The smell of vinegar and salt is noticeable about halfway down the block, just past the handmade dumpling shop (10 for $2.50!). It’s a hot summer day, and the cheap pizza place next door to The Pickle Guys (49 Essex Street; 212-656-9739) isn’t open yet. Standing behind a few of the large red barrels that take up most of his store, Alan Kaufman is talking about a recent customer who’d asked him to pickle some daikon; “It just smelled weird, you know? I don’t know if I would do that again.”
Kaufman, with a friendly, everyman demeanor, is a man who knows about the relationship between salt and cucumbers. Since 1981, he has been wrist-deep in pickle barrels on the Lower East Side, in an area once known as the ‘Pickle District’. A Queens’s native, Kaufman got his start working at the two famed pickle-emporiums, Guss’ Pickles and L. Hollander and Sons.
A freelance commercial photographer throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s, Alan decided to close his photography studio permanently in 2000 and left Guss’ to open up the best pickle spot in NYC, The Pickle Guys. Kaufman tells the Voice, “When I first started working in this area (in 1981) there were four pickle places within two blocks, now we are the only pickle place that pickles on-premises”.
There are around 20 large red barrels situated in the small, sunken, first-floor shop. From sweet and crunchy bread-and-butter pickles, pickled sweet red peppers and tomatoes to eight types of pickled cucumbers, the pickle guys make over 30 varieties of pickled items.
Their biggest seller is still the whole sour pickles, the pickle which spends the longest time ‘pickling’, a process that takes three months; a ‘new pickle’ will spend one to ten days in the barrel. And don’t worry — you can also get half sours and ¾ sours. No vinegar is used for these cucumbers, which are sourced through the pickle guys own ‘cucumber broker’, who sources them from along the Eastern Seaboard and as far as Texas; two or three months out of the year they come from New York and New Jersey. The fresh cucumbers take a long bath in a mixture of water, salt, garlic and pickling spices. Although Kaufman doesn’t give exact proportions, the seasoning spices contain coriander seed, mustard seed, bay leaf and black peppercorns.
Kaufman greets just about every person who enters the store; “Want a pickle while you’re browsing?” he asks. The customers at Pickle Guys are diverse; from an older Jewish gentleman/David Crosby look-a-like contest winner who’s buying a large order of sauerkraut and full sours to take back upstate, to a younger lady getting a gallon of pickle brine for “pickle backs,” each one seems happy to be in the proximity of a great comfort food.
“We got a job where people really appreciate us,” Kaufman says. “Some people have a job where people just complain. I’m lucky.”
An Old World treat, pickles started arriving in this area of the Lower East Side in the early 1900’s, after Eastern European immigrants landed on nearby Ellis Island. “You didn’t need a store back then, you had your barrel on the corner and popped the lid,” Kaufman notes.
The pickles at Pickle Guys are the best in city for two reasons: they really care about their product, and they really know how to make it. Their famous sour pickles teeter on the precipice of sour and too-sour. And even after three months in a vat of water and salt, they still maintain their juiciness and bite. Pickled tomatoes, green and almost translucent, are juicy and crunchy, and somehow taste fresh and aged at the same time. The pickled pineapples, with flakes of red pepper floating on top of the barrel, are sweet and salty and spicy — there’s no better representation of pineapple in the city.
Around the holidays, the Pickle Guys make a few select items that the “old-timers” still yearn for, like fresh-ground horseradish made on the street outside, to russell borscht (fermented beet juice that is the base for borscht soup) to cabbage rolls that Kaufman describes as “like a Jewish burrito” .
In an ever-changing New York, Pickle Guys is a reminder of what the city once was; it’s the genuine article, with each pickle made by people who strive to be the best.
The Pickle Guys are kosher (local Rabbi Shmuel Fishelis visits weekly); they’re closed on Shabbat and ship nationwide.