If the gangs who once ruled Hell's Kitchen could see the neighborhood now, filled with media hotshots and admen from places like Hearst, Random House, Time Warner, and Ogilvy, they'd no doubt shake down the few fancier restaurateurs and then duck into one of the tiny Asian or Middle Eastern joints for a cheap plate of stir-fry, noodles, or spicy kebabs. Behind the countless family-owned storefronts in the micro-micro-neighborhood centered around 53rd Street and Ninth Avenue, you can find some of midtown's most enlivening flavors and aromatic, well-spiced cooking.
Roberto Passon An uncrowded, unpretentious Venetian respite from the local grit, with plenty of elbow room between tables. The pastas are top-notch, especially the sage-accented pumpkin ravioli. Also consistently good: beet salad, slow-braised rabbit, venison pappardelle, and warm chocolate cake (for those meetings that call for a celebratory capper). 741 Ninth Ave., at 50th St.; 212-589-5599.
Wondee Siam Thai-food junkies gravitate to this hole-in-the-wall with bench seating for consistently good, if not revelatory, food. Noodle dishes and curries are popular; excellent sides are the sauted Chinese broccoli and kraree puffs, deep-fried crescents of spiced, minced chicken. Best for intimate, one-on-one lunches. 792 Ninth Ave., nr. 52nd St.; 212-459-9057.
Pam Real Thai Food Pam Panyasiri cranks up the heat and flavors of her native Bangkok in this roomy, functional space. The ingredients are fresh, preparations extra spicy. Order pad Thai elsewhere. You'll want to stick with the biggest, most complex tastes, which Pam does best: lime-and-chile-glazed Yum crispy duck; yellow curry of fermented fish kidneys; and the fish special with Pam's special chile sauce. 404 W. 49th St., nr. Ninth Ave.; 212-333-7500.
Grand Sichuan Kitchen International Midtown Though not as highly regarded as its Chelsea cousin, this restaurant serves up strong-flavored dishes with minimal grease. Vegetables like sauted string beans, secondary elsewhere, are the main attractions. The cooks also offer a top-notch Auzhou spicy chicken Sichuan style, loaded with pepper as part of the "fresh" (that is, just-slaughtered) chicken menu. Bring big parties: The round tables fit eight to ten people. 745 Ninth Ave., at 50th St.; 212-582-2288
Island Burgers and Shakes Go solo to guarantee a spot in the sit-down space, which is packed even at mid-afternoon. Hamburgers and churrascos (chicken-breast sandwiches) come with a choice of about 60 finish-and-topping combinations, from Napalm (blackened, BBQ, jalapeo, cheddar, habanero sauce) to Bourbon Street (blackened, bacon, jack, Bayou Mayo, onion, sourdough). Warning: The more you pile on, the soggier the bun. 766 Ninth Ave., nr. 51st St.; 212-307-7934.
Cosmic Diner A greasy spoon that looked the part in its previous digs, Cosmic Diner has a flashy new location but serves the same satisfying comfort food. It's a good place for when you'd rather hide from co-workers and linger over an honest omelette or a juicy burger with crispy onion rings. 888 Eighth Ave., nr. 53rd St.; 212-333-5888.
Azuri Cafe Since the Soup Nazi left the area, Ezra Cohen now reigns as the neighborhood nut, barking out orders not to crowd him in his cramped, newsstand-size joint with five tiny tables. It's better to stand back and let him prepare the crispy falafel, punchy Middle Eastern salads, fork-tender chicken shawarma and thick, savory lentil and chicken noodle soups, both worth the trek to Tenth Avenue on a whipping cold day. 465 W. 51st St., nr. Tenth Ave.; 212-262-2920
Empanada Mama Here you can find more than 40 warm empanadas, encasing burgers, kielbasa and sauerkraut, and the especially popular shredded beef. The very best of the doughy exteriors, the fried corn-flour shells, are a crispy counterpoint to the fillings. The big secret: the fig, caramel, and cheese dessert empanada as good a pastry as you'd get in some of the city's top bakeries. The long, narrow space caters to an overflowing, peak-hour takeout crowd. Luckily, the empanadas travel well. 763 Ninth Ave., nr. 51st St.; 212-698-9008.
Amish Market Hungry media types come for the sandwiches or salad bar, a step up from the deli, but regulars know the best eats are the crispy thin-crust brick-oven pizzas baked fresh daily. Lunch is packed, but the lines move, and you can't go wrong with the margherita and pepperoni pizzas. (No seating.) 731 Ninth Ave., at 50th St.; 212-245-2360.