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BY BILL WEINBERG | The changing nature of cheap ethnic food in the East Village weighs especially heavily on my mind as the weather starts to turn in October, and the nostalgic craving sets in for warm, friendly carbohydrates wrapped in just slightly chewy dough and slathered in generous quantities of melted butter… . Yes, pierogies.
There are still a few places in the neighborhood where you can get them, but they aren’t nearly as ubiquitous, and usually not as cheap (even adjusted for inflation), as when I first started hanging out here, now a full generation ago. Pierogi joints were then the standby for good, filling, cheap eats. Little Eastern European restaurants abounded — Polish, Ukrainian or Jewish, they all served up the same wholesome, earthy fare, at the same budget prices.
Back in the ’80s, I practically lived on this transplanted peasant cuisine year-round. Pierogies, in case you don’t know, are dumplings stuffed with meat or potatoes or cheese or sauerkraut or mushrooms or kasha, and served boiled or fried with a dollop of sour cream. Being of vegetarian inclination, I always opted for the potato or kasha, and boiled (quite greasy enough, thanks). They are perfect winter food, along with such other standards as potato pancakes (latkes in Yiddish), apple fritters, hot borscht (a hearty soup made from beets) and kasha (that is, buckwheat groats) with mushroom gravy.
In the summer, nothing beats the cold variety of borscht — usually served with a hard-boiled egg floating in it, and sans the cabbage and potatoes associated with the hot kind. With a couple of slices of pumpernickel and an iced coffee, it’s the perfect lunch for a New York City scorcher.
And healthy too, contrary to popular belief. This food (to the extent that anyone thinks about it all these days) has sort of got a bum rap healthwise. Sure, you can overdo it with the carbs and fried stuff and sour cream. But it doesn’t get any healthier than a plate full of buckwheat groats. And if you opt for the boiled pierogies and skip the sour cream (which is really gilding the lily given all that melted but- ter), they aren’t so bad for you either.
(I should parenthetically interject that piero- gies in San Francisco are completely different, much bigger and with a bread crust, to be eaten by hand like an Italian calzone or a Turkish bureka. Maybe one day I will find out the origin of this regional variation, and if this kind can also be found back in Europe.)
The most celebrated pierogi palace was the Kiev, a longtime East Village institution, open 24/7 at the corner of Second Ave. and Seventh St. The pierogies were incredibly heavy, but their Ukrainian cold borscht was the best.
Years after the joint closed its doors, the memory of its sharp twinge of garlic remains poignant.
Other neighborhood institutions that are now only memories for old-timers are Leshko’s, the Polish joint at the corner of Avenue A and Seventh, and Teresa’s, the one on First Ave. between Sixth and Seventh Sts. (I think Teresa’s moved out to Brooklyn Heights, and may still survive there.)
Numerous shorter-lived places have come and gone. But the one I miss the most is Polonia, which was across First Ave. from Teresa’s, right next door to that global symbol of corporate pseudo-food, the golden arches of Mickey-Dees. I consider it a desecration of the neighborhood’s cultural legacy that the McDonald’s survives and Polonia doesn’t. Their borscht was perfect, both hot and cold, and their prices rock bottom (even if the service was frequently surly). For years, I ate there several times a week. One house specialty I haven’t been able to find elsewhere is hot pickle soup. I’d say, “Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it,” except I don’t think it is available to try anywhere in the city now. Maybe in Greenpoint or Williamsburg.
What happened to them all? Well, the short answer is that one inevitable word: gentrification. As the neighborhood started to go upscale, the old East European eateries started to realize they would have to change or die. Some negotiated the transformation success- fully, others resisted — or succumbed.
At first it seemed like a joke to see this food, which is intrinsically unpretentious and proletarian, trying to be something it wasn’t. Some of the old joints sprouted new decor and revamped menus, attempting to be the kind of places where yuppies wouldn’t be ashamed to eat. I cracked to a friend that one day they’d be offering arugula pierogies. Then, in a perverse case of life imitating satire, I actually saw that absurdity on the specials board at Veselka!
The 24/7 Veselka (Ukrainian for “rain- bow”), possibly the oldest Ukrainian restaurant in the ’hood (it opened in 1954), remains at the corner of Second Ave. and Ninth, and has most successfully managed the transition — though it has compromised its authenticity a bit too much for my taste. It has even recently opened a second branch, Veselka Bowery, in the new luxury housing complex at Bowery and First St. (incorporating the former site of the famous 19th-century dive bar McGurk’s Suicide Hall). I haven’t gone into the Bowery location yet
(and doubt I ever will), so I don’t know if the menu and prices are the same — but it certainly looks way more upscale. I guess the only way proletarian food can pass for posh is by playing the ironic angle. It is certainly an irony that the Bowery, once the most déclassé area of the greater East Village, is now the most fashion- able.
The former site of Polonia, sadly, is still an empty storefront — an ominous sign of bad economic times. The former sites of Leshko’s and Teresa’s are some yuppie-friendly non-Eastern European eateries. The former site of Kiev was at first a self-consciously ironic retro-’50s diner, which thankfully didn’t last long. It is now a Korean BBQ place, which is at least authentic.
What else survives? B&H Dairy, another long-lived institution, is still alive and kicking
at its hole-in-the-wall location on Second Ave. just below St. Mark’s Place. A kosher dairy restaurant, it serves no meat, so it has survived by appealing to the vegetarian crowd, offering a more affordable alternative to the neighborhood’s more New Age-oriented veggie places. (I won’t mention any names).
Still entirely authentic are Little Poland on Second Ave. between 12th and 13th Sts., and Neptune (also Polish) at First Ave. and 12th. Odessa, on Avenue A between Seventh and St. Mark’s, has actually expanded, now taking up two storefronts — but it is no longer particularly Ukrainian. I guess they still keep some pierogies in the freezer in case someone ever orders them, but it is mostly standard New York diner fare (real, not retro) — and, thankfully, still cheap.
The neighborhood’s real secret gem is the Ukrainian National Home. It is right next door to Veselka on Second Ave. but has no obvious storefront — the restaurant itself is down a long corridor from the door opening on the sidewalk. If you don’t know it’s there, you will miss it. It still seems to be mostly patronized by actual Ukrainians and, aside from a few aberrations (e.g. the oxymoron of vegetarian schnitzel), remains entirely authentic. It has also been there for ages. Before I was born, my dad used to hear jazz bands at an upstairs hall on the premises.
An even better-kept secret (shut up, Weinberg, an inner voice says) is the Ukrainian Kitchen. In a basement (you have to walk down a short flight from sidewalk level to reach it) on Seventh St. west of Second Ave., it is run by some old women who seem to be attached to the big Ukrainian Uniate church on that block. It is only open a few limited hours on the weekends. As authentic as it gets.
The changing gastronomic climate of the East Village is a barometer of the more general cultural climate. The decline of the pierogi palace isn’t just a function of the neighborhood going upscale, but also of the old East European immigrant com- munity dwindling through attrition and newer immigrant com- munities taking its place. The cheap, wholesome ethnic grub in the ’hood now is increasingly Mexican or Indo-Pakistani — both unheard of back in the ’80s when pierogies reigned supreme (not counting the “Little India” row of cloth-napkin places on E. Sixth St., now actually in decline). But, in general, there are today far fewer affordable, family-run joints than there were a generation ago. The upscale joints continue to squeeze them out, economic crisis notwithstanding.
Increasingly, chilaquiles play the role in my culinary life that pierogies once did. Chilaquiles seem to be pretty far removed from pierogies— fried tortilla strips floating in salsa picante, usually served with refried beans and optionally mixed up with a couple of scrambled eggs. But like pierogies, they are a whole- some and tasty but very basic dish from the Old Country, usually eaten for breakfast, and only to be found at the most authentic places. You aren’t going to find chilaquiles at the kind of joints that serve frozen margaritas; this, once again, is real proletarian food.
The two exponents of this kind of fare in the East Village are the Downtown Bakery, a little hole-in-the-wall place at First Ave. and Fourth St., and the just slightly larger Puebla Coffee Shop, one block to the south. Both are good, but the Puebla Coffee Shop’s chilaquiles are really first-rate. The green sauce is strictly for the adventurous; beginners might want to opt for the red.
There is actually one slightly upscale place in the ’hood that also serves chilaquiles in a bid for a more self-conscious authenticity — La Palapa on St. Mark’s. They are perfectly good chilaquiles (and definitely on the picante side), but you can get ’em just as good for a lot less dinero at Downtown Bakery or the Puebla Coffee Shop.
And I wonder how long the new Mexican places will be around before they also fall victim to gentrification. A truly tragic loss was last year’s demise of the Festival Mexican Restaurant on Rivington St. off Essex. I hope the owners took photos before it closed of the mural on one of the inside walls, depicting scenes from the life of Pancho Villa.
There are still other options. A few of the old Puerto Rican and Dominican places still survive, especially south of Houston St., and they are always reliable. Katz’s Delicatessen on Houston is sort of artificially preserved for the tourists and its prices have gone up, but both the decor and the New York Jewish fare (knishes, pastrami sandwiches and the like) are unchanged since the 1940s. It’s perhaps the last place in the city where you can still get Cel-Ray soda. A few blocks to the west, Yonah Schimmel knishery is still hanging in there, actually serving borscht as well as knishes.
But good, cheap food is more and more an endangered species in the East Village, and the worst insult is that the over- priced yuppie joints that are replacing the wholesome ethnic joints generally don’t even serve good food. You are paying much more for an inferior product — a pseudo-cuisine obsessed with novelty for novelty’s sake, divorced from the cultures that sustain good eating.
And then of course there is the simultaneous proliferation of corporate chain outlets that offer seductively underpriced actual pseudo-food, even more divorced from those cultures.
Authenticity lies in the middle range: family-run, paper napkin joints still rooted in recent immigrant communities just one or two generations removed from the peasantry, whether of Poland or Puebla. Use it or lose it, folks. Fight back against the global epidemic of bad food by voting with your feet — to your friendly (or even surly) neighborhood greasy spoon.
And buen provecho.
Weinberg, a longtime East Village resident, produces the website World War 4 Report, and is preparing to launch the food-related EthnoGrub.com