At the epicenter of the construction site otherwise known as East Houston Street, a faded yellow and blue sign sits above an aging storefront. Inside the rundown dining area, a man in a cufflinked pink shirt is working his way through a spinach knish, carefully adding the right amount of spicy deli mustard to each bite.
A few wooden tables away, right next to the ancient dumbwaiter, a girl in her mid-20’s is awaiting her own order of a knish, this one of the sweet potato variety. With no air conditioning unit in sight, everyone is sweating, and everyone is here for the same reason.
Starting out as a knish pushcart in Coney Island sometime in the 1890’s,Yonah Schimmel Knishes Bakery (137 East Houston St, 212-477-2858), has been in this location since 1910, when it moved from its original spot just across the street. With its vintage tin ceiling and red flooring, there’s no mistaking you’re in a place where time stands still; the wooden tables are simply adorned with yellow bottles of spicy mustard, and refrigerators are stocked with Cel-Rays and Manhattan Specials. You may also recognize this very dining room from Woody Allen’s film Whatever Works starring Larry David.
“You know that fish place down the street, are they still in business?” asks a long-time regular named Tommy, referring to Russ and Daughters. A regular of Yonah’s since the 1950’s, Tommy reminisces about the area, which was once almost entirely Jewish. “Oh, man, there were so many great delicatessens back then. Now, all you got is Katz’s and I can’t go there anymore.”
The true definition of a knish depends on who you ask, but essentially they’re rolled dough with a filling of potato or kasha and possibly some onions. At Yonah’s, the knishes are baked — never fried, as many are today. “An original knish is round and baked,” says Ellen Anistratov, co-owner and manager of Yonah’s, along with her father Alex Wolfson, a Ukrainian immigrant who started working at the store in the 1970’s.
Knishes at Yonah’s are similar to overstuffed dumplings and taste just fine, and probably supply enough carbs to keep a marathon runner happy. The flavors range from classic potato to spinach to sweet knishes, like cherry-cheese. However, I would not recommend getting your knish served warm at Yonah’s; the microwave they use in plain sight is not friendly to either a knish’s texture or flavor.
Although some might say they aren’t the best knishes in town, Yonah’s is still worth a visit, and it’s easy to understand why; you can’t fake it for 100 years. Despite seemingly constant rumors of its demise, the place endures. Next time your walking around the Lower East Side, pop on in for a knish and a Dr. Browns, for a slice of this old-world New York is getting harder and harder to find.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on June 18, 2015