Whole Latke Love
by Julie Besonen, 12/19/2008
New Yorkers can get good potato pancakes any time of year, but around Hanukkah, New York City restaurants really crank out their latkes—and they're not all using your bubbe's recipe. Grease is the word: the pancakes, fried to a golden crisp in a pan of hot oil, evoke Hanukkah's miracle of one day's worth of oil burning for eight nights. Topped with sour cream, applesauce or both, the latke says "feh" to the New Year's resolution.
Traditionally, latkes are made from shredded potato, onion, egg, salt and pepper and maybe a touch of matzo meal or flour, and each pancake can be as small as a silver dollar or as big as a dinner plate. But Toloache in Midtown offers three special versions during its Mexican Hanukkah—chef Julian Medina makes his latkes with jalapeño and horseradish crema, zucchini and tomatillo apple salsa, and Mexican ricotta, chipotle and agave nectar. And Norma's, in Le Parker Meridien New York, matches their potato pancakes with homemade cranberry applesauce and sweet carrot payasam. On the Lower East Side, Essex's latke comes with sautéed apples, honey cream sauce and spinach–shiitake–black bean hash, or topped with house-cured salmon gravlax, poached eggs and salmon caviar. (Only in New York, kinderlekh.) Here's where to find the more traditional varieties.
Bring a newspaper, grab a counter stool (forget about getting a table) and prepare for a hot, sizzling dream. Three golden pancakes come out ragged and crisp at the edges, releasing spirals of steam with each forkful. All that for just $5.50 per plate. If you're really hungry, order five for only $8.55. They're full of flavor even plain, but you can add a dollop of sour cream or applesauce for a little extra dough.
It's famed as New York's sturgeon king, but Barney Greengrass' potato pancakes, made from scratch, are just as worthy of acclaim. Pan-fried in very small batches, they always arrive fresh and sizzling. The thick cakes, made with a touch of matzo meal, are available year-round on weekends and every day during Hanukkah at $8.50 for three.
Community Food & Juice
This Columbia University favorite showcases organic, seasonal and local food whenever possible, and chef Neil Kleinberg uses special techniques to make its potato pancakes, found on the brunch menu all winter long. He squeezes lemon over grated Idaho potatoes to keep them from discoloring and wrings them of all moisture before frying them. The restaurant's unusual but very tasty toppings include smoked salmon, lemon crème fraîche and chives.
Liebman’s Kosher Delicatessen, Restaurant and Caterers
Since it opened in 1953, Liebman's has drawn enthusiasts from all over town. The deli makes latkes all year, and one can cover an entire side-order plate. Crispy around the edges and soft in the middle, a Liebman's latke makes a decent alternative to a side of fries—and it rings in at the Bronx bargain price of just $1.75 for a small version and $2.50 for a larger size (top each with applesauce for an extra 50 cents).
Hearty Polish-style potato pancakes are a specialty at this all-day-breakfast diner, a humble throwback to the pre-hipster Williamsburg. Prices remain inexpensive; a half-order is $4.95, a full order $6.75. Forget weekend brunch, though—Kasia's is open only on weekdays.
Ben's Best, open since 1945, is Queens' latke central. The Ben's version isn't too thick or too thin. "The trick is not too much oil, and the potato has to be grated properly," says owner Jay Parker, son of the eponymous Ben. "And the faster you eat it after preparation, the better off you are." Ben's serves latkes every day of the year. One potato pancake with applesauce costs $3.95; if you're hungry, however, three with applesauce runs $10.75. A to-go order of cocktail-size minis costs $12.95 a dozen (with applesauce, of course).
The Polish Place
Just a 10-minute walk from the Staten Island Ferry, an authentic Polish deli and cozy, family-friendly restaurant—complete with wood paneling—offers latkes made with coarsely ground potatoes, ground onions, egg, flour, salt, pepper and a pinch of garlic. A bit of sour cream is also added to the dough, rendering them whiter and puffier than usual. If you're eating at the restaurant, an order of four is only $6.95; if you're taking them to go, it's just $4.75. And don't forget, the ferry's free.