NYC Stories Part 2: the food

May 10, 2010 |  Category:   dining out nyc remembering

NYC has always been about food. It’s what I missed most when I moved away for 5 years. I’m not talking about the fancy foodie stuff either as I was still just a kid really, when I moved away. My friends and I probably never spent more than $15 a meal and most times it was well under 10 bucks. We were on art school budgets and if you knew how, you could eat really cheaply in NY, including knowing which art openings to go to when you knew there would be an open bar.

I don’t remember cooking at all during that era, even though I’m sure we did, but why would we? There was so much good food to be had. Like most people, we had our regular rotation of spots including the deli down the street from school on St. Mark’s Place where we picked up our bagels and egg sandwiches for breakfast before our first class. The deli guys knew all the Cooper Union kids so well that they were familiar with all our major projects and wished us luck on whatever grueling 4 hour critique we faced that day. Strangely enough, I didn’t drink coffee back then. I’m not really sure what I did to get through all those years of undergraduate and grad school but it wasn’t caffeine. Maybe being young was enough to pull all nighters.

During those early art school years when I was living on my own, first on Baxter Street in Chinatown and then on St. Mark’s in the East Village, I started discovering foods that were new to me. Having grown up eating the usual American-type fare as most kids growing up – you know, shake and bake chicken, pork chops, spaghetti and meatballs – I had a fairly typical American diet mixed in with Korean and other Asian food. But then I discovered Ethiopian, Indian, Middle Eastern, Ukrainian, Mexican and Thai. I was a vegetarian back then as were most of my friends, and I was even vegan for a few years as well, but there were so many options and I didn’t miss eating meat at all (years later, after 8 years of being a strict vegetarian, it was missing sushi that did me in).

These are the restaurants that I missed when I moved away, the places that I pined for until I would come back to NY in the summers and holidays: Abyssinia on Grand Street for Ethiopian, Ali Baba and Mamoun’s Falafel on MacDougal Street, Rose of India (really any of the places on Indian row) on 6th street (also the Indian Place on 1st ave up the steps that clearly won the contest for the place with the most over-the-top Christmas lights, an odd trend for Indian restaurants at that time), House of Vegetarian on Mott for vegan Chinese food, Benny’s Burritos for huge over-stuffed quesadillas, the Kiev and Veselka for Ukrainian in the East Village, Dojo for the soy or hijiki tofu dinners – at $2.95 and $3.25 respectively, the cheapest filling dinner you can find (and the prices, so I hear, are still not that different 20 years later), Holy Basil Thai food on 2nd ave, Cafe Mogador for their carrot ginger soup, Cafe Yaffa, Cafe Orlin, Sin-é, all on St. Marks, Angelika Kitchen, Life Cafe on 10th and Avenue B, Venerios Bakery for pastries.

Many of these places are still there, some are gone, but these are the places of my youth and a big part of the memories I have when I think about that era – East Village, NYC, circa ’88-91.

It’s funny, but I haven’t been back to any of those restaurants except for maybe Cafe Orlin and most recently, Venerios, since I moved back to NY in ’96, this time with Mark. Maybe because when I left the city on New Years Day in 1992, I wanted to leave it behind and bury those memories for good, as well as the people, the places, my friends and just start over. But we were walking around that neighborhood with the girls after school on Friday afternoon and we walked by an empty storefront on 2nd Avenue where a health food store used to be. I quickly peered in, I couldn’t see much, but this is when some of the memories flooded back. I had a sudden urge to go have some stuffed cabbage and pierogies at Veselka (the Kiev, as we knew it, is long gone) or sit on the bar stool of that tiny, narrow 2nd Avenue (I think) restaurant where we would get mushroom barley soup or whatever the soup of the day was (people of this era, please help me out – what was this place called!? I cannot remember. *edit: Yes! A reader came through – B&H Dairy ).

We didn’t end up doing that. Instead we made our way to some of the East Village comfort spots like the Takoyaki stand and take out sushi from Sunrise Mart, places we used to go to when we lived on 12th street. These are newer food memories, when the East Village became more Japanese and I was going to grad school at Tisch at NYU in the late 90s. I guess because these memories are fused with more recent trips with the girls, they don’t hold that same level of nostalgia. Maybe it’s just as well. Some memories are meant to be sacred. Maybe these places are better left untouched, suspended back in time when we were young and in art school.

Related: NYC stories Part 1, City of Ghosts, City of Memories.

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  • Emma May 10, 2010 at 3:34 pm

    You may be thinking of B&H Dairy for soup, and the huge slices of challah that came with. I haven’t been there in ten years since I worked around the corner but it’s still there…

  • Jenna May 10, 2010 at 3:36 pm

    Yes!! B&H Dairy, thank you Emma!

  • kate May 10, 2010 at 4:17 pm

    Oh man I love the Takoyaki stand! I miss being able to walk there. I also love the tapas (or whatever the Japanese version of tapas is?) place next to sunrise mart up the stairs, too.

  • Anna @ D16 May 10, 2010 at 4:18 pm

    This post brought back a lot of food memories for me, Jenna!! I feel like hitting up a lot of my old (& cheap) haunts now.

    I mean, when was the last time I went to Dojo or Mogador?! Either sounds really good right now, though…

  • Jenna May 10, 2010 at 4:27 pm

    Kate, yes, yokocho. One of our regular haunts in grad school. Haven’t been there in 10 years either!

  • leslie May 10, 2010 at 4:41 pm

    I’m an L.A. girl through and through, but I have to admit that I have a not-so-secret crush on NYC. I love your blog for so many reasons, but a main one is your view/thoughts of the city. NYC has the best places to eat by far, and two summers my husband and I (and three little ones in tow) made our way through the city…one of our stumble upon places was Holy Basil. Delish!

  • Nidhi May 10, 2010 at 4:44 pm

    mmmm this made me so hungry! I eat mostly vegetarian with the exception of sushi once in a while :) Is Claudine eating a sweet bean cake(?) I stocked up on the frozen kind at Mitsuwa this weekend, for when I am really craving one!

  • Kelly May 10, 2010 at 4:50 pm

    One of my favorite things about New York is the insane amount of amazing food. I’ve only been here for four years, I can tell which places will be those same kind of memories. Reading your entry flooded my own mind with the places I frequent and adore. You hit close to home bc the Indian restaurant my best girl friend and I “discovered” when we first explored the city together just shut down, and the sense of loss is quite palpable!

    And although I don’t think New York holds my heart enough to stay here forever, the food certainly grips at it tightly.

    But in the meantime, please tell me what the drool-inducing dish in the top photo is so I can check that out stat!

  • Jenna May 10, 2010 at 4:52 pm

    nidhi – yes, that is a red bean cake, bought at the takoyaki stand…and mitsuwa…yum…

  • Jenna May 10, 2010 at 6:22 pm

    Kelly, the top shot is takoyaki (inside the dough is a piece of octopus) from the takoyaki place on 9th between 2nd and 3rd ave.

  • Quindome May 10, 2010 at 8:17 pm

    I must admit that for my upcoming trip to New York, my friends planned around where they wanted to eat. I love the idea of food/restaurants as nostalgia. What a lovely post.

  • annie May 10, 2010 at 9:32 pm

    food is everything to me too.
    memories and places always have food in them.

    I really enjoy your writing.

  • annie May 11, 2010 at 4:05 am

    food is everything to me too.
    memories and places always have food in them.

    I really enjoy your writing.
    Oops…forgot to say great post! Looking forward to your next one.

  • Chai Ling May 11, 2010 at 5:42 am

    All the food in the pictures make me smile : ) that’s what I usually eat with my husband on weekends : ) sweet post.

  • bronwyn May 11, 2010 at 9:08 am

    St Andre cheese for 2.99 a pound? Wow. :)

    One of the things I love about your blog is reading about juggling work, family life and a family business in the city as I am doing the same thing, just on the opposite coast. I like to read about the similarities and the differences. I am loving these New York stories posts. I have lived in SF for many years and have a lot of old memories too and find it interesting when they merge with my current life. I like reading about your perspective. Thank you so much for sharing.

  • Truly Smitten May 11, 2010 at 11:36 am

    oh man!! boong-uh bbang!! (the fish bread) – I LOOOOVE that stuff! I hope you had a wonderful mother’s day weekend!

  • Chuzai Living May 11, 2010 at 5:17 pm

    Mmmmmm. Your photos made my mouth water! I’m so jealous you have a takoyaki stand in NYC! Love takoyaki! The face Claudine is making when blowing her taiyaki is priceless! I also like taiyaki. The best photo for me is the ikura (salmon roe). Awwww. That’s my favorite. I don’t know when, but when we go visit NYC in the future, I will check out the takoyaki stand!

  • ftenshin May 12, 2010 at 12:24 am

    i simply adore Miss C’s lashes!
    The sushi looks so yummy! Red Bean Takoyaki’s a fave – I like the other fillings too: green tea, caramel, white choc etc…

  • Removalist Melbourne May 13, 2010 at 3:23 am

    Wow! Those look so good. I love sushi.

  • erica May 13, 2010 at 3:15 pm

    yum – i love that takoyaki stand! my husband and i took a japanese street food class at the ICE and it was one of the things we made. love it!

  • Ma Foom Bey May 13, 2010 at 6:21 pm

    Kiev for dinner; disco nap; then out to Save the Robots; Tranquilidad garden to get bearings and rest; bodega egg sandwich before falling asleep on funky mattress in your funky apartment on 3rd and B.

  • Jane May 14, 2010 at 4:05 pm

    I know that feeling, where sometimes you don’t want to go back somewhere, because the memory is so dear to you that you’re afraid to see what its become or how its changes. Or even worse, you’ll find it hasn’t changed at all, but that you have!

  • Steve May 29, 2010 at 5:40 am

    All the food in the pictures make me smile : ) that’s what I usually eat with my husband on weekends : ) sweet post.

  • degan August 13, 2010 at 7:14 pm

    came across your site today and am entralled….beautiful stories and images. thank you.