Ever since corny Americana regained a glimmer of hipness, overcharging—on the basis of sheer cool and social status—for otherwise inexpensive food has become a predictable annoyance in the New York restaurant experience. Consider the fried chicken and biscuit: a meal that should come cheap, and in fact tastes better when gotten for a fistful of dirty dollar bills, now calls for AmEx cards of the gold variety. Of course, for a certain class of young and well-moneyed urbanite, spending more increases a dinner’s overall pleasure; however, when hedonism is contingent on expense, the luster and value of original pleasures—like the unpretentious and familial communities once rooted in Sylvia’s and long-lost soul food hideaways—disappear. What replaces the site of native enjoyment is a touristic fascination with “experiencing” “how the other half lives” in terms of the other-other half. Casting theory and phalse philosophizing aside, the cheaper varieties often just taste better than their ritzy relatives.
For example, at Prosperity Dumpling, five chive and pork fried dumplings cost $1. For every metrocard left with an unusable $1.70, I might eat a filling meal deep down Eldridge way. Compared to hauter—and metaphorically hotter—dumplings, Prosperity fares well. Crispy but light on the grease, the thin dumpling skins conceal juicy balls of meat that outstrip take-out potstickers or fancier dim sum renditions a la Shun Lee. Prosperity’s scallion pancake with beef breaks the bank at $1.75. Those extra three quarters buy an oily wedge of dough packed with oniony greens, carrots, and thinly sliced beef. If hunger pangs still linger, stop by Fay Da Bakery on Mott for a hefty taro pastry, heavy as a pool ball and dyed purple. And maybe a red bean bun crusted in sugary topping, sweeter than coffee cake and certainly more filling.
Ice cream and gelato merit splurging though; in the case of frozen treats, you get what you pay for—cream versus reconstituted dairy products, fruits that grew in orchards versus fruit flavors that grew in test tubes and vats of corn syrup. Buyer beware—New York City’s best gelato delivers some serious sticker shock. Grom, a popular Italian gelaterie, charges over $5 for a small—alright, diminutive—cup of their high-falutin’ product. I suppose that growing your own apricots on a tiny farm in the Italian countryside and importing Syrian pistachios costs more than using mass-produced ingredients. Better than Grom, and equally priced, Il Laboratorio del Gelato keeps 40 flavors on tap at their new 3,300 square foot facility. Along Russ & Daughter row on West Houston—with Katz’s and Yonah Shimmel for neighbors—the new Laboratorio resembles an operating room, all white tiling and stainless steel. Set against such a hermetic backdrop, the vivid flavors strike an even more startling pose: from lovely lilac blueberry to a fudgey fuzzy brown, colors peek out from metal repositories like secret flower specimens in an alien anal probing facility. Try the strawberry, oh so better than Breyers and creamy as cow teat. The bourbon feels weak, a measly pour of alcohol and woodsy caramel, not much more than sweet on sweet. I prefer the Turkish fig, a dense and syrupy scoop packed with seeds and dried fruit flavor.
To summarize the message or “thesis” of this short polemic, skip restaurant meals and eat at Prosperity Dumpling, then empty all savings accounts and binge at Laboratorio like your good, ice cream loving American self. Never mind that it serves Italian gelato to self-loathing Lower East Siders. The pleasures of gelato, unlike watery soft serve, require healthy expenditures of cash and street cred.