Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Lower East Side Street Food: Foods of Jewish and Chinese Immigrants

At left, half of a pastrami sandwich at Katz's, at right spicy shrimp wantons at Vanessa's Dumpling House

Here at New York Food Journal, we've been known to express our affection for street food, which I am liberally defining as snacks, sandwiches, and assorted treats that you can usually purchase at an establishment that does not have waiter service. While our prior coverage has examined street food in New Orleans, it is high time to explore New York's offerings in this food genre and where else should we go for this but the Lower East Side.

The Lower East Side has among the most diverse arrays of culinary options of any neighborhood in the city, in part because of all of the immigrant groups that have passed through the neighborhood over the years, and in part because of the relatively recent influx of young professionals who, in addition to frequenting the loud, crowded, dudetacular dance parties at the neighborhood's clubs, have some money to spend on food.

This and the next post provide a tour of the neighborhood's street food, just one of the many food genres available there. This post covers the foods of immigrant populations that have influenced the neighborhood, focusing on the offerings of the Jewish immigrants who passed through at the turn of the last century, and the Chinese immigrants who are increasingly making their mark on the neighborhood today. The next post examines newer additions to the neighborhood's street food.

If you're particularly ambitious, like I was with a small group one afternoon, you can hit virtually all of the places discussed in this and the next post the same day - don't over-order or you'll never make it!

Jewish
From top left, half of a pastrami sandwich at Katz's, knishes at Yonnah Schimmel, Bialy at Kossar's, and barrel of sour pickles at the Pickle Guys


Jews, particularly from Eastern and Central Europe, are among the LES's most famous alumni. As the excellent Tenement Museum documents, Jews came to this neighborhood towards the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th, and mostly worked in the prolific garment industry. Most of the Jewish-style street food that still exists on the LES came from this era: Katz's Deli opened in 1888, Yonah Shimmel's Knish Bakery in 1910, and Kossar's Bialys in 1936. Only the Pickle Guys on Essex are a relatively recent shop, though they have been around since at least the early '80s, and they are modeled after the numerous pickle shops that were on Essex street back in the early 20th century.
The hot dog at Katz's

Katz's is the best known of the bunch, having achieved lasting fame from When Harry Met Sally -- though it is also the least Jewish; it is the only one that is not Kosher. It's unclear to me why anyone would want to accept their inexplicable offer of American cheese to top their world-class pastrami. But you always see a few hapless tourists springing for it anyway.

Katz's has a bizarre ordering and payment system, in which everyone who enters receives a "ticket." Each "cutter" - the men who hand-cut the pastrami, corned beef, and other meats - will write the price on your ticket, and then you pay on the way out. Lose your ticket? That'll be $50 to leave. (They also have waiter service at the tables closest to the wall of photos).

Separate lines form behind each of 3 or 4 cutters and it's best to scout which cutter is cutting the meat to your liking that day. Usually, a nice cutter will hand out samples of pastrami while cutting your order. All sandwiches come with sour and regular pickles - the sour are great, though not as good as those served at the Pickle Guys (see below).

Katz's Matzo Ball Soup - incredibly dark broth 
There's been a continual contest between Katz's, Carnegie, and 2nd Ave. Deli as to who has the best pastrami. I'm with Tony Bourdain and I think Katz's is unquestionably the best - the meat is simply tremendous and piled high between two pieces of fresh rye bread, the same way they've been making it for over 100 years. I can't decide whether I like it better with their house-made mustard or their house-made Russian dressing, with homemade pickles. Best to try both - there's certainly plenty of sandwich, though it will set you back $16.

Other lesser but excellent menu options are the matzo ball soup, hot dogs, and corn beef. The soup has an incredibly rich and dark broth (I don't want to know how they do it) and the matzo ball is huge but still fluffy. I'm continually surprised by how good it is each time.

Kossar's Bagel & Bialy Oven
Kossar's Bialys is one of the two bialy powerhouses in the city (the other is Bell's). A cousin of the bagel, the bialy, named after Białystok, Poland, is smaller than a bagel (about half the calories), and is only baked while bagels are boiled and then baked. Instead of a hole, there is an onion-filled depression. Kossar's is an old-school place with a huge visible oven and trays of bialys and bagels (they sell those too). Try the bialy with a light schmear of cream cheese.

Yonnah Shimmel's sells huge softball-sized knishes with traditional fillings like potato and onion, as well as more modern takes like jalapeño and cheddar knishes. They also offer less common Jewish dishes like noodle pudding (a misnomer, it's really a sweet noodle kugel - not actually a pudding), and kasha varnishkes (egg noodles with kasha). The proprietors are typical characters, and are not satisfied if you walk out of there with fewer than a dozen knishes.

20+ pickle jars at the Pickle Guys
Across the street from Kossar's is a store simply called the Pickle Guys and they sell the best pickles you'll ever have. This small shop with small hours (they close at 4 pm and are closed on Saturdays -- they're kosher after all), is filled with about 20+ barrels of pickles. The sour ones are the best, life-changingly briny and addictive. You'll want to go back for more, but they'll probably be closed.


Dumpling Houses

From top left, Vanessa's, Prosperity, roast pork sesame pancake sandwich being assembled at Vanessa's, countless dumplings being fried at Prosperity
While the Jewish street food on the LES reflects the older generation of immigrants who settled in the neighborhood, newer generations of Chinese immigrants have more recently arrived, spreading Chinatown far beyond its traditional boundaries and well into the Lower East Side. Two of my favorite dumpling houses are clearly within the LES, though you couldn't tell from being there -- the block looks just like you are on Mott street in Chinatown.

Spicy shrimp wantons at Vanessa's
Vanessa's and Prosperity both sell excellent dumplings at unbelievably cheap prices. Both have the same watered down sriracha and soy dipping sauces. Prosperity is slightly cheaper - you can get 5 chive and pork dumplings for $1 there, whereas similar dumplings go for 4 for a $1 at Vanessa's. But you get what you pay for - Vanessa's are better.

While many people opt for these ridiculously cheap dumpling options, it's worth spending a little more for Vanessa's awesome sesame pancake sandwiches with roast pork ($2.25) and their shrimp wantons with spicy sauce ($4.00 for 8).  The sesame pancakes are the size of pizza slices and are thicker than at your typical Chinese restaurant. They easily support ample amounts of roast pork, carrots, and scallions. The wantons are filled with shrimp and come swimming in a spicy sesame oil sauce with a lot of kick.

Vegetable Dumpling at Prosperity
Vanessa's is a hectic place, but also a nice space with blond wood tables and ample lighting.  Prosperity is a hole in the wall with just a few stools and not the cleanest counter (though they did receive an A grade). While the 5 for $1 chive & pork dumplings are good, try their vegetable ones next time, which are light and filled with a large variety of veggies (8 for $2.50).

The next post covers some of my favorite LES's dessert shops, as well as some newcomers to the street food scene.


View LES Jewish Food and Dumpling Houses in a larger map

Katz's Deli: 205 East Houston Street, New York, NY 10002; (212) 254-2246; katzsdelicatessen.com
Katz's Deli on Urbanspoon

Kossar's Bialys: 367 Grand Street, New York, NY 10002; (212) 473-4810; kossarsbialys.com
Kossar's Bialys on Urbanspoon

Yonah Schimmel's Knishes Bakery: 137 East Houston Street, New York, NY 10002; (212) 477-2858; knishery.com
Yonah Schimmel's Knish Bakery on Urbanspoon

The Pickle Guys: 49 Essex St # B, New York, NY 10002; (212) 656-9739; pickleguys.com
The Pickle Guys on Urbanspoon

Vanessa's Dumpling House: 118A Eldridge Street, New York, NY 10002; (212) 625-8008
Vanessa's Dumpling House on Urbanspoon

Prosperity Dumpling: 46 Eldridge St # 1, New York, NY 10002; (212) 343-0683;
prosperitydumpling.com
Prosperity Dumpling on Urbanspoon

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