Now that fall is here—or at least that’s what the calendar says—you’re very likely running around a lot more than you were during the leisurely summer. Whether you’re busy with running the kids from school to after school, picking up on work assignments now that everyone’s back in town, or just trying to keep up with a very busy social calendar, you may very well be overwhelmed by the quicker pace of life from now through the New Year. And when our lives pick up, it’s very common for us New Yorkers to need more speed in our eating.
While I generally advocate for eating whole foods as often as possible, if you’re going to go for a quicker meal, I strongly suggest it be from a local small business rather than one of those mega chains that dominate the field of fast.
But, before we dig in, I want to define what I’m considering fast food here, as this category could include a lot of different things. I’m not including delis. That’s too far and wide to consider in this category and could probably include several of its own subcategories to properly be written about. No bowls, bobas, or juice bars here. I know there are a bunch of places that have food in bowls that are considered fast-casual, but those require both hands to be eaten and who has time for that.
Boba tea is not a food—it’s a fad and I’m not interested in it.
Juice bars are something else altogether, and maybe one day worth covering separately, but this is not what we think about when thinking about fast food.
Also, I’m not covering bagel shops—that too belongs in another category.
Finally, all of these places have originated on the UWS. I love Shake Shack as much as the next person, but it started in Madison Square Park and so it does not count. Now, let’s dig in!
This humble hot dog stand is more famous than any of us are and probably ever will be. Our beloved Upper West Side location was the first in Nicholas Gray’s expanding, contracting, and expanding again empire of salty sausage sandwiches and sweet tropical drinks.
This shop has been on the corner of 72nd and Broadway since 1973, after Mr. Gray broke from his partnership in Papaya King. While the original papaya and hot dog combo was created on the east side, it’s Gray’s that brought the idea big time.
Science may argue that all of these places create an equal product as they all use the same ingredients from the same places with the same equipment. But those of us raised on these dogs know better. You can tell a New Yorker based on their favorite hot dog and Gray’s has always been mine.
As a kid, I preferred a Gray’s flat-top seared dog to a fire-grilled fat sausage link any day of the week. My favorite way to have a Gray’s is the more traditional mustard and kraut, but you can top yours however you like.
If you’re smart, you’ll pair it with one of the tropical drinks for that classic salty sweet combo, and if you want to make it a meal you’ll go for the recession special, which has gone up significantly over the last few years, but so has everything else. It’s still two hot dogs and a drink for under $10, which is pretty good for the Upper West Side.
Freddie & Peppers Pizza
303 Amsterdam Ave
OK, so I know that pizza is in the name, but that’s not what I want you to get while you’re here. The pizza here is fine. I recall many nights in my late teens and early twenties enjoying a late night slice of pizza after consuming many adult beverages. That’s right, I was drinking underage. GASP.
Anyway, this pizza place that’s been around for as long as I can remember is actually owned by Chileans and offers some pretty good Latin eats if you’re not interested in a slice of one of their extravagant pies.
Their empanadas are pretty solid and are usually available in beef, chicken, and spinach. And if you’re extra hungry you can treat yourself to a hero of a Chilean Sandwich—their Chacarero. The churrasco beef is paired with veggies and served sub-style. When you’re craving a quick latin bite and you’re nowhere near Queens, these eats will hit the spot.
502 Amsterdam Ave
Here’s your go-to for replacing the big box chains you’ve set your heart on for burgers, fried sammies, and Frenched up potatoes! Harriet’s Kitchen is probably one of the most unassuming places on this list. Rather than touting the actual articles and write-ups that have mentioned this neighborhood go-to for takeout and delivery, the restaurant highlights their achievements with hand-drawn signs.
“Maybe just maybe the best burger you will ever eat.” is quite a thing to say in a neighborhood that includes a JG Melon and a Shake Shack. But, again, if we’re highlighting Fast Food and UWS originality, then this one hits both of those marks. Not to mention there are other items on the menu besides the burger to choose from.
My favorite is the Crispy Crunchy Buttermilk Fried Chicken Sandwich. The Original is served with some chipotle mayo and pickles on a potato roll, which pairs really well with the chicken. If people have complaints about the seasoning of the burger, then the chicken is the way to go. I don’t know if they were using caraway seeds or fennel, but I could see them in the crispy crust and they brought a brightness of flavor to this comfort classic. This may just be my new fried chicken obsession, actually.
Learn how you can help Harriet’s Kitchen stay in business by ordering from them directly!
Sal & Carmine Pizza
OK, so I teased you earlier with slice shop that I suggested you get empanadas at, but if we’re talking fast food in New York City, OBVIOUSLY, we have to talk pizza. Even on the Upper West Side, we’ve got some good ones.
Sal & Carmine opened their slice shop to the delight of the neighborhood residents back in 1959, and through the years they’ve had quite a bit of ups and downs. As the shop today is run by the third generation and beyond, they’re still serving up some of the best slices around.
One of the biggest changes in the last few years was the decision to offer delivery, so for those lucky enough to live within range, you can actually have your favorite bite of the UWS brought right to your door. Sal was adamant about not offering this service to his customers as he wanted to be sure he was always serving a superior product, which he didn’t feel would survive in the transit. But, as Lou (Sal’s grandson) gets to set the rules today, he’s realized that it’s just a requirement.
Of course, if you’re like me and you’re often just walking by the shop it’s well worth stopping in for what I believe to be the epitome of a good NYC-style slice of pizza.
The beauty of Middle Eastern fast food is that it feels like it’s so much healthier than American fast food. Perhaps because they use more vegetables in theirs, or because the pitas mean you’re consuming a lot less carbs than a standard bun or roll. Whatever it is, I’m grateful for it. Of course, you can get yourself a feast of Israeli fare here, and you might be tempted to. But, in keeping with the theme of fast, I suggest you select only from the long list of sandwiches and wraps which includes the the freshly fried falafel as well as the spiced lamb shawarma. Aside from the healthful feeling you get from this food, it’s a great stop for a crowd because you can accommodate pretty much any diet in your party. Whether you’re an omnivore or a limitedvore—they have a sandwich to fill your belly.
OK, I know that I’ve already included a pizza place…or two on this list, but I’m a city kid, I don’t know what you want from me. After recently renovating the shop that’s been serving jumbo slices to the masses since 1981, it looks brighter and shinier than ever.
Now you can pick up some swag along with your pizza and have the perfect lighting for that Instapic where you pose with the slice that’s bigger than your head. While people may argue about their favorite slice throughout this city, I will always consider Koronet as one of the absolute best.
Maybe it’s because in an average joint, I’m not a one-slice kind of girl, maybe it’s because I’m just always impressed by how well they pull of a pie that’s so much larger than the norm without under or overcooking the dough or losing an inch of flavor. Or maybe it’s because when I came out of the hospital several years ago where I couldn’t eat solid foods for a week, a jumbo slice from Koronet was among my daily cravings. Whatever it is, I love this pizza, I love this place, and I think that more shops should try their hand at a jumbo slice.
Lucky Pickle Dumpling Co
513 Amsterdam Ave
So, I wouldn’t really advise Lucky Pickle for the dumplings. I mean, I honestly didn’t expect much from the Jacob’s Pickles team in terms of this beloved Chinese dish (don’t get me wrong, I love Jacob’s and Maison—they know pickles).
But with all of the hubbub about the pickle soft serve I had to try it. I mean, they DO know pickles. And honestly, I was not disappointed. While I personally sat down and devoured as much of this sweet treat with a spoon and patience, you could most definitely lick away as you walk, so I do believe that this qualifies for the fast food definition I’ve set up above.
I didn’t really have a need or desire for the thin-sliced candied pickle slices that hang out on the side of the yogurt, but I suppose it works for the Instacrowd. The flavor itself is definitely sweeter than you might imagine, but don’t go in expecting a dill pickle food, this is more of a bread and butter type of product. It’s a rather huge serving so you may want to share, but it’s certainly something unique to the Upper West Side…for now, anyway.
Big Bang Burger
426 Amsterdam Ave
I wanted to mention this place for a couple of reasons: 1) while there are plenty of spots that serve Kosher food on the Upper West Side, not many of them are serving Kosher fast food. So, if you keep kosher and you want a burger and fries, or perhaps a hot dog—this is the place to go.
There’s no dairy on site and they have their own soft serve to accommodate their following. When Big Bang Burger first opened up it had a different name and the owner didn’t seem to have any real idea as to what she was trying to achieve from it. I thought it was a dessert shop, that was inspired by The Big Bang Theory (TV show), but she wasn’t all too sure herself.
It seems they’ve received enough feedback from the local customers that they decided to go full force on the burgers and Big Bang. But, as someone who understands food much more than the average customer, I was shocked to see the way they treat their beef.
Not only were the beautiful balls of meat smashed down on the grill, but the drippings that give your burger it’s much needed juices were removed with a shaking motion as they brought the flattened patty to the bun. You’re thus left with a rather gummy burger. Pass.
But the second reason I wanted to mention the place was that they’re one of few UWS restaurants serving The Impossible Burger, and they’re doing it for the low price of only $12, which is the cheapest one I’ve found. So—Kosher Vegans rejoice!
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