Photo: Matthew Kassel
During the height of Jewish immigration to the United States–from the 1880s to the First World War–most Jews who came to New York crowded into tenement buildings in the Lower East Side, with barely any light or air.The standard was 24 families in a 25- by 100-foot lot, at four families per floor, according to the American Institute of Architects Guide to New York City.
The streets, however crowded, at least offered fresh air and light, and were bustling with commerce: hucksters peddling their wares, vendors dealing pickles, knishes, fish.
While today, the Lower East Side is merely a shadow of its Jewish immigrant past, some culinary enclaves have managed to survive the ebb and flow of New York life.
We’ve rounded up some of our favourite classic eateries for a historical walking-and-dining tour of the neighbourhood. They’re a throwback to the old world, and offer some of the best eats around.
RUSS AND DAUGHTERS: A quick walk down East Houston Street from the Second Avenue stop on the F train, this appetizing store, which opened in the early 1900s, has been in the same spot, owned by the same family, for four generations.
Choose from a variety of smoked fish, including salmon, herring, white fish, sable, sturgeon, and peppered mackerel. If you're feeling a particular yen for luxury, have a worker help you pick out a tin of fine caviar (500 grams of the coveted Siberian Baerii sell for $1,140).
Though this store sells bagels and bialys, along with an assortment of spreads, you may want to hold out with your carb purchases for the next destination.
KOSSAR'S BIALYS: Schelp your appetizers on down to Kossar's, the oldest bialy bakery in the United States, for some fresh brick-oven baked buns.
At 90 cents a pop, there's no shame in buying more bialys than you can eat. Chewy but lighter than a bagel (also sold here), these bialys are hand-baked and topped with freshly ground onions in their indented centres.
If the weather's nice enough, take a walk down from Grand Street to East River Park to take in the view of Brooklyn over a morning nosh.
YONAH SHIMMEL BAKERY: Having gotten familiar with the area, walk back up to East Houston for an additional treat. This is the oldest knishery in America, going strong since 1910.
From 1890 to 1910, before the establishment took permanent root, Yonah Shimmel, a Romanian rabbi, sold these knishes around the city from a pushcart.
Do yourself a favour and share a knish--potato, or spinach and feta--to save room for the behemoth sandwich you will most likely go up against for lunch at the next restaurant.
KATZ'S DELI: Katz's is the iconic New York deli, located on East Houston. Take a number when you walk in and marvel at the multitude of salami hanging from the walls.
You'll probably want to order a pastrami or corned beef sandwich, along with whatever else you desire--perhaps cole slaw to start and a slice of cheesecake to finish. (This restaurant is not kosher.) Also, order a Dr. Brown's soda--it'll cut through the salt.
The sandwiches are big enough to share--and sharing is recommended. A single pastrami sandwich costs almost $16. It's amusing to wonder what the prices were in 1888, when the deli opened.
The pickles here are good, and they're complimentary--lots of them. But don't stuff yourself. Hold on a little longer for the next shop, which sells some of the best pickles in New York, and maybe even the world.
THE PICKLE GUYS: In 2002, Guss' Pickles, which had been on Essex Street since 1910, closed shop and relocated. Alan Kaufman, who worked for Guss', decided to stay on and opened up The Pickle Guys down the block.
You'll have to cross Delancey to get here; the Essex Street store is the only remaining pickle vendor in the Lower East Side.
Choose among a variety of pickled goods: classic sour pickles, new pickles, horseradish pickles, pickled tomatoes, olives, jalapeno peppers, carrots, okra, mushrooms.
ECONOMY CANDY: Another family-owned shop, this Rivington Street institution was established in 1937; you might want a sweet treat now after all the salt you've consumed.
When it first opened--right before the Second World War--bulk bins and barrels full of candy and nuts and chocolates beckoned customers in from the streets.
There is something about the iconography of candy--the brightness, the boldness--that alludes to an innocent time that probably never existed.
But it does in this enclave of sweet memories. The air inside is saturated with the confectionary aroma of about 70 years of candy come and gone.
Old time favourites are offered inside, including lollipops (of course), hard candy, gum, licorice, Pez, and candy bars.
Also in stock are kosher items like dried fruits, candy, nuts, chocolates, halvah, and Turkish delight.
SAMMY'S ROUMANIAN RESTAURANT: This is the last stop on your tour, and you might want to call a few extra friends to enjoy it with. Though this Chrystie Street steak house was established in the second half of the twentieth century, it is a paean to the schmaltzy, organ-heavy tradition of Jewish cooking that dates back to the shtetls of Eastern Europe.
You might want to resist Sammy's Borscht Belt kitsch, though after some chopped liver, a Romanian tenderloin, and a few shots of vodka, it's hard to imagine you won't be blushing with warmth.
By now in your tour--the inevitable end--if you've survived, it's time for your much-needed dose of fresh air. Take at least a half hour to walk around the neighbourhood at night, venture into nearby Chinatown or Little Italy, and indulge in the refreshing sights, sounds, and smells of New York.
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