The entire Lower East Side (LES) neighborhood is a living museum of NYC’s 19th and 20th century immigrant past.
However, trendy boutiques and condo buildings are fast-replacing the neighborhoods’ shlubby-but-lovable mixed-use character and have secured the LES a rank on the Endangered Historic places list.
Some would argue that the hordes of tourists will further erode the character of this endangered neighborhood, but if you think about it, patronizing these great businesses will help preserve them! (Guilt alleviated!)
These are our absolute favorites: for their excellent quality, authentic character, excitement and charm. I hope you can visit them soon before Donald Trump turns the neighborhood into an elitist golf course for the Secret World Government.
137 E Houston St (between 2nd Ave & Chrystie St)
Yonah Shimmels has been serving up hot potato dumpling knishes for over 100 years. Don’t expect anything fancy and you’ll probably be the only one in there unless a Lower East Side Food Tour has effectively filled the place, cutting 2 knishes into 75 even-sized pieces for distribution to a short-bus full of Midwesterners.
But Hot Damn, it’s good. Our tip: get them when they’re fresh, ascending from the bakery below in a dumbwaiter (LIKE A BOSS!).
Otherwise, if you get there at an off hour, they just pop your order in the microwave and half-assedly push a button that probably says something to the effect of “Sweaty.”
With a hot golden crunchy outside and a hot gooey potato n’ groats inside, smothered in brown mustard on a paper plate: this is Jewish nirvana.
179 E Houston St (between East Houston St & 2nd Ave)
I don’t enjoy eating at Russ & Daughter’s as much as I enjoy just standing there to watch the madness happen. The crisp white uniforms of the friendly-faced attendants signal you’ve entered another era. The ancestral subway tile, tins of sardines and caviar, and beautifully displayed dried fruits make you think you’re in a time when “processed foods” meant something different.
While they have a dazzling selection of smoked salmon (from Pacific Northwestern to Pastrami’d), potato salads, herring, whitefish, salmon spreads and more…it’s just too bad that their bagels are sad Jewish hockey pucks.
I don’t get the East Coast aversion to toasting one’s bagels, but it’s a must for me (except at Absolute Bagels on the Upper West Side) and nowhere did a bagel need to be toasted more than here! I ordered the famed Super Heeb Sandwich and it was a goopy creamy mess.
Our friend Alana bought the havlah and babkah (which she later toasted in our oven) and I was on cloud nine.
No matter if you eat or not, hang out for a minute and if you’re brave, ask the feisty mature blond if the potato salad is moist today.
205 E Houston St (between Avenue A & Norfolk St)
NYC guide books reverently cheer Katz’s Deli, but alas, we weren’t meant to be. The only time I got to come here was with a LES Food tour in which they handed each of us a single greasy piece of salty pastrami and a dry piece of rye bread. I undulated like an over-ambitious baby bird trying to swallow its first morsel of solid food, and immediately felt like my toe needed to be amputated.
I recommend you stop by at odd hours. At peak hours, this place gets a line around the block. They give you this weird ticket when you enter and you MUST return with it, or some 7 foot tall bouncer presumably beats the pickles out of you.
So why include Katz’s? Above all, it’s worth peeking inside. I like the big sign identifying the “When Harry Met Sally Booth” in which Meg Ryan faked her orgasm, to which a woman at a neighboring table told her waitress, “I’ll have what she’s having.” Not only the funniest Rob Reiner movie-line ever, but delivered perfectly by his own mother. Warms the heart.
Weird Rooftop Landmarks of Houston
250 E. Houston Street & E. Houston Street / Allen Street
If you’re schlepping down Houston Street (pronounced “how-stun” by locals, btw), don’t miss these bizarre rooftop landmarks.
The first is an 18-foot statue of Vladimir Lenin above the Red Square apartments. That statue is actually from Soviet Russia and if you look at the large clock behind it, you’ll notice that the numbers on it are wrong.
Another rooftop adornment that can’t be missed is the replica of a Cape Cod-style cottage on the top of a building on the Northwest corner of Allen Street & E. Houston Street. I imagine Angela Lansbury up there solving crimes from her Widow’s Peak in the sky.
49 Essex St (between Grand St & Hester St)
Imagine a small, semi-underground crawlspace filled with fifty barrels of brine blissfulness.
That’s right. Though these guys can pickle, they ain’t sour!
I visited on a LES Food tour and they gave us free samples of whatever we wanted: spicy dills, olives, baby corn, okra, nom nom. We got pickled.
They have a board hanging above the barrels with everything listed in complex rows, priced by weight.
367 Grand St (between Norfolk St & Essex St)
Kossar’s claims to be the oldest bialy peddler in the U.S. and after stepping inside, I’d believe it. It’s old-fashioned bakery/factory feel sends one back to another era. The diaspora-chic nostalgia is so thick you could practically toast it and eat it with lox and cream cheese. It reminded me of another retro bakery/deli in Montreal, the one and only St. Vitauer (worth its own blog post altogether).
The 100 lb. bags of high gluten flour and beautifully baked bialy is all that adorns the sullen interior. Oh, and it’s strictly BYOCC (Bring Your Own Cream Cheese), unless you’re willing to use their tiny little per-packaged cream cheese cups. No thank you. Give me whipped rBST free cream cheese, or give me death!
99 Rivington St (between Orchard St & Ludlow St)
Wolfnights’ lupine brand doesn’t appeal to me, but their swinging seats and dedication to fresh and whole ingredients make me howllllll for more.
Wolfnights sells wraps. While they’re as good as the best Halal shwarma laffa you could hope to get on the street, Wolfnights blows the competition out of the water by creating flavor combinations more familiar to a four-star restaurant tasting menu than a corner burrito vendor.
I can’t quite recall which wrap bit me, but I do recall having to toss a coin between the Brothers’ Grimm: “chicken wrapped in a chestnut & chilly dough with pickled shitake mushrooms, raisins, plantain chips, pickles, chipotle aioli sauce” and the Howling: “chicken wrapped in a date & pumpkin seed dough with fried pickle, feta, melon, mint & yogurt sauce.”
I know we definitely got the Wolf Attack: “tater tots topped with melted cheddar cheese, jalapeno, grilled onions and Wolf meat sauce.”
84 Stanton St (between Allen St & Orchard St)
While this micro-chain is maybe a little on the commercial side, and seemingly a bit of a craze, I couldn’t have enjoyed my conversation with our waitress more about their succulent balls.
Balls drizzled in sauce. Dee’s Balls, Dem Balls. No matter how you try and broach the subject, you’re going to find yourself red-faced embarrassed and giggling like a weasel at this delicious dispensary of mouth-watering you-kn0w-whats.
50 Clinton St (between Stanton St & Rivington St)
Rachel and I were fortunate enough to ride the rails of this molecular gastronomic wonderland to conspicuously consumed 12 courses of the most expensive and insane meals of our lives (ex. carrots cut into circles and dusted with pea powder to in effect be peas made out of carrots???).
I was shocked as the restaurant filled up with casual diners and what appeared to be teenagers-on-a-first date. We felt lucky to know that this was a once in a lifetime for us and couldn’t imagine how this absolutely bizarre, fantastic and $$$$ experience was just a boring ole’ Tuesday for most of these folks.
100 Allen Street
We only had a few nights left in New York and we happened to have just polished off the 12-course chef’s tasting menu above, but that’s also the moment we stumbled upon Congee Village. I had read about congee, an asian porridge cut with meat and I’d heard that Congee Village did a bang up job of it.
Despite Rachel’s protests we went in. The restaurant was massive and full of families sharing hot steamy plates of eye-bulgingly delicious foods. I ended up ordering a whole chicken that they cut up on our table with a hatchet in addition to an Olympic-sized pool of pork congee which I devoured with great delight and a slight self-remorse while Rachel read her Kindle and tried to ignore the sweat beading down my forehead.
Not My Cup of Tea
This place is a candy emporium unlike you’ve ever seen. Unfortunately, I was traumatized by a dentist growing up, and I know not the pleasures of sugary treats.
Sugar Sweet Sunshine
If you’re a cupcake connoisseur, this should be on your map. But I’m not weighing in: The only cupcake I enjoyed in New York was Crumbs.
Sorry We Missed You
These were all on my list but I just never got there. In good time, my friends!
Clinton St. Baking Company
I hate Sunday brunch (I don’t like waiting in line for 3 hours while my stomach digests itself) but this place is supposed to be the best. Apparently, the owner taught Martha Stewart how to make an omelet.
Lower East Side Tenement Museum
Everyone loves this museum, but I couldn’t swallow the $20+ entry when there was so much free stuff to do! Maybe after I win the Powerball.