Traditionally considered one of New York City’s most vibrant local melting pots, the Lower East Side is renowned for its stylish bars, trendy restaurants and dynamic night life. Despite its contemporary transformation, this historic district has retained its multifaceted nature, evident in the authentic food, from Jewish classics to Chinese fare. We take you through a history of the Lower East Side with these iconic dishes.
The Corned Beef Sandwich at Katz’s Deli
Teeming with a mix of locals and tourists both young and old, Katz’s Deli continues to pile slices of corn beef high, as it has since 1888. The meat is supremely tender so you can focus more on savoring than on chewing, while the saltiness is balanced gently by hints of coriander, allspice, and black pepper. The yellow mustard spread evenly on both pieces of the toasted rye is all the sandwich needs to reach perfection. Over the decades, Katz’s menu has seen several additions and a few subtractions, but the classics remain: Matzah ball soup, potato knishes, dill pickles, and chopped liver. While most Jewish delis have closed due to rent hikes, Katz’s has stood the test of time and cemented itself as a permanent part of New York City history and culinary culture.
Katz’s Deli, 205 East Houston Street, New York, NY, USA +1 212 254 2246
The Herring Platter at Russ & Daughters
A block north of Katz’s Deli is Russ & Daughters, another century-old business that continues to thrive. Joel Russ’s family shop opened in 1914 when he saved enough money from his pushcart sales to buy a small storefront on Houston Street, which he shared with his daughters. This fish shop sells over a dozen varieties of smoked salmon, as well as half a dozen varieties of herring. Russ & Daughters recently opened full-service restaurant Russ & Daughters Café on Orchard Street, just a short walk from the original shop. The café serves more upscale versions of the same food, capturing a trend in the Lower East Side of taking simple, old-school food and elevating it to a fine dining experience. The menu includes smoked fish platters, bagel sandwiches, a selection of caviar, and egg dishes, while counter diners can order classic egg creams, sodas, and cocktails. The herring plate comes with four different types of herring, each with its own nuance of saltiness, fleshiness, and creaminess. The fish is served with a dish of pickled beets, a variety of dipping sauces, and several slices of pumpernickel bread.
Russ & Daughters, 179 East Houston Street, New York, NY, USA +1 212 475 4880
Russ & Daughters Café, 27 Orchard Street, New York, NY, USA +1 212 475 4881
Roumanian Tenderloin Steak at Sammy’s Roumanian
Sammy’s Roumanian has been called the most ‘wonderful terrible’ restaurant in New York by The New York Times. In reality, it’s not wonderful or terrible, but rather a piece of living history in NYC. Nothing has changed since Sammy’s first open its doors in 1975; the kitchen continues to crank out traditional Jewish food that immigrants ate in Eastern Europe before coming to America in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Staples like kishka, stuffed cabbage, kasha varniskes, and kreplach are still on offer, and it would be a challenge to find another restaurant in Manhattan with this menu. Try the delicious chicken liver appetizer, topped with caramelized onions and strips of turnip, or served with schmaltz (rendered liquid chicken fat) on top. Full meals include an extensive selection of ‘broilings’, which includes steaks, veal chops, sweetbreads, and a sprinkling of fish and chicken. A local favorite is the Roumanian tenderloin: a hugely delicious, tender, skirt steak topped with heaps of minced garlic. With live Jewish-inspired music or comedy almost every night and specialized cocktails including Kettle One vodka frozen into blocks of ice, some might see the food as a mere afterthought at Sammy’s – and they would be wrong. Those looking for a taste of the old world know where to go.
Sammy’s Roumanian,157 Chrystie Street, New York, NY, USA +1 212 673 0330
Pork Dumplings from Prosperity Dumpling
Located on the edge of Chinatown, Prosperity Dumpling on Eldridge Street is worth a stop for their deliciously juicy dumplings. Walking south on Eldridge Street past Grand and Hester, the transition between the Lower East Side and Chinatown is clear from the Chinese signs. One block farther south on Eldridge is the Eldridge Street Historic Synagogue, a National Historic Landmark built in 1887; a reminder that these streets in the heart of Chinatown were once an integral part of the Jewish Lower East Side. In recent decades, the Jewish population has dwindled significantly with many moving across the river to Brooklyn and others leaving for the suburbs. Thus a significant portion of what was once part of the Lower East Side is now considered Chinatown, including this section of Eldridge Street where the dumplings sizzle late into the evening. The smell of frying oil, chives, pork, and soy sauce mix in the air brilliantly as the curt owner tallies up your bill on a notepad, simultaneously yelling food orders to the cooks, desperately trying to keep order amid the chaos. These dumplings are perfectly charred and crispy on the outside, with the ideal pork-to-chive ratio on the inside. At a staggeringly low price – four pork dumplings for a dollar, or ten for $2.75 – it’s rare to find a better deal. If you’re looking for a meal, add on the fluffy sesame pancakes with duck, or the tangy hot and sour soup.
Prosperity Dumpling, 46 Eldridge Street, New York, NY, USA +1 212 343 0683
The Fat Radish Plate at The Fat Radish
The Fat Radish on Orchard Street offers excellent food that focuses on seasonal, farm fresh ingredients. Like Prosperity Dumpling, this restaurant is technically in Chinatown; the boundary between these two neighborhoods is less clear here than it is farther north on Eldridge Street. On Orchard between Grand and Canal, Asian-owned kitchen supply stores and old-world clothing stores are juxtaposed with new businesses. Looking above the Chinese signs and the chalkboards advertising happy hour deals, it’s possible to make out a few small Hebrew letters inscribed in the buildings, a token once more of the thousands of Jews who were squeezed into these tenement buildings not long ago. The Fat Radish has a casual warehouse-like feel, but the juices and donut appetizer are quite modern. Everything on the menu is incredibly fresh, elegantly displayed, and certainly worth the prices. Their signature dish, the Fat Radish Plate, is 100-percent vegan and aimed to highlight the restaurant’s beautiful, locally-sourced vegetables. Their menu changes with the seasons, but try the avocado on seven-grain toast with spicy eggs, or the duck confit hash – a wonderful combination of crispy potatoes, juicy duck confit, kale, and fried eggs. If your sweet tooth needs some satisfying, the lemon ricotta pancakes with blueberry jam will hit the spot.
The Fat Radish, 17 Orchard Street, New York, NY, USA +1 212 300 4053
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