When I arrived at Cornell in the fall of 2009, I was an angsty teenager. Scared, shy and cantankerous, I resented being dragged away from everything familiar: my adorable parakeet, my (somewhat less adorable) high school boyfriend and my beloved hometown of Boston. I was determined to hate my new, pro-Yankee upstate surroundings.
This lack of adventurous spirit was also evident in my eating habits: I survived much of my eighteenth year on noodles, mozzarella and corn chips. But after nearly four years here, my attitudes toward life and food have been transformed — though my love for cheese is undiminished.
As college progressed, I discovered that Cornell was not the boring, cow-ridden hell I had imagined. I met kind, intelligent, wonderfully bizarre people who dragged me out of my room for dance parties, YouTube fests and midnight arguments.
Most importantly, they led me out of the culinary wasteland of North Campus, and into the diverse restaurants and vibrant markets of Ithaca. I discovered my love for kale, raw tea and local bacon. I sampled goat and paté and squid. During my adventures as a foodie and then as a food editor and writer, I’ve sampled meals all around this strange, beautiful town. And as graduation draws near, I have been revisiting my favorite places and scrambling to visit the ones I’ve yet to try. Here is my list of the basic, best Ithacan foodie experiences that every senior should take away with them into the dreaded real world.
Wander the Farmers Market
Ah, the quintessential Ithaca institution. The delicious smells alone would be enough reason for me to spend an afternoon among the stalls at the steamboat landing. The food itself is overwhelming in variety and fabulousness. Follow your nose to Finger Lakes Flatbread’s wood-fired Southwestern pizza (its smoky, cheesy crispness always earns me envious glances from passers-by) and don’t miss the corn fritters from Macro Mama’s. Plunk down among a cheerful, motley crowd of townies, professors and adorable babies and listen to a man in steampunk goggles sing folk tunes as you eat. What could be better?
Slurp Soup at Saigon Kitchen
Locals and out-of-towner snobs agree that Saigon is one of the very best bites in Ithaca. Come for the celebrated pho, light, savory and herbaceous, and then meander into other avenues of their extensive menu. Crispy noodles? Vietnamese steak? Pot stickers? Vermicelli? You won’t regret your inquisitiveness. Arrive early to beat the crowd.
Order Curry from Taste of Thai Express
Saigon Kitchen’s well-deserved popularity has overshadowed the merits of another of Ithaca’s Asian food powerhouses. This is tragic, because the hearty, spicy offerings at Taste of Thai Express deserve our love. Home and hungry over winter break, a friend and I once wondered — only half joking — if we could convince the restaurant to mail some chicken pad thai to Massachusetts. But their curries are the smallish menu’s strongest point. I am particularly enamored of the creamy yellow curry — buttery coconut flavor with the sassy bite of cayenne pepper.
Attain Burger Nirvana at Ithaca Ale House
My foodie colleagues have already sung the praises of the giant, juicy, unbelievably satisfying burgers at the Alehouse. If you haven’t gone, you need to. Their Perfect Burger made even my skeptical ex-vegetarian stomach join the admiring chorus.
Brave a Bloody Mary at Stella’s
Now that we seniors are all legal and (relatively) classy, the thrill of the illicit has gone out of drinking. Well, fear not! Short of swiping olives from the bartender’s garnish tray (not that I would know!), a bloody mary is the best way to make your cocktail hour adventurous. This drink is basically summery, alcoholic gazpacho with enough spiciness to justify the glass of milk that Stella’s kind bartender — seeing my watering eyes — recently offered me along with it.
Head further afield to the ineffably cool Felicia’s Atomic Lounge downtown, and sip their locovore re-imagining of the classic drink: “Zen Mary” is made with Felicia’s house-infused cucumber vodka, local horseradish and chipotle.
Choose Your Own Adventure
This is by no means a complete list of the culinary masterpieces to be found in Ithaca, nor the unforgettable oddities. So go exploring! Wander into a random dive bar in the Commons or townie sandwich shop on the outskirts of town. Get takeout from that place you’ve always been curious about. An unexpected, against-all-odds discovery is all the more delicious.
As we seniors move into our last month in Ithaca, it’s easy to get nostalgic, nervous and even a little panicky (“How will I survive Mondays without Choklay’s lentil soup from the Temple of Zeus?!” “My life will never be the same without Piggery pepperoni!” etc.). But moving on also means new adventures. I’ve started scoping out the dining scene in my new home of Washington, DC, and have already picked out a family-owned Chinese noodle house for my first takeout night. I also plan to fling myself into the District’s Ethiopian food scene, a cuisine completely new to me (spicy lamb stew, anyone?). There’s a lot of risk in a new dish and into a new life. It’s scary and strange. But there’s always something to savor. Let’s dive in.
Original Author: Eliza LaJoie