Alphabet City's Avenue C is off the beaten path, a shabby-chic enclave well worth a detour. Side streets are blooming with community gardens, boutiques, art galleries, bars and restaurants. The avenue itself, running from Houston to 14th Street, features a stimulating melting pot of eateries. For a daytime nosh, Barnyard Cheese Shop and Animals (attached to the Wayland, a great honky-tonk) construct scrumptious sandwiches. Nighttime is a multilingual affair, with choices ranging from the Bavarian beer garden Zum Schneider and rustic Austrian outpost Edi & the Wolf to pan-Latin and Brazilian accents at Esperanto. At Bobwhite Lunch & Supper Counter, not much bigger than a birdhouse, the fried chicken, fried catfish and grilled pimento cheese sandwiches are down-home Southern goodness. For authentic, unsurpassed Serbian, Puerto Rican and Cuban specialties, plus some other culinary standouts, read on.
115 Ave. C, 917-475-1213, East Village, Manhattan
At the vanguard of Avenue C's recent upgrade is Apartment 13 (or APT-13 for short), a stylish, bilevel lounge and restaurant featuring New American fare. Successfully merging into the chummy neighborhood rather than nosing in like an interloper, it's an alluring date place, good for groups or a night out with the parents. Familiar greetings are frequent from the staff, an outgrowth of chef John Keller and partner-GM Lorrae Doig's efforts to treat the evening like a dinner party in their home, which happens to be apartment 13 (in another building). Grandma Mimi's crab cake recipe doesn't skimp on the crab and carries a zing from Scotch bonnet pepper. Keller also drums up delicious miso-marinated black cod fish sticks and Creekstone Farms dry-aged steak with Rittenhouse rye demi-glace.
56 Ave. C, 212-777-2277, East Village, Manhattan
Bikinis, a Barcelona-style tapas bar, does not suggest a dress code, though the walls hold several vintage images of women in bikinis. Owners Karina Correa and Petrit Pula named this cute, pastel-colored diner for the triangle-cut, pressed ham and cheese sandwiches popular in Catalonian nightclubs. The concept is about bar food that matches well with sangria and Spanish wine. Look for creamy, crisp, free-range chicken croquettes, blistered shishito peppers with sea salt, and macaroni baked with cheddar, provolone and manchego. At night the narrow space is a tight squeeze, jammed with regulars. An easygoing charm prevails at brunch, featuring well-executed café cortado and delicious eggs florentine layered with organic baby spinach and serrano ham.
185 Ave. C, 212-253-9966, East Village, Manhattan
Vegetarians aside, who doesn't love a big, lip-smacking Cubano sandwich? Cafecito's is layered with moist roast pork, ham, Swiss cheese, mayo, mustard and dill pickles, pressed and toasted till crusty, oozing melted cheese. You'll think about saving half for lunch the next day, but it's hard to stop—especially when you dip a corner in the garlic sauce that comes with the tostones (twice-fried plantain chips). This intimate, brick-lined luncheonette-bar-restaurant also offers strong, tangy mojitos; citrusy shrimp infused with garlic and butter; and home-style ropa vieja, a cumin-rich stew of pulled flank steak, peppers and onions served with rice and black beans. Weekday happy hours offer deals on drinks and bar food, and brunch is another bargain time to go: for $11–12, you get a cocktail alongside your choice of Latin-flavored egg dishes.
66 Ave. C, 212-473-1882, East Village, Manhattan
Casa Adela is the capital of what some still call “Loisaida,” Puerto Rican slang for Lower East Side. Spanish is the dominant language, from the staff to the customers to the dramas unspooling on a flat screen, though glass-topped tables are also infiltrated by budget-minded college kids and uptowners on a downtown adventure. Burnished rotisserie chicken, hearty stew (sancocho) bobbing with oxtail on the bone, mashed plantains threaded with garlic and pork (mofongo) and rosy sliced pork (pernil) are why this place has remained popular since 1976. You can stop in anytime from 7am to 10pm and fill up for a little cash (no credit cards). The plainspoken, brightly lit cafeteria stocks soda in its deli fridge, so if you'd like a cold beer with your supper pick up some beforehand.
116 Ave. C, 212-353-8000, East Village, Manhattan
Imagine you have a Serbian grandmother who loves having you to dinner in her little house nestled in a Balkan village. That's the vibe at Serbian expat Vladimir Ocokoljic's Kafana, complete with hugs (for regulars), old family photos filling the walls and traditional cevapi—zesty, charcoal-grilled sausage fingers. The meal begins with hunks of bread and ajvar, a piquant red pepper and olive oil spread. Wine is a good idea, since it's rare to find so many interesting vintages from Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia, Montenegro and Macedonia. The friendly Serbian server is eloquent with descriptions and offers tastes for the clueless. She may also direct you to the spongy, cheesy, eggy spinach pie; the rolled, breaded schnitzel stuffed with ham and cheese; and the pljeskavica, a mighty, charcoal-grilled, Serbian-style burger. Note that it's cash only.