Lower East Side Food Trip

New York really is the greatest city in the world, but sometimes I need a little reminder of that. I recently had a day off during the week, and it occurred to me that I had been meaning to check out Guss’ Pickles and the Doughnut Plant, both on the Lower East Side (and both, conveniently for me, easily accessible from the F train). I wrote down a couple of addresses, grabbed my camera, and set out on my adventure.

I’m a big fan of pickles from way back, and Guss’ has been on my list of places to visit ever since I moved to New York. I’m not sure why I never made it there before. Approaching Guss’ is interesting; all you see are a dozen large barrels out on the street. The woman behind the barrels was very friendly, so I asked her for recommendations. After thinking for a moment, she proceeded to recommend all of the pickles, one by one.

After considering her recommendations, I decided to get two each of the following pickles: full sour, new pickles, and spicy pickles. She carefully selected the pickles from the barrels, and loaded them into plastic sandwich bags for me. Off I went to my next destination, the Doughnut Plant, just a few blocks away. I know that pickles and doughnuts sound like an unlikely combination, but hungry as I was I wasn’t planning to eat them both together.

On the same block as the Doughnut Plant I saw a sign for a bakery called Kossar’s Bialys and I knew I would be stopping there as well. First thing, though, was to get some doughnuts. The Doughnut Plant has a fairly high-tech website, and sells boutique doughnuts, so I was somewhat surprised to find the interior was just a simple storefront. It reminded me quite a bit of Steve’s Authentic in Red Hook, as a matter of fact. I got one each of the flavors of the day: peach, hazelnut, blackout cake, and tres leches (the doughnut you see at the top of the page). At almost $10 for 4 doughnuts they are definitely more expensive than the leading big brand, but where else are you going to find tres leches doughnuts?

Down the street then to Kossar’s Bialys, which turned out to be the same kind of storefront bakery as the Doughnut Plant. If you aren’t familiar with bialys, they are kind of a cross between an english muffin and a bagel. When I was younger my grandparents always ate them, but I didn’t really care for them myself. I think this is because I didn’t (and still don’t) like english muffins and bialys looked a little too much like them. I do enjoy a good bialy now, and I thought it would be a good companion to the pickles.

On my way back to the F train I realized that I was right near the Essex Street Market. My friend Jeff had taken me to the Market a few weeks earlier, but we were full from the Red Hook Vendors at the time and didn’t buy anything. Now, still hungry, I decided to return.

Market junkies like myself can often recognize a great market by the smell — that wonderful blend of fruit, raw meat, and fresh fish. Essex St Market seems to cater mostly to the Hispanic population of the area, with a lot of specialty produce like yucca, fresh cactus, and a wide variety of peppers. There’s even a slightly creepy santeria stall inside. The place is always buzzing with busy shoppers. Once again I left empty handed, but still in love with the Essex St Market.

So although I had planned on only hitting two places, I ended up visiting four before I returned home to actually eat what I had gotten. The bialys were perfectly chewy, with a nice sweet bit of caramelized onion right in the center. The spicy pickles were my favorite of the batch, though the new pickles were also great. The doughnuts were a mixed bag; the blackout cake, which I had been most looking forward to, was a little too dry, as was the hazelnut. The peach doughnut was surprisingly good, but the real standout was that tres leches — moist, complex, and with a thin line of sweetened condensed milk running through it. Truly amazing.

The Lower East Side is a neighborhood that my relatives, way back when, worked hard to get out of. These days it’s a haven for wonderful food and friendly people. I only visited four of the great places there, and I’m sure there are dozens (if not more) places to visit. It’s this kind of neighborhood that makes me love New York even more than I thought I did.

Guss’ Pickles — 85 Orchard St
Doughnut Plant — 379 Grand St
Kossar’s Bialys — 367 Grand St
Essex St Market — 120 Essex St