A few months ago, my aunt Paula decided that we need to capture our culture’s tradition through food, bottling up as much Jewish culture in a day’s work, touring New York City’s most iconic Jewish and Russian food spots. It would be an intimate family affair and we would sacrifice our stomachs to the pickled herring of New York, we’d spew Yiddish sayings at will, we’d start an annual tradition filled with nostalgia, humor, and self-discovery. Hence, Jewstalgia was born.
June 7 was the day of our first annual Jewstalgia and the behemoth gods of hot, hot heat were upon us. The oppressive sun hit our backs like the heavy, scorching roof of a Panini press. Sweat dripped down our slick backs like flowing, living waterfalls. However, we persevered. It was the type of severe weather where the appetite is suppressed, yet we kept eating like it was our last meal(s) on earth, our tenacious minds quarrelling with our contentious bellies.
We began the day on New York’s lower east side, a part of town brimming with Jewish heritage: Houston Street, Essex Street, Grand Street, Orchard Street- all painted with vestiges of a turn of the century immigrant history. The Lower East Side was once an epicenter for American Judaism, a neighborhood where immigrants, in particular Jewish immigrants, settled and developed a new capital of Jewish culture in America.
Arriving at our first destination, Russ and Daughters, at 179 East Houston Street, our feet were already pavement-weary, our faces coated with slick and salty sweat, our mind’s questioning our day’s work. But when met with the bounty of Jewish delicacies in the shop, we quickly forgot the weather’s curse, mustered our appetites and delved in.
Russ and Daughters is a polished yet authentic Jewish specialty shop filled with the foods we’ve come to identify with being Jewish- smoked fish, herring, cured salmon, caviar, chopped liver, and only the best of everything. We sampled items such as traditional pickled herring, rolled in dainty rounds, filled with tart pickled onions, rich chopped chicken liver like your Bubby made, tangy-sweet smoked salmon tartar, and the famous “Super Heeb Sandwich”, a pillowy bagel filled with creamy whitefish salad, horseradish cream cheese and the piece d’resistance- wasabi flying fish roe.
I honestly could have quit our adventure right then and there! The entire Russ and Daughter’s staff was not only helpful and courteous, but wholeheartedly joined in on our fun, teaching us eccentric and humorous Yiddish anecdotes, surveying our printed itinerary, and even taking our photo for their upcoming blog.
Just down the street from Russ and Daughter’s is Katz’s, a kosher deli dating back to 1888, a tourist hotspot and a quintessential New York Jewish deli. Some argue that Katz’s is overrated, overcrowded and unfriendly, but it is a truly historical New York experience, and a truly Jewish one. There’s something mischievous about eating at Katz’s: the ominous, never-ending rows of tables, the World War II décor, the ever-effusive patrons, the conveyer belt efficiency of the staff.
Some argue that the service is unpleasant and even abrasive. But let’s be honest, who comes to Katz’s Deli for the Michelin star service? They come to take a bite out of truly mouth-watering, spicy, juicy brined pastrami on rye, some of the city’s best. They come for the corned beef, the hot dogs, the tongue. They come for the tart, mouth-puckering dill pickles and pickled green tomatoes. They come to remember their pasts- the boys of World War II. They come to revel in their present- the salty, juicy deli meat filling their bellies and the frothy, sublime egg creams. Little known Katz’s fact: their latkes are splendid discs of perfectly crunchy and lightly salted potato with a piping hot, soft interior; a surprising find for folks not known for their latkes. We also ordered a mandatory Kasha filled knish, a staple of the Jewish household of yore.
At this point, you are probably thinking, “did they possibly move forward, did they possibly consume more? “ Yes, we did move onward and we did eat more, although begrudgingly at this juncture. The heat of the mid-afternoon sun was becoming increasingly oppressive. On our walk to our next destination, we had to seek shelter in a hole-in-the-wall convenient store, air conditioners lovelingly blowing blusteringly cold wind onto our sun kissed backs, providing us with a fleeting moment of reprieve. Our stomachs were growling, filled with the relics of our mornings work while our lungs and hearts were working overtime, fighting nature’s torridness.
And unfortunately, our subsequent two destinations were closed for the Sabbath. It is obvious you are dealing with a secular bunch when Jewish gastronomy day is planned on the Sabbath!
Guss’s Pickles on Orchard Street is the place to go for a briny bite of Jewish history. They offer an array of pickles including garlicky kosher sour, the salty half-sour, the spicy pickle and the pickled green tomato. Just down the street, Kossar’s Bialys was also resting for the Sabbath and thank goodness for small favors: could we really consume another carbohydrate?
Yes, apparently we would could. And we did. Our next stop features otherworldly carbs, like manna from heaven! Mark Isreal’s Doughnut Plant’s confections are astonishing- pillowy doughnuts so fluffy they melt in your mouth like cotton candy. We sampled the Valrhona chocolate, mango glazed and coconut cream doughnuts, although the coconut cream blasted the competition out of the sugary water with its subtle sweetness, coconut glaze sprinkled like snow on the outside of the yeasty pastry, a refined coconut cream running evenly through the perimeter of the doughnut like a silken river. Mr. Isreal makes use of only the freshest and most high quality ingredients, including fresh fruit in the glazes, high-end chocolate and homemade jelly.
Before our final and most memorable eating experience of the day, we made a required stop at the educational Tenement Museum at 97 Orchard Street. The tour takes you deep into the past, directly into the lives of newly minted Americans and their preserved home, a tenement built in 1863. The building has been restored to display the dismal living (and in-home working) conditions of the immigrants that inhabited the building over the course of half a century.
Our night began and ended not on the Lower East Side, but in Little Odessa in Brighton Beach (Brooklyn). We stumbled into Primorski in a collective delirium, more hungry for the air conditioner and stiff seats than for the actual meal and the cruise ship-like ambiance. Our experience at Primorski was truly trippy, authentically Russian, cheesy to the max and more kitschy than Pee Wee Herman. Everything at Primorski is grandiose and over-the-top.
This is the place to go for a never-ending Russian/Georgian family style meal, all you can drink vodka, live technoesque Europop, all under dizzying disco-lights. Suffice it to say that words cannot convey the utterly hilarious and simultaneously bizarre experience of Primorski. The restaurant is a dimly lit, windowless ballroom and as the night progresses and the patrons become increasingly intoxicated, the music crescendos and frenetic dancing fills any potential void in the sprawling room. Like clockwork, the singers treated the eaters to their raspy rendition of “Happy Birthday” eleven times, complete with larger than life birthday cakes. We began to assume that we were not only the only non-Russian speakers in the room, but also the only table not celebrating a birthday.
Some of the food at Primorski was questionable, at least to our sensibilities, which was okay, since the banquet menu is essentially ceaseless. We jettisoned the seafood dishes in favor of salty meats and the plethora of carbohydrates. The menu went something like this: crab salad, chicken in jelly, Caesar salad, eel salad, seafood salad, duck salad, chicken in jelly, herring, pickled tomatoes, cucumbers and cabbage, smoked fish platter which included smoked white fish, smoked salmon, smoked sturgeon, various cold cuts including tongue, galantine, smoked pork meat and other mysterious meats, crispy fried potatoes with garlic, khachapuri (Georgian bread patty filled with cheese), bilinis with red caviar, warm seafood platter, chicken Kiev, various fried meats, a fruit platter and fruit filled crepes. If you feel exhausted reading that list, try to be on the receiving end of the plethora of shameless gluttony, especially after a marathon day of excessive eating.
We ate, we drank, we conquered. Our first annual Jewstalgia was filled with great food, vivid history, bright new memories forged and yes, nostalgia.
205 E Houston St
New York, NY 10002
87 Orchard St
New York, NY 10002
367 Grand Street
New York, NY
379 Grand St
New York, NY 10002
282 Brighton Beach Ave #B
Brooklyn, NY 11235
The Tenement Museum
97 Orchard Street