By Katie Zeck
The Lower East Side of New York is brimming with diverse culture and restaurants that serve up unique cuisine that won’t break college-student-sized wallets. Luckily for us, it’s just an hour-and-a-half train ride from Rider. So if you’re feeling slightly adventurous, a little hungry and in need something to do this weekend, here it is: a guide to your Lower East Side food tour that’s sure to broaden your culinary horizons.
205 East Houston Street
There really isn’t anything much better than a hot pastrami sandwich on rye bread and a large dill pickle with seltzer water to wash it all down, especially when you’re at Katz’s. Opened in 1888, the deli became a place of congregation for newly immigrated families. The community feel at Katz’s has been present ever since, and it’s the only place left in the city that’s still carving its pastrami and corned beef by hand. Expect it to be chaotic if it’s your first time there, but don’t let that discourage you. Follow the signs, hold onto the ticket you’re given at the door and weave your way through the crowd; it’ll be worth it. While the pastrami is the best-selling sandwich, there’s also brisket, turkey, salami and a cheesesteak they claim would “make Rocky leave Philadelphia.” The sandwiches are about $16, but they’re known as the best across the five boroughs, and you’ll have plenty left over.
There are also traditional Jewish dishes like knishes, noshes, kugel and kishka, all for under $10. And for you breakfast-lovers, they’ve got all-day omelets starting at $13.95 and bagel and cream cheese for $3.95.
Il Laboratorio del Gelato
188 Ludlow Street
For a complete change in food type and setting, walk across the street to Il Laboratorio del Gelato. You’re stepping into an Italian gelato factory with bleached white walls and stainless steel machines – a stark difference from Katz’s where the wood paneling is coated with memorabilia and neon signs. But the shop’s biggest selling point is their enormous variety of gelato flavors. Some of the most unexpected include beet, basil, chocolate Kahlúa, Turkish fig, Guinness, sweet potato and wasabi. It might be challenging to pick just one, so try some samples for free (who can blame you with so many choices?). Go with a few friends so you can try a wider selection of the nearly 200 flavors.
108 Rivington Street
Remember Lego candy, NECCO wafers and Mary Janes? The nostalgic shop got its start in 1937 when owner Jerry Cohen wanted a place where “guys could buy their dolls a heart-shaped box of chocolates when they had trouble expressing themselves in words.” Since then, Economy Candy has been filled to its roof (literally) with every kind of soft, hard, chewy, nutty, fruity candy imaginable. Your mind easily wanders back to your childhood when Pez dispensers came in the form of your favorite superheroes and candy jewelry stained your neck and wrists.
Essex Street Market
120 Essex Street
“You tell me what you want in it, and I’ll tell you if it’ll be good or not,” says Ira, the fruit guru at the Tra La La Juice Bar in Essex Street Market. He’ll grab produce from La Tiendita, his next door vendor, wash and juice it and pour the mixture into a tall paper cup. He’ll ask you to drink some of it so he can give you what’s left in the blender. The regulars of Tra La La are on a first-name basis with Ira, just like they are with the butcher, the grocer and the fishmonger. The Essex Street Market is home to 27 vendors that sell a variety of goods ranging from smoked salmon to 79-cent pomegranates. But at its roots, the market is more than a store offering an assortment of high-quality fare. It’s a blended family with a common passion: good food that’s wrapped up with a comforting
smile and wave.
Chinatown Street Markets
Canal Street to Bayard Street
Looking for something a little more exotic? Follow Canal Street for a few blocks and you’ll enter the mecca of authentic Asian delicacies. The streets are lined with stands selling unusual items such as live frogs and eels, sea urchins, square watermelons and hair rambutans (a type of fruit grown in Indonesia and Malaysia). There’s also a variety of jewelry, gift shops and eateries representing the style of nearly every province of mainland China, plus Thailand and Vietnam.
Great NY Noodletown
28 Bowery Street
Ruth Reichl is one of the country’s most critically acclaimed food writers, having held positions as a restaurant critic and food editor at The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, and as the
editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine for a combined 25 years. In 1994, she claimed that Great NY Noodletown served her the best crab she had ever tasted – quite a compliment coming from someonewho’s eaten at hundreds of restaurants on both coasts.
“I can remember the way the plump, juicy flesh, rich, sweet and soft as butter, snuggled into its crisp coat, remember the perfumed taste of the seafood against the faint saline tang of the spices, the fleeting burn of the sliced chili peppers scattered across the top,” Reichl wrote in The New York Times. “I remember the way the entire table fell silent in homage to this feast of the senses. And I remember thinking, ‘So this is what soft-shell crabs are supposed to taste like!’”
The esteemed, mouth-watering crabs Reichl refers to are as delectable as she articulates; the dish is $16. But for those of you who won’t stray from the classic chicken and broccoli or shrimp fried rice, not to worry, Great NY Noodletown serves that, too.
Printed in the 11/13/13 edition.