|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!
|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|
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|
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|
|From top left, Vanessa's, Prosperity, roast pork sesame pancake sandwich being assembled at Vanessa's, countless dumplings being fried at Prosperity|
|Spicy shrimp wantons at Vanessa's|
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|
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
Kossar's Bialys: 367 Grand Street, New York, NY 10002; (212) 473-4810; kossarsbialys.com
Yonah Schimmel's Knishes Bakery: 137 East Houston Street, New York, NY 10002; (212) 477-2858; knishery.com
The Pickle Guys: 49 Essex St # B, New York, NY 10002; (212) 656-9739; pickleguys.com
Vanessa's Dumpling House: 118A Eldridge Street, New York, NY 10002; (212) 625-8008
Prosperity Dumpling: 46 Eldridge St # 1, New York, NY 10002; (212) 343-0683;