While Harlem has some great advantages, there is a different, yet slightly similar appeal to another neighborhood with an equally rich cultural background; the Lower East Side.
LES does not always have the prettiest streets, the most convenient of bus routes or the glitz and glam of some other neighborhoods, but what it lacks in those departments it makes up for in authenticity, grittiness and character. During the day it is like any other neighborhood; bodegas are on every corner with the community cat taking perch, sandwich shops serve up lunch and boutiques sell the best commodities they have to offer. At night, the neighborhood’s lights attract New Yorkers away from their homes and to the vibrant scene that gives this town the nickname, The City that Never Sleeps.
This is an old neighborhood, one with residents that have never left, stores that have stayed open for decades and a deli that has been in business since 1888. It was once a farm, then a tenement neighborhood, then a working-class Jewish community that now shares the streets with Latinos, Chinese, Bangladeshis, Japanese, Ukranians and countless other immigrants.This was once called Little Germany, Corlears Hook and Crown Point. Now its comprised of the East Village, NoLIta, Chinatown, Alphabet City, Bowery and Little Italy. This is the neighborhood of immigrants, the history of America.
Any history buff would find days worth of exploring in this part of town, the Tenement Museum on Delancey and Orchard offers a wonderful series of walking tours, but truly the best love affair to have with this neighborhood is found in restaurants. There is no other part of the city that showcases such a wide selection of food in a radius of this size.
Old School New York:
On Allen Street, just south of Houston stands a well-known spot, frequented by the hungry: the landlady who has lived on Suffolk since 1970, the Wall Street Broker out for a rowdy evening with friends, off-duty NYPD and tourists visiting for the week. there’s Sammy’s Roumanian Steak House. This place is quintessential LES, celebrating homestyle Jewish cooking.
Don’t expect a romantic dinner for two, but a more than lively party that has not missed a beat for the last thirty-something years. The walls are plastered with photographs of previous patrons, there’s Alka Seltzer offered at the door, vodka frozen into blocks of ice, live accordion music every night and a menu like no other. There’s schmaltz on every table, thats right, rendered chicken fat placed on each table as if it were butter waiting for bread. There’s chicken liver to order, prepared table-side, potato pancakes and the signature dish, an enormous tenderloin covered with enough garlic you’re sure to not get a kiss from your date.
Vanessa’s sits on the cusp of what is known of Chinatown, but is just blocks from hipster bars and music venues. Because of this, it attracts a diverse crowd–Oh yeah, and the dumplings! It’s hard to ignore the authentic charm that oozes from everything in this building, from the Bubble Tea, the army of cooks on the line and the little old grandpa in the back who hand stuffs each dumpling. The prices are more than reasonable, four (very) satisfying dumplings for $1, boiled or fried and served in a variety of flavors–the best is the pork and scallion–or 50 dumplings, frozen, for $9. That’s a steal any New Yorker can appreciate. The pork buns and sesame pancakes are also worth snacking on. Think of heavenly, delicate, pillows filled with pork or pekin duck, Bejing-style and you’ll have the right idea.
If you’re looking to take an after-drinks approach to your eating adventures, be sure to hit up the LES’ newest spot, Little Muenster on Stanton between Orchard and Ludlow. Little Muenster is the brain-child of Adam Schenider and Vanessa Palazio, two hospitality and lifestyle specialists who offer the late-night crowd a plethora of fancy grilled cheese to satisfy anyone’s craving for comfort food. You can find a simple classic or something more delectable, Muenster and Gouda with Pastrami and cumin seed.. Oh, and then there’s the bone marrow butter as an up-charge to any sandwich. For the adventurous, there’s nothing that could make a sandwich better.
For the vegetarian wandering around LES there is no better place than a tiny little grocery/deli just off Houston with a line of taxicabs out the front called Punjabi. Specializing in vegetarian Indian food, Punjabi has a limited menu, with about 4 or 5 options all costing under $6. The building is nondescript, a tiny spot with tiny green awning. The food is authentic, they sell homemade Chai and the appeal to eating a meal and buying a Bollywood video to watch later. Rumor has it, this spot is 24 hours and one of the city’s best kept secrets.
Only blocks away from the rowdy bar-goers and Houston traffic, the sidewalks on Clinton Street are relatively quiet and the shop windows dimly lit. Here you’ll find one of the neighborhood’s best spots. WD50 is more than noteworthy. WD50 is the award winning brainchild of Wylie Dufresne, a so-called forefather in the molecular gastronomy movement. The 67-seat eatery shows off the innovation Dufresne is known for, creativity that is a level beyond astonishing, but still approachable for the average diner.. Familiar favorites grace the menu, but of course come with a twist. Notable dishes; the Foie-lafel, a take on a street food classic and the eggs benedict, which showcases Dufresne’s love affair with eggs. WD50 is a neighborhood gem that attracts fans nationwide.
A quick walk north or an even quicker cab ride will put you in the heart of the east side, in the area now considered to be The East Village. Here is where David Chang’s mini-empire sits. Chang, a one time student and employee of some of the greats, Jean-Georges Vongerichten (Dufresne too is an alum,) and Daniel Boulud, has created the Momofuku Restaurant Group, featuring his restaurants noodle bar, ssäm bar, ko, má pêche, seiōbo, and the bakery milk bar, all situated in the East Village.
Momofuku Noodle Bar is the original restaurant sitting on First Avenue between 10th and 11th streets. It serves a thoughtful menu of ramen favorites with seasonal touches, that is small enough to manage but still wide in variety. Portion sizes are ample, spice is plentiful. Momofuku ramen is hard to pass up, with its perfectly poached egg and divinely cut fishcakes, the shrimp, pork or mushroom buns are the best found outside of Chinatown and do not underestimate the soft serve ice cream. Similar to Dufresne, Chang’s restaurants are the proud winners of numerous awards recognizing not just the menus success, but representing the blood, sweat and tears that are shed to keep a restaurant relevant in one of the oldest neighborhoods in “The City that Never Sleeps.”