Robert Sietsema, who spent 20 years as the food critic at the Village Voice, takes readers on a culinary tour of his city via food essays in New York in a Dozen Dishes (HMH, May). He covers a century of New York pizza, in addition to delving into lesser known delicacies like cuy, which Sietsema calls a "fur-bearing unholy grail" and you probably know best as a guinea pig.

Sietsema spoke with PW about capturing New York through food, other "fringe" dishes, and Texas BBQ's voyage to the East Coast.

What were some of the challenges in putting the book together?

One of the things that I did with this book was sit down and write for two or three hours at a time. The computer has made writing so different from the days of the typewriter–I never feel bad going off on a tangent. I had targeted the book at a certain length, because I wanted the chapters to be reasonable by themselves. But the very first inkling of this book lay in trying to write a memoir in my years of eating [in New York City], and the fact of the matter is that memoirs just don’t sell. I wanted to sell. So I tried to keep a good balance, of fact and lore, in addition to personal reminisces.

I’ve written four food guidebooks to the city, and by the time a guidebook sees print, about a quarter of the restaurants have already gone out of business...I tried to choose durable places, to look into my crystal ball.

Some of the signature dishes won’t be surprising, like pizza or pastrami, but how did you arrive at other, less mainstream dishes? How do these express New York City to you?

I wanted it to be a spectrum. I didn’t want the sole criterion to be popularity. I could have included the hamburger. But there are entire volumes devoted to those things, and I’m not going to get into a pissing contest with someone who knows a lot about one subject and nothing else.

And that’s one of the things that makes New York great. We have obscure dishes too, when you get tired of eating pizza and cheesecake, you can eat cuy, or pambazo [a type of Mexican sandwich]. I think this is also a book about immigrants, contemporary and ancient, and about what they’ve brought to our culture.

Some people in Texas might raise an eyebrow at Barbecued Brisket making the NYC cut. As someone who has lived in Texas, how do you think BBQ has changed here?

It’s grown from nothing to a hundred miles an hour in just a few short years. I’m friends with Daniel Vaughn, who is the BBQ editor of Texas Monthly. He didn’t believe we could have good BBQ here, but, we have these crazy avid New Yorkers, knowing they could do it if they only tried hard enough, who literally went down to Texas and studied at the knee of these BBQ guys. The only thing that distinguishes BBQ is putting a ridiculous amount of work into it. Before we had Blue Smoke and Hill Country, we had strange outcroppings of BBQ that tasted almost like BBQ. Now you can get a reasonable facsimile [of Texas BBQ] at seven or eight places in the city.

Tell me about scrambled brains.

It made the list because I wanted to have something on there that I didn’t really like that much, but other people really like. I wanted there to be a squeamishness factor. That’s part of the food experience. As a critic you’re supposed to teach yourself to have an even-handed approach to food. But, most people that go to restaurants are squeamish about something. I think it’s good to confront those head on.

It’s a fringe dish. But, if you’re a Pakistani cab driver this is something you eat on a daily basis. If you’re a French person, it’s like custard. I didn’t want all food where everyone would go "Nom nom nom." I wanted to have some tragedy and drama in the book.

Book folks will be converging on the city, at the Javits Center, in two weeks for BookExpo America, the biggest trade conference in the country. Where should they eat near the convention center?

Go up to 9th Avenue behind the Port Authority, from 42nd Street down to 34th Street. Troll along the eastern side of that thoroughfare, you’ll find really amazing Thai food, Mexican bodegas that sell tacos and huaraches. You’ll find all sorts of interesting food there—it’s great and really cheap.