by Liz Smith
The Lower East Side is an immigrant neighborhood with a thriving arts and culinary culture. As one of the oldest neighborhoods in New York, it has traditionally hosted lower income working families of diverse ethnic backgrounds and holds a special significance for Jewish Americans. While the neighborhood faces further gentrification and city real estate skyrockets, some staples of the historical area remain. Stop in at some of the highlights of the Lower East Side for a taste of history and a dose of local culture.
First Stop: What famous ethnic food doesn’t go bad and is cheaper than bread? Steit’s factory has a strong char smell and more matzoh than you could ever need. The emphasis in this company, which started in 1916, lies in the memory of history and religious significance. As you approach the store, it is not unusual to be greeted with free tastings and overheard words in Hebrew. The creation process is not the most cost-efficient, but sticks to tradition and stands as a symbol for the staff from a time when their family members ran the show. They are proud to say that the same oven remains in use and nothing about the baking has changed. Enjoy a tour of the factory for the full effect, laden with machinery sounds and wafting scents of bread and eggs. As Alan Adler, current part-owner, stated: “our matzo is like snowflakes…no 2 pieces are the same.”
Next: Katz’s Delicatessen, located on the southwest corner of Ludlow and East Houston streets, is similarly dedicated to maintaining tradition. Current owner, Jake Dell shares that the Lower East Side is a special community with a lot going on and serves as the origin for most people. Depending on the season, there can be a slew of locals, tourists, and celebrities alike, but the delicious food has been a staple throughout time and remains at top level. The pastrami is the most famous and flavorful, for which Dell credits the use of coriander in the rub process. Filled with old-school charm like signs from World War I and antique signage and lined with tons of photos of celebrity visitors to the restaurant, Katz’s stands as a cultural icon, featured in films such as the 1977 Frank Sinatra’s “Contract on Cherry Street” and most famously, “When Harry Met Sally.” Come here to gawk at the bright neon lights, reenact famous film scenes, and try what has been named “The Manliest Sandwich” by Men’s Health Magazine. Old Jewish deli culture thrives here and the sawdust covered spot means something new to every generation.
Last Stop: When your stomach is full of matzoh and pastrami, head over to another “Jewish” hotspot. Epstein’s Bar opened 9 years ago and is not as historically Jewish as the name implies. But at the corner of Stanton and Allen streets, this watering hole is a great place for a pint after a long day of touring! If you’re still hungry, there is even delicious burgers and sandwiches with fresh bread from Little Italy’s Parisi Bakery. Owner Erik MCManus reveals that the perplexing title was the company’s attempt to cater to the neighborhood and pay homage to a Puerto Rican Jew character on popular 70’s sitcom, Welcome Back Kotter. While the clientele is mostly skateboarding 20 somethings, young professionals and neighborhood locals, the name is reminiscent of a different Lower East Side than exists today. It is a wonderful place to catch up with friends over drinks or people watch from the prime outdoor seating and floor-to-ceiling windows.
Although the Lower East Side is going through changes, the Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy works to preserve this iconic neighborhood and newer businesses recognize the immigrant memory this area holds. The streets of the LES are definitely a unique take on the New York City experience – one that should not be missed.