Manhattan’s Lower East Side: Land of Delicious Diversity

Beth Kaiserman

 

When people visit New York City, there is a lot to do. Priorities can include Broadway shows, late-night music and dancing, and of course, endless food items to absorb.

 

There’s the standard New York staples: pizza, deli food, pastries and bagels. There’s street food, including water dogs, soft pretzels, Halal food and endless food trucks. There are food festivals, because New York loves to celebrate food, anytime, anywhere. In between all of that, there should be some time devoted to a nice sit-down meal. All of this makes life pretty difficult and awesome at the same time.

 

It can be hard to plan a menu for someone who doesn’t come to New York often. But a great way to begin is hanging out in the Lower East Side, where old-school foods hold true and new spots spice up the scene.

 

When touring guests around New York City, one usually hopes to spend ample time outside the hectic hoopla of Times Square, Midtown and Union Square. Food people know that the best stuff lies in the outskirts, and though it can still be difficult getting get people “all the way” to Brooklyn, most tourists will at least take a trip to the Lower East Side, just across the bridge from Brooklyn but still in Manhattan’s borders.

 

A Cloaked History

 

The Lower East Side (LES) stretches from Bowery to the East River Park, bordered by Houston Street to the north and Canal Street and East Broadway, Chinatown, to the south.

 

The area is rich with history, and May 2014 marked the first Lower East Side History Month.

 

The now hip and bustling Lower East Side started out as farmland. At the turn of the 20th century, Germans, Italians, Irish and Eastern European Jews flocked there to start a new life. In 1915, 60 percent of the neighborhood’s population was Jewish. Many families lived and worked in crowded tenement buildings, many doing garment work in unlivable conditions. A visit to the Tenement Museum reveals what life was like inside these crowded living spaces.

 

The streets became a thriving marketplace for selling food and wares. As immigrants created the fabric of life in the LES, their food culture seeped into the landscape as well.

 

 

Take Me to the Meats

 

For most people, a simple mention of Katz’s Deli is enough to get them over to the LES and in line for a hot pastrami sandwich, a knish or a hot dog. Started in 1888 as a small deli, it became Katz’s in 1910 and became a congregating spot for LES residents, who often enjoyed franks and beans on Fridays. Though famous for its pastrami, Katz’s can serve as a quick stop-in for a hot dog or knish, the line for which seems to always be the shortest. If you’re in it for the deli sandwich scene, prepare to wait in line. It’s always bustling, especially at lunch time, and you’ll get a meat sample while you watch them make your sandwich.

 

There’s something special about Katz’s, and it’s not just that Anthony Bourdain deems it the absolute best pastrami. Maybe it’s because of its deep-rooted history as a gathering place in the LES. Maybe it’s the fact that they still hand you tickets, and won’t let you leave without your ticket. Maybe it’s the never-gets-old orgasm scene in When Harry Met Sally. Whatever it is, anyone who appreciates damn good deli food should sit down and eat a sandwich at Katz’s at least once in their New York adventures.

 

Sammy’s Roumanian Steakhouse is another old-school establishment for Jewish comfort foods, specializing in bigger-than-your-plate skirt steak and Ketel One vodka frozen into ice blocks. Schmaltz is served at the table and tastes great on everything. Best for big groups and celebrations, it’s the kind of place where the waiter might sit down at your table. Live music happens nightly, and things can get a little weird with all that vodka and meat.

 

For a taste of Germany and Austria, head to Cafe Katja, a LES restaurant serving divine dumplings, sausages, cured meats and cheeses. They also have Gosser, a light and refreshing Austrian lager, served in enormous glasses. Many other imported brews accompany the fine offerings here.

 

 

That Looks Appetizing

 

Teasingly close to Katz’s and Sammy’s is Russ & Daughters, one of the last remaining appetizing stores in the country. Russ & Daughters is not as famous for their actual bagels as they are for their amazing varieties of smoked salmon, thinly sliced by masters who have been at it for years. “The Classic” is a bagel, cream cheese, and lox. Simple and glorious. Chopped liver and other Jewish delights make this a foodie destination for sure. Russ & Daughters Cafe recently opened on Orchard Street, allowing patrons to sit down and enjoy these delicious foods.

 

Beyond the Beef and Bagel

Aside from being right next to Chinatown, the LES boasts its own variety of eclectic foods for any of your three (or ten) meals a day.

 

Essex Street Market is a great place to shop for global ingredients and fresh fish, while enjoying tasty local treats with a coffee or fresh juice. You can also grab a creative taco, like kale and potato, from Brooklyn Taco Co.

 

Attached is a busy brunch and lunch place called Shopsins, where the owner is notorious for kicking patrons out multiple times. This hasn’t happened in a while, but they do only seat parties of four or less. Word to the wise, just pick from their huge menu without asking questions. Also, no cell phones. These rules are easier said than done, since they have everything from 53 “name plate” sandwiches to French Toast to Tex Mex food to African curry and Indian food. What is this place, you might ask? It’s the Lower East Side, in a tasty, strange, eclectic nutshell.

 

 

A Lighter Affair..and also Dessert

A newer popular spot is Black Tree, which focuses on seasonal, local, creative sandwiches and other dishes. The sandwiches are delicious and exciting, and they offer some amazing desserts like their Southern Tier stout float and chocolate chip maple bacon skillet cookie.

 

No LES trip is complete without a visit to Babycakes, a truly groundbreaking vegan bakery. Everything is fresh and delightful, and the staff will happily help you choose something they love. You know it’s good when non-vegans frequent the place.

 

Another important stop is Doughnut Plant. Light, fluffy, delicious donuts come in a variety of cool flavors. There are cake donuts and filled doughnuts too, if that’s your thing. The PB & J filled doughnut will convert any filled donut hater. Of course there are seasonal rotating flavors to keep you coming back for more.

 

Don’t Forget the Meatballs

Before the Meatball Shop, enjoying quality meatballs was seemingly limited to traditional Italian restaurants and pizza shops. But this place changed the game, offering excellent regular, pork, vegetarian and chicken meatballs and daily market sides. You choose your sauce, and you write your order on erasable menus and hand it to your server. When you feel incredibly full, you order homemade ice cream sandwiches for dessert.

 

Still Hungry?

There is so much amazing food in the Lower East Side, and Chinatown is just a skip down the road, demanding its own list of hot spots. You can look around in little LES shops between noshes, but ultimately, you’re wasting time if you aren’t constantly consuming something delicious. Soon there might be a lowline park, which will offer the perfect place to detox between courses. Both the past and the future play an epic role in creating this neighborhood’s classic, slightly edgy personality.

 

Author Bio:

Beth Kaiserman is Highbrow Magazine’s chief food critic.

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Alan Turkus (Flickr); Cristina Bejarano (Flickr); Istoletthetv (Flickr); librarygroover (Flickr)
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