Local joints where food’s cheap and character’s deep


By Philip Hartman

Ray Alvarez at work in his Avenue A store, which sells old-fashioned egg creams, hot dogs, Belgian fries, frozen yogurt and coffee.

When Uglesich’s, the beloved seafood dive in New Orleans, announced last spring that it was closing after over 80 years of volcano shrimp and crawfish fettuccine, it was like a state funeral: there were months of mourning, newspaper editorials and countless tributes and eulogies, typical for a town that celebrates its venerable eating institutions.

When La Foccaceria closed down late last year, after over 90 years of vestedi and calamari fra diavolo, there was nary a peep. More recently, the 2nd Ave Deli shut its doors, amid much acrimony about rent and real estate, leaving the community bereft — not only for their chopped liver, but for the surly big-haired waitresses that served it.

It’s clear now, more than ever, that local joints with cheap food and deep character are truly an endangered species on the Lower East Side. Legendary haunts like the Garden Cafeteria, Bernstein’s-on-Essex and Grand Dairy are long gone; quirky signs of their times like 103 2nd Ave., Cave Canem (yes, [ital]the cuisine of Ancient Rome[unital]) and The Cauldron are distant memories — as are ethnic landmarks like Baltyk, the Orchidia and Leshko’s; and places like Binibon, The Annex and the Psychedelicatessen have become mere historical footnotes.

For every Dunkin’ Donuts, Subway and Starbucks now in the neighborhood there was once a place like Princess Pamela’s (upstairs, at the corner of First Ave. and 10th St.). At this soul-food spot, run by a scat singer/voodoo queen, the cook would literally head for the grocery store after you placed your order and shop for the ingredients for your meal — while the Princess entertained you by spinning yarns and singing tunes that made the wait better than the meal itself.

Change is good (so they say!), and New Yorkers thrill to seek out the newest of the new — but personally, I like the oldest of the old. Fortunately, there are many longtime local institutions, with deep roots in our turf, that still seem to be thriving: Angelica’s Kitchen, Casa Adela, Castillo de Jagua, Dojo’s, John’s, Katz’s, Kossar’s, Russ & Daughter, Russo’s, Veniero’s and Veselka among them. Other more recent additions have blessedly carved out what seems like a permanent niche: Angelina’s, The Elephant, Elvie’s Turo-Turo, Frank’s, the Himalayan Restaurant, Lucien, Nicky’s Vietnamese Sandwiches, La Palapa, The Pink Pony, Soba-Ya, Le Tableau, Telephone and Zum Schneider.

But too often, new places in our neighborhood feel like U.F.O.’s that have landed from a foreign planet, alien to the local environment in every way. Meanwhile, many longtime places are suffering.

We’ve got to nurture these endangered species while they’re still here, not merely whine when they’ve gone away. Below are some establishments worth treasuring [ital]now[unital]…places that are L.E.S. through and through, and that symbolize all that is great (and yummy) about our amazing neighborhood:

[bold]Joselito[reg] (94 Avenue C): I always say that when this place goes, I’m going, too. Joselito is a jukebox-blaring, rice-and-beans joint, perfect for a batido after a summer softball game, or for the best pollo a la brasa this side of Queens, and it’s the ideal place to sense what Avenue C used to be.

[bold]Gertel’s[reg] (53 Hester St.): One of our last Jewish bakeries, and like Joselito, a community center, too. Challah, hamantashen and black-and-white cookies are all fine, but my favorite is the salt stick, a narrow roll coated with salt and caraway seeds — a yummy high-carb throwback to the days of yore.

[bold]Little India[reg] (E. Sixth St., between First and Second Aves.): Much maligned, our Little India is undergoing seismic changes. Cajun, Italian and soul-food restaurants have infiltrated the monopoly, and the endless Christmas lights, sidewalk hawkers and frantic “Happy Birthday” celebrations may soon be history. So go while you can, for your poori and your vindaloo, and wonder at the urban legend that claimed that one single underground kitchen churned out all of E. Sixth St.’s food for all these years.

[bold]Stage Restaurant[reg] (128 Second Ave.): Perfect pierogies (dig the carmelized fried onions!), heavenly challah and split-pea soup (for breakfast!) make this my favorite hideaway. Toss in a quirky staff and a communal eating environment that lets you hear every word when Parker Posey is chewing out her agent (or boyfriend?!) and you’ve got the quintessential L.E.S. dining experience.

[bold]Ray’s[reg] (Avenue A and Seventh St.): Despite no longer selling newspapers, this hole in the wall remains essential if for its ethereal egg creams. Watch how the lovely Eastern European alchemists behind the counter stir with their spoon as they drizzle in the seltzer to produce the egg cream’s perfect frothy head. Then enjoy it as you watch the great Avenue A sidewalk sideshow pass by.

[bold]Di Roberti’s[reg] (176 First Ave.): The cars are double-parked at nearby Veniero’s, but for old-school charm there is no comparison. Di Roberti’s is the Italian cafe of your dreams, down to the original tiling, classic decor and sculptural pastry displays. (For another vestige of this little Little Italy, try Five Roses Pizzeria across the street).

While you’re at it, please stop by and savor the following classics: [bold]B & H[reg] (for soups and smart-aleck countermen), [bold]Lanza’s[reg] (for vestiges of their gorgeous neon sign), [bold]Odessa[reg] (for the memory of how good it used to be), what my daughter calls [bold]“The Special Place”[reg], and it’s neighbor, [bold]“The Somewhat Special Place”[reg] (for dirt-cheap, reasonably authentic Mexican fare on First Ave., between Third and Fifth Sts.), [bold]Streit’s Matzoh Factory[reg] (for steaming-hot free samples off the production line), the [bold]Ukranian East Village Restaurant[reg] (as much a social club as a restaurant), and [bold]Yonah Shimmel’s[unital] (pastry knishes in a cryptic, Jewish-noir storefront).

Here’s to places that look, feel and taste like they couldn’t exist anywhere else but the E.V./L.E.S. Please cherish them before they’re gone! Kobe sliders may be the thing of the moment, but kreplach, cannolis, and cuchifritos are forever!

[ital]Hartman is an owner of Two Boots Pizzeria and Mo Pitkin’s House of Satisfaction and founder of the HOWL! Festival.