where chef Alex Tobia makes a rotisserie chicken that rivals that of the fabled Zankou Chicken. The crisp golden skin bubbles with pockets of savory juice and breaks open to reveal snow-white meat that shreds with uniform perfection and slides off the bone with a gentle suck. Whole and half birds are served with hummus, rice, pickled turnips and a creamy garlic sauce that sings with piquant heat and spice — you'll have to fight the urge to eat it by the spoonful.
Sultan has a few aluminum tables for dining and a row of tall stools at a counter that looks onto 6th Street through a large picture window. The colorful flaneur-driven street scene — a messy circuitry of crumbling historic theaters, one-way streets and jumbled swap meets — is scored by a soundtrack of sizzling beef and chicken kebabs. Meals are filling, but be sure to take home a piece or two of Sultan's fragrant za'atar bread, which is liberally slathered with basil, oregano, thyme and marjoram. It heats up beautifully in the oven for a snack. And don't forget Tobia's homemade baklava, a lovely study in honey, cinnamon and nuts slipped into flaky sheaths of slender phyllo dough.
At the other end of 6th Street — the artery that feeds the heart of downtown's tragic skid row — you'll find the desolate southeast warehouse district that houses a shining, modern Mexican restaurant called Yxta Cocina Mexicana. The restaurant is named after the author Yxta Maya Murray and owned by Jesse Gomez, who also owns the 47-year-old, family-run Highland Park favorite El Arco Iris.
A highlight of the lunch menu are the restaurant's wonderfully fresh tortas. The bolillos — so fluffy and soft that you could stuff a pillow with them — are dusted with flour and packed with meat, queso fresco and vegetables. The juicy carnitas, infused with a hint of smoky orange sweetness, is a particular favorite. A liberal slathering of chipotle mayonnaise melts into the hot pork and cool slices of creamy avocado offset the bite of sliced red onions.
The food at Yxta is contemplative, with each dish turned out with an eye toward presentation. The tacos dorados de papa, basically crispy tacos stuffed with spicy mashed potatoes and crowned with crisp cabbage and drippy crema fresca, come atop a little mound of potatoes and are circled with an extra dab of crema; similarly the sweet taquitos de camaron (like little shrimps in a blanket) arrive on a bed of housemade guacamole, which is studded with chunks of onion and tomato and seasoned with cilantro. Round off your meal with a serving of the flan, a custard dream drizzled with caramel.
For an entirely different kind of Mexican food, head to Broadway's Grand Central Market, where among the Hieronymus Bosch-like chaos of industry and consumption, you'll find a diminutive stand called Tacos Tumbras a Tomas. There brothers Tomas and Manuel Martinez slave day in and day out over the creation of some of the most alluring Michoacán-style carnitas in the area. The pork is slow-simmered in oil until it is crispy on the outside and tender on the inside. It's then shredded and stuffed to bursting inside of a soft tortilla and served with slices of avocado, onion and tomato.
No part of the pig goes unpraised in the brother's cooking, and to that end they also serve an incredibly rich taco made of pig's snout — or trompa — that is an off-menu special and house favorite. Be sure to douse your taco with the salsa roja or verde, which gets made in a giant stainless steel cauldron over a gas flame twice a week. The red sauce packs four-alarm heat.
Cool down with an icy Mexican beer and limes at La Cita, the little bar around the corner from the market. Before you know it, it'll be time for dinner.
S. Irene Virbila is on vacation. Her reviews will return next week.