It’s early afternoon at the Essex Street Market (120 Essex Street [at Delancey Street]) as Ira Stolzenberg and Ron Budinas — partners for the past 40-plus years — work their adjoining storefronts, juicing vegetables for Tra La La Juice Bar and slicing fresh fish for their fish stall, Rainbo’s. They also work on applying green and orange icing to a custom-order cake, another aspect of their mini-conglomerate at the southwest corner of the market. Known for their fresh fish, healthy juices, and fresh baked goods, Ira and Ron are busy from dawn till dusk.
Ira’s 65, a year younger than Ron, but his endearingly aloof manner might lead you to believe he’s the older of the two. “He likes to kibbitz,” says longtime regular Bernie Osofsky, who has stopped by for his usual summertime juice-and-muffin fix.
(“He’s the artistic one and I’m the straight man,” Ron says of his partner.)
Native New Yorkers, they met while working at the same fish market in Queens in 1972 where Ira’s father, Heschy, was one of the original kosher fishmongers. They’ve been together ever since, first opening Rainbo’s in a market across Delancey Street in 1976. Run and leased by the state like Essex Street is today, the neighboring market “was a mess,” Ron says. “You would go throw out your trash and see certain type of services being given midday.”
When they relocated into Essex in the early 1990s, the neighborhood was still dicey. Ron recalls customers coming in the front, buying a juice and a muffin and skedaddling out the back.
Ron’s juices are imaginatively named. The “Constipation,” for instance, is a sweet and textured blend of potatoes, carrots, apples and parsley. The “Hangover” combines fennel, cucumber, celery, and ginger, and it works wonders when you have one.
With juice bars seemingly on every block from East Harlem to Jersey City, it’s easy to forget they have a history, and nice to be able to step into a place where you can experience what they used to look — and taste — like.
“When we opened, there was really only one other juice bar in the city that I knew of, and they only served hot juice,” Ron says.
Ron also bakes fresh cookies and biscotti, but you’ll want a muffin. Your best bet might be the amply proportioned banana and chocolate chip muffin, whose darkened top hides a trove of moist, chunked banana.
Prices at the fish stall are liable to make you turn your back on Whole Foods for life (how does $7 a pound for fresh-caught grouper grab you?). For $4.50 you can chow on one of Ron’s famous fish sandwiches, made with your choice of grouper, tilapia, or flounder, taken straight from the retail counter, grilled, and served on a toasted bun with lettuce, tomato, tartar sauce, and lemon. Dining at one of the market’s small tables is a reminder of how fun and quirky New York can be.
With their Essex Street Market lease set to expire in four years, Budinas and Stolzenberg say they aren’t sure what’ll come next. After four decades, it’s difficult to imagine the market — or the neighborhood — without them.