The East Village might’ve been a puke-filled ashtray in the 80’s, but now, the smoke has cleared to reveal a superdense and dynamic array of eateries, thrift shops and experiences along 1st and 2nd Avenue, St. Mark’s and the crosspatch of grid all-in-between.
Start at St. Mark’s Place
St. Mark’s Place (between 2nd Ave. and Avenue A)
St. Mark’s is like the Haight of New York. Students and young artists mix it up with trustafarians and casual clubbers to troll streets lined with indie book & vinyl stores, smoke shops and sunglasses stands. Every crawlspace, alleyway and gutter have given way to tiny venues, renowned ramen places or a falaffel house that has topped NY Cheap Eats list since you were in shorts.
Surrounding St. Mark’s is a solar burst of culture: Jewish and Italian bakeries, Ukrainian restaurants, Latin American, Indian and beyond. There are many good restaurants on this strip, not to mention a contagious conviviality, which may or may not be enhanced by the wafts of marijuana that you occasionally pass. Not exactly family friendly, but if you’re looking for an authentically adventurous NYC night, this is a good starting point.
22 St Marks Pl (between Cooper Sq & Astor Pl)
Thank God I found Mamoun or else I still wouldn’t know where I want my ashes to be spread (answer: at Mamoun’s!). One of the best cheap eats in NYC and open until 3 am, Mamoun’s is a can’t miss. I like the Shwalafel (part shwarma, part falafel). Get extra hummus and make sure YOU are the one hogging the communal hot sauce at your table. Warning: the picture of Al Gore with a nuclear mushroom blast coming out of his ears is your warning. Do not douse your sandwich in this stuff until you taste it. While I deeply appreciate its absolute, soul-wretching heat, most will not be able to handle it!
Oddly enough this place has some of the best tabbouleh you can get for the price and their hummus is fantastic. I took friends here who were stopping over in NYC before a 3 month trip to Thailand. On their return trip, they stopped in NYC and demanded I take them back. They’d been sitting on the beaches of the South Pacific with only one thought in mind the whole time: Shwalafel.
Prosperity: 46 Eldridge St (between Canal St & Hester St)
Xe May: 96 Saint Marks Pl
By no means are either of these places “have-to’s” to the extent of Mamoun, but they are good, and popular with the locals, so it’s worth your time if you’re feeling more adventurous.
For Prosperity Dumpling, the whole place has a feel-good vibe, starting with their cartoon dumpling/albino seal pup logo that almost makes me sympathetic to eat dumplings.
I’m no fan of dumplings — too doughy for this dough-boy — but I had fun watching chefs make them behind a glass window.
As for the bahn mi place, it was good and my first bahn mi to boot, but you pretty much can’t screw a bahn mi up. Even a cold, 5-hour old, soggy-wrapped pork bahn mi I recently bought and ate at an outdoor festival was amenable to me.
Looking back, I am impressed by those pickles and the price (~$6). Plus, I think I may have ordered wrong: the coconut curry lamb or chicken lemongrass look way more my speed.
328 E 14th St (between 2nd Ave & 1st Ave)
I wish my first pizza this trip hadn’t been the titular artichoke pizza at Artichoke Basilles Pizza. Not that it’s bad, it’s just that I was totally craving that traditional tangy NYC slice. Instead, I got the artichoke pizza: a big wet slab of cheesy, creamy artichoke dip baked onto thick crunchy dough. You’d probably love it, but I was black-out mad that my first NYC slice was tomato-free.
Of course I went back inside to order a second slice. And boy did their regular slice deliver. San Marzano tomato city, U.S.A.! Greasy cheese, crispy crust, even a chiffonade of fresh basil. High-five!
342 E 11th St (between 1st Ave & 2nd Ave)
We were beckoned into this old-school Italian bakery after spotting the window display/paradox of a giant canoli giving birth to a bunch of smaller canolis. Whether we entered into an Italian bake shop or a M.C. Escher painting, we left to fate. It ended up being the former and Rachel had what she described as the best canoli of her life. If memory severs correct, they had a picture of Robbie DeNiro under a sign saying “Do Not Accept Checks From this Man.”
Dual Specialty Store & The Four Indian Restaurants Next Door
91 1st Ave
Dual Specialty Store is a terrible name for one of my favorite spice shops in the world.
It’s like the Great Library of Alexandria, but for spices. Everything from rose hips to Szechuan peppercorns, much of it organic. I really matured my addiction to Golden Berries (a $25/lb. superfood from Peru that probably in actuality gives me bladder cancer). And this is by no means a tourist destination. Expect to pay real prices to a real Indian guy who will smile and wonder how you found yourself in this strange place.
At night, the restaurants next door are a must.
There is a sort of commercial quadro-plex populated with four different Indian restaurants whose ubiquitous over-use of twinkly lights makes the entire complex appear as one restaurant: an issue the restaurant owners have remedied by each placing a highly aggressive host to solicit your patronage.
“Over here sir, Garden Patio!” barked the one at the bottom left.
“The Best Chicken Tikka Masala you’ve ever tasted!” shouts another from atop the stairs, waving his hand.
At first, I found this really intimidating and uncomfortable, but eventually I would bring out-of-towners here and plant them out front and really field these guys with questions: “Which one of you has the best korma again?” I’d ask.
Each of them would crawl over each other, “Oh surely it is ours! A grandmother’s recipe!”
“No sir, it will taste best in our GARDEN PATIO!”
We actually went in one of these places once and moments after entering the cavernous, lights-everywhere tube of a restaurant, I had a panic attack and we had to leave.
Not My Cup of Tea
Caracas Arepa Bar
I’d recommend you stop into this little place because the locals go crazy for it. We were told that people dream of the orange sauce at this arepa bar. But we weren’t that impressed. I personally think it’s because of our Los Angeles bias. LA is home to exquisite Latin American food, but often done in an LA style. This was NY-does-Latin.
Sorry We Missed You
These were all on my list but I just never got there. In good time, my friends!
I love Lobster Rolls (Maine style) and I hear this place does it right.
Big Gay Ice Cream Shop
Unicorns, rainbows, ice cream and a boundary-pushing theme? I’m there.
Momofoku Noodle Bar
If you crawled up Chef David Cheng’s anal cavity, you may find Chef/Author/TV Personality Anthony Bourdain, who lavishly tosses David Cheng’s salad for what seems like the entire second half of his book, Medium Raw. Either way, I never made it to David’s amazing restaurant. Too bad, so sad.
I had vivid dreams about a pizza I saw from this restaurant on Facebook several years ago.
Xi’an Famous Foods
Famous for their noodles and their lamb burger. But the ‘C’ Health Rating hanging in the front window of their sister location deterred me from going in.