New York is constantly evolving, and nowhere is a better example of this than the Lower East Side. While it was once filled with immigrants crammed into tenement houses, now there are swanky coffee shops and hipsters. But while most of the area has drastically changed, some tasty relics remain.
I’ve previously toured businesses and buildings in the LES courtesy of the Tenement Museum, but never before had I considered how food stores let us in on the area’s changing nature. So last weekend I took Ben and Marty’s Bagel Tour for Edible magazine – and while my story isn’t up yet (I’ll add the link later!), I thought I’d share some of the highlights.
I met my affable tour guide Ben outside one of my favorite LES snack spots – Yonah Schimmel’s Knishery – and was chuffed to see he’d come even though I was the only one who signed up. (And after taking the tour, it is absurd no one else was on it.)
First, he gave me a potted history of the area and even dropped in a few personal stories – a nice touch – about his own upbringing in New York. Then we headed inside for a knish.
Delicious, fluffy and soft potato with a crispy skin. The perfect comfort food.
This first stop was a good indication of how the rest of the tour would be. For the next two-and-a-half hours, we visited surviving Jewish eateries – many of which were a little rough around the edges, but all of which had lived on due to their simple, winning recipes and loyal customers.
Next up was Russ and Daughter’s – famous for its lox – followed by Katz’s Deli – famous for its ‘I’ll have what she’s having’ scene in When Harry Met Sally and its piles of pastrami.
As Ben regaled me with more stories about his grandmother, we popped into sweet shops, Streit’s matzo factory and – my favorite visual treat of the tour – a skinny store selling various pickled vegetables from big buckets. I winced as I tasted horseradish pastes and spicy pickles.
We finished the tour with still-warm onion-topped bialys, which are a sort of flatter bagel with a thumb print nudged in the top. More carbs and yes, more deliciousness.
I left with an impressive loot of sweet, doughy bagels, half a knish, pickles, a bialy and a Halvah – a bizarre sweet but savory chocolate-covered sesame bar. Definitely a day for new flavors.
Wandering around the LES was a lovely way to spend a Sunday – and it’ll be even better now that the weather’s warming up. Ben, who has been running these sorts of tours across the city for 2 years, was easy company as well as a learned guide. It’s a shame he doesn’t have a more personal relationship with some of the store owners (especially because it’d be good for tasters), but a fair few of them seemed pretty grumpy (in an endearing way), so I’m not all that surprised.
All in all, this was a great way to see the Lower East Side. I’ve been there by night and day, up tenement buildings and into synagogues, and yet I felt this was by far one of the best ways of really getting to know the place.
For more information about the tours, visit Marty and Ben’s website – they hold them in other parts of the city too. Oh, and there’s a Living Social deal on right now for the tour, so check it out – we can’t let Ben’s knowledge go to waste on such a tiny group again!