The Italian American meatball—hefty, sauce-splattered, bound for a crusty hero—was born and bred here in New York City, and New Yorkers should all be proud to call it part of our native cuisine.
But it's not the end of the meatball conversation. Actually, it's only the beginning.
Kofte, albondigas, lion heads, and more—virtually every immigrant group that's settled in New York has brought a meatball of its own to our shores. And they're worth celebrating just as much as the red sauce variety.
Next to dumplings, I don't know a better gateway dish to other cultures than meatballs. So if you're looking to expand your culinary horizons, take yourself on this meatball world tour, the tastiest non-Italian meatballs I can find.
A quick procedural note: this list isn't meant as an exhaustive survey of the world's meatballs in New York, but rather a selective hit list of some damned fine ones. For a more thorough treatment of global meatballs, keep an eye out for our meatball style guide later this week.
Mexico: Albondigas at Carnitas El Atoradero
This tiny Bronx restaurant is one of the city's best spots for real-deal Mexican home cooking. Sure, there are tacos and quesadillas here, but the real treasure is the stuff chef Lina Chavez cooks up special on the weekends, like her gleaming, nut-rich mole Poblano or a bowl of these albondigas.
The little pork meatballs come beautifully browned but still tender and juicy. They're flecked with aromatic herbs and swim in a chipotle broth that brings warm, smoky heat. Inside each one is a little hardboiled quail egg, not overcooked as is far too common in New York, and a nice rich rejoinder to that chipotle broth. Spoon extra broth over Chavez's inky black beans and pack it all down with some toasted tortillas.
But take note: Chavez doesn't cook these on a regular schedule, so call before making a trip to see if they're available. Ask extra nicely and she just might fill a request for you.
China: Greens-Smothered Meatballs at La Vie en Szechuan
One block north of Korea Town, La Vie en Szechuan caters mostly to a monied Chinese clientele. That means two things. One: The cooking doesn't make compromises to make non-Chinese eaters happy. Two: Cooks aren't afraid to take risks on menu items you won't find anywhere else in the city. As proof of concept, say hello to these massive "pork meatballs in vegetable soup," which look like something Swamp Thing left behind but I promise taste much, much better.
These suckers are huge, a good six to eight ounces each, but spoon-tender like the best meatloaf. Despite the green gravy on top, they taste pretty straightforward and comforting—a little onion and mild pork, but thoroughly seasoned. That green stuff is lightly preserved mustard greens, blanched to remove their pungency and finely chopped, with little red swabs of floral osmanthus blossoms. The net effect is a gentle bright green note to cut through all the pork. These may be some oversized balls, but they're cooked with subtlety and care.
Turkey: Kofte at Kofte Piyaz
This is the Mediterranean meatball hero you're looking for. The main reason to visit Kofte Piyaz, a wee Sunset Park Turkish restaurant in a converted diner, is for their killer lentil soup, stewed until earthy lentils and sweet onions come together as one creamy orange broth. But the kofte—grilled lamb meatballs—are no slouch. They're grilled hard and fast to a beautiful char, and their juices are sweet, not gamy.
Opt for them in a loaf of poofy, crusty bread with some lettuce and tomato for a cheap, very filling sandwich. (The meatballs are in there, promise!) Just spritz on a little lemon first.
Vietnam: Meatball Banh Mi at Ba Xuyen
Vietnamese meatballs come in two major forms. One is small, dense, and springy, a relative of Indonesian bakso and recognizable to Americans as distinctly hot-doggy in texture. You'll mostly find them floating in soup, and frankly, I never much developed a taste for them, though plenty others have. I'm bigger into the second kind of Vietnamese meatball: loosely packed ground pork with a distinct sweetness that lends itself well to the crunchy, pickled, and herbal innards of a banh mi.
Now Ba Xuyen is of New York's most beloved banh mi shops for a reason: The baguettes are crisp, crackly, and light the way banh mi bread should be, for a sandwich you could almost call refreshing. While most customers opt for classic cold cuts and pâté for their filling, go for the meatball next time. Its clean, lightly sweet flavor is the perfect foil for the pickled carrots and daikon, and its greater heft than cold cuts makes for a meatier sandwich.
Sweden: Helga's Meatballs at Red Rooster
My favorite Swedish meatball delivery system in New York used to be this sandwich from the Nook, Red Rooster's takeout stand at the entry of the Harlem restaurant. The kitchen used to fill a nice brioche roll with tiny, straightforward but meaty Swedish meatballs, dress them in tart lingonberry mayo, toss them with sweet roasted beets and crisp fried onions, and add on a touch of dill. It used to be a way to enjoy all the simple but tasty components of a plate of Swedish meatballs in one bite. It used to be delicious.
Then they took it off the menu.
If I have any pull with you, Red Rooster, please put the sandwich back.
In the meantime, though, the dine-in restaurant's meatballs are still the best Swedish meatballs in town: dense but not heavy, rich but not too fatty, with a pleasant sweetness. They come with the expected lingonberry jam and less expected buttermilk mashed potatoes and some silky braised cabbage. Order them. Then ask about that sandwich.
China (Again): Pork-Stuffed Fishballs at Lam Zhou
You can't talk about the world's meatballs without trying some fish balls. Love 'em or hate 'em, these are some of the most popular meatballs around the world, and the simple paste of mild white fish and flavorless starch formed into spheres find their way into soup, on skewers, in hot pot, and most everywhere else you can hide them. (Which is many places. They are small.)
Fish balls are rarely homemade at restaurants, so they taste more alike than different wherever you go. Which is why I'm sweet on the fish ball noodle soup at Lam Zhou, a Chinatown hand-pulled noodle hole in the wall. These fish balls have a little surprise: A tiny nub of loose ground pork inside, which is intensely meaty thanks to some a heavy dose of soy (and I'm betting some MSG). They float in a simple, mild broth with fresh, springy noodles, but the real pleasure is using your incisors to carve through the dense fish ball, then find a nice present for your efforts.
You can find this type of meatball elsewhere around East Chinatown's Fujianese noodle shops, and at Lao Wang Ji, a no-English-allowed stall on the top floor of Flushing's Golden Shopping Mall, though the main attraction there is a bowl of wonton soup with teeny tiny Fujian-style wontons.
Uzbekistan: Lola Kebab at Tandoori Food & Bakery
Your typical Uzbeki lola/lyulya kebab is more sausage-shaped, but at this Rego Park restaurant and bakery, the ground lamb is decidedly a meatball, so hooray! A chance to talk up the Tandoori Food & Bakery.
I've enjoyed pretty much everything here, from the tender plov to the juicy lamb dumplings to the crusty breads and flaky meat-stuffed pastries. But these meatballs, skewered and cooked over hot flames, have a special elemental appeal. Lamb: charred but so juicy it spurts on first bite. A touch of cumin, because lamb always deserves its musk. And enough char to add some smoke.
You buy these meatballs by the skewer for two bucks a pop, and it's worth it to pony up the extra 50 cents to add cherry tomatoes along for the ride, as they turn jammy and sweet under the intense heat.
China (Err, Yet Again): Lion Heads at China Blue
The cooking at upscale Shanghainese spot China Blue can be hit or miss, but you can put these lion heads in the decided "hit" camp. For such a grand name, lion heads are simple meatballs: big balls of pork mixed with traditional Cantonese aromatics (ginger, garlic, and scallion) and braised in either a plain or a red broth of soy sauce, sugar, and rice wine (a broth for "red cooking.")
At China Blue, the balls are first deep fried to preserve their spherical shape, then steamed, then red cooked with baby bok choy and bamboo shoots. They're gorgeously tender, almost like a matzo ball, with the familiar ginger-garlic perfume of Cantonese cooking deepened by soy sauce and mild pork. They beat the soup dumplings, no contest.
But What About Italian Meatballs?
Okay, you want some nonna-style meatballs simmered in gravy? Fine, I hear you. Visit Motorino for some of the best of the style, or Hearth, where they're especially dense and rich, or Parm for the best meatball sandwich of your life, or G. Esposito where they're light, fluffy, and entirely old school. But save room for some lion heads and albodingas. It's a great wide world out there.