Gentrification has been pretty thorough in the traditional immigrant stronghold of the Lower East Side, and for proof, you need only to look at the restaurants–trendy spots usurp long-held leases here all the time. But despite all the turnover that’s happened in the last decade or so, several old joints have still hung on, making this an area with diverse culinary options. Herewith, the ten best restaurants on the Lower East Side, which run the gamut from a cheap Chinese canteen to a brand new locavore spot.
10. Lan Zhou, 144 East Broadway, 212-566-6933
Located right on the Chinatown border, we’re claiming this one for the LES. Ignore the grime that covers the tables and floors at this bare-bones joint and instead focus on the man thwapping dough into submissive noodles at the back of the space. Those noodles make magic in beef noodle soup when they swim in a broth dense with savory garlic-tinged flavor. We supplement that dish with a platter of dumplings, the pungent pork meatballs encased in thin, slippery skins.
9. Katz’s Deli, 205 East Houston Street, 212-254-2246
The lines still form for this neighborhood institution, and they’re not just filled with tourists. That’s because there just aren’t many places in the city where you can get your pastrami fix the way you can here, pink, pepper-encrusted and piled high on rye. The turkey with chicken liver pate is a sleeper hit, by the way, and the chicken soup will cure what ails you come winter time.
8. Shopsin’s, 120 Essex Street, 212-924-5160
Shopsin’s has mellowed significantly from the days when the fiery owner would throw out diners who didn’t play by his rules, but the Essex Street Market location is still an experience unlike many others in NYC. After waiting in line for a table (parties of four or less only), you might be tempted to point blindly at the massive menu, a small-print list of re-imagined diner fare, to order. That’ll work out great, actually–but we’d also recommend a stack of pancakes or the breakfast nachos, which can be dialed up to a heat level so intense you’ll want to rip your tongue out.
7. Black Tree, 131 Orchard Street, 212-533-4684
This locavore-friendly newcomer quickly won over neighborhood denizens because of its killer list of seasonal sandwiches. The menu rotates frequently, and over the summer, we’ve enjoyed everything from squash blossom to watermelon to scrapple stacked between two halves of a loaf of bread. Cheap beer on draft sweetens the deal; add a shot for just $4 if you’re having that kind of a night.
6. Congee Village, 100 Allen Street, 212-941-1818
There are dozens of varieties of congee on the menu Congee Village, steaming bowls of rice porridge studded with ginger and scallions and other bits that range from relatively mild (chicken, pork, duck) to fairly adventurous (pig stomach, blood, fish maw). But you’d be remiss to skip the rest of the gigantic Cantonese menu, where you’ll find shark’s fin soup, bird’s nest with rock candy, and salt and pepper squid. And if you actually live in the Lower East Side, this spot is our pick for delivery.
5. Cocoron, 61 Delancey Street, 212-925-5220
While ramen has proliferated into every corner of the city, soba remains a relative unknown, and that makes Cocoron a must-try for Big Apple noodle-hounds. Get your noodles hot, cold, or dipped; we’re partial to the stamina soba, which is made with pork broth and lots of piggy parts.
4. Shu Jiao Fu Zhou Cuisine, 118 Eldridge Street, 212-625-2532
Ignore the fact that this place looks like a shabby canteen: Fu Zhou is consistently in the running for our favorite dumplings in the city, and the shop sells them by the dozen for just $3. Pair your order up with a $2 plate of noodles in peanut butter sauce, and you’ve got what’s undoubtedly one of the best cheap meals in the city.
3. Mission Chinese Food, 154 Orchard Street, 212-529-8800
Danny Bowien’s San Francisco spin-off landed in the Lower East Side more than a year ago, and still it commands hours-long waits. The line is worth it, especially if you like the mouth-numbing sensation afforded by Szechuan peppercorns: The restaurant turns out irreverent takes on this spicy Chinese fare, including kung pao pastrami, thrice-cooked bacon, and, our favorite, ma po tofu. You’re going to need many, many beers to put out the fire.
2. Cafe Katja, 79 Orchard Street, 212-219-9545
This unassuming Austrian joint has an excellent vibe, and it’s done so well in wooing its neighbors, that it’s had to expand twice. Chat up the owner over a stein and order a pretzel with liptauer cheese before you dig into a sausage platter or plate of salmon. Come late spring, Katja serves a special menu of white asparagus that’s worth a trip all on its own.
1. Taqueria Lower East Side, 198 Orchard Street, 212-677-3910
This kitschy joint replete with Los Angeles-themed paraphernalia does a strong business in tacos, tortas, and tostados (just don’t ask for burritos or nachos, okay?). Neighborhood locals pack into the bar and order margaritas and guacamole while they wait for a table; once you’ve secured a spot, don’t miss the carnitas, which are tender, peppery, and dripping with juice. They work well in tacos–but you get more pork for your money if you order a tostada.
Honorable mentions go to Clinton St. Baking Company–another neighborhood institution–Saro Bistro and Casa Mezcal for their brunches, and Melt for its ice cream sandwiches.