munching on the east side ~ Orderinny

Monday, October 09, 2006

munching on the east side

Last weekend, while my usual dinner pal was out of commission due to an oral surgery, I had the good fortune to replace her with two friends who were visiting the city, both friends since Chicago, both students in the east coast, both with a hearty appetite and most importantly, both game enough or foolhardy to agree to a 5 destination within 1.5 hour whirlwind eating exercise.
While both Wellian and Walter have been to New York at least half a dozen times in the past year, both of them are relatively unfamiliar with East Village and the LES. Since that is also a great area for cheap chow and relatively close to the used book cafe, we selected to start of in the East Village and work our way down to Chinatown and back to Soho in one and a half hours. Ambitious? Definitely? But sometimes, its the effort that makes it even more satisfying.
Both Walter and I are certified sugar fiends, so it should not surprise anyone that our first stop is Beard Papa, the noted Japanese chain specializing in cream puffs. The cream puffs are made to order, pumping different flavors of thick, fresh cream into the empty puffs, yielding big puff balls of choux pastry that is full of yummy goodness. While the boys chomped down their cream puffs, we headed a few blocks east to Cafe Zaiya for my breakfast and some coffee. Zaiya happens to be a must-visit for me everytime I go to E. Village, or am in the vicinity of the Bryant Park Library, which is near a sister branch. What makes Cafe Zaiya a favorite of mine is the yakimochi, a traditional Japanese bean pastry that is best eaten when its freshly baked and still warm to the touch. The lotus seed paste is fragrant but not as cloyingly sweet as a Chinese bun filling, and the pastry is both flaky and chewy at the same time, a texture that really appeals to me. The other baked goods, deep fried croquettes and various bento sets are good as well, and Walter couldn't resist buying a deep fried curry bun to eat along the way to our next stop.
Holding our coffee cups, half eaten buns and pastries, we meandered our way through St Marks Place. We peered into the neon pink automat shop that sold overpriced and non-too appetizing looking snacks, identified a few other prospective chow spots, walked down to Tompkins Square Park and reached Houston St, the border between E. Village and the LES. We wandered around for a bit, for I had lost my bearings, but we found our third spot of the day, Il Laboratorio del Gelato right next to the Tenement Musuem and for fear of not having consumed enough sugars, decided to share a cup of icecream. Il Laboratorio is quite the royalty of the New York icecream scene and dominates the freezers of many top notch restaurants in the city. Luckily, the retail store allows us to enjoy the same flavors at a much lower pricepoint (although still expensive when compared to mr. softee) and we happily dug our way through a cup of mint and fig icecream while taking in the sights and marvelling at the pace of gentrification in the still relatively grungy neighborhood.

While the LES had been the stronghold of an older Jewish generation, the influx of Chinese immigrants in the last century, and particularly the last few decades have changed the demographic make-up of the area quite significantly. We observed many signboards in Chinese and even more Fuzhou eateries popping up further north from Canal Street, where Chinatown is largely situated. Another type of eatery that is highly popular in the area are the northern Chinese dumpling houses that served up dirt cheap dumplings in tiny and cramped shop fronts. We visited one of the oldest dumpling shops, simply called Dumpling House to sample the wares. The dumplings, fresh out of the frying pan was crisp and hot to the point of scalding. They were also plump and filled with fresh meat and chives, making for a very greasy lunch. Walter even proclaimed that he could "stand there and eat this all day long." The fact that the dumplings were $1 for an order of 5, or 20 cents each was icing on the cake. We also shared a sesame pancake stuffed with cold spiced beef. What's not to like about fried dough? Better yet, fried dough served right off the griddle, sprinkled with fragrant sesame seeds and filled with slightly spicy and aromatic beef jerky? Just thinking about it makes me hungry =)
At this point, we were all feeling the effects of heartburn, plus had run out of time as my shift at the cafe was about to begin, so I bade my buddies goodbye and rushed to the cafe. I felt a little disappointed as I still had one more place I wanted the out-of-towners to visit to round up our mini snack expedition. Luckily Wellian came back to look for me after I was done for the day and we finally managed to hit Bahn Mi So 1 for a huge vietnamese sandwich ostensibly for some greens (it had cilantro and pickled vegetables) and iced vietnamese coffee. While the sandwich is a great grab-and-go type of food, we decided to rest our feet in a small playground in Nolita to refuel and watch the diverse group of kids, from chinese kids in the neighborhood, to well-dressed children of yuppie European parents who just spent hundreds of dollars in the boutiques on Elizabeth St, to tourists who are enjoying a slice of New York pizza, play in the background. Only in this great city can you simultaneously see people from all walks of life congregate in one spot, and only in this place can you enjoy foods from different ethnicities, price points and stature in the culinary scene within a short 20 block walk.

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