Berger’s Burg: Gourmet tales from my Lower East Side youth

Share on TwitterTweet
Share on Facebook

Get our stories in your inbox, free.

Like TimesLedger on Facebook.

A Martian landed in New York City and found he had broken one of the little wheels on his spaceship.

That night, while passing a deli, he noticed some bagels in the window.

"I'd like to buy some of those wheels," he told the waiter. "Those aren't wheels," the waiter replied, "they are bagels. You eat them." The waiter then sliced a bagel in half and offered it to the Martian. After chewing a bite, the Martian beamed. "Man, this is great. Can you imagine what it would taste like over some lox (smoked salmon) and a schmear of cream cheese?"

I like Jewish, Italian and Chinese food. If I live for another 120 years, and I had to eat only Jewish, Italian and Chinese food, I would die with a smile on my lips. "Why, only Jewish, Italian and Chinese food?" you curiously ask. Well, it's a short story.

I was born and raised in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Beginning as a tot at my mother's side, I ate Mom's delicious cooking which she prepared to feed our family of 10, a boarder, a homeless man (who knew where his next meal was coming from) and a cat. The dining room table groaned each day with such home-cooked delectables as her tasty eggplant salad; chicken-noodle soup with lima beans, and spiced with a full clove of garlic; "melt in your mouth" flanken (a meat dish); and desserts you could die for - buttery rice puddings, chunky apple cake, and burnt chocolate pudding. Mom was a Jewish Emeril.

As I grew older and more daring, I began to venture forth into the neighborhood to peruse the many Jewish food stores and restaurants available within a four-block radius of my home. Inhaling the aromatic bouquet of hot victuals wafting o'er my head was like walking in a Garden of Eden — a gourmet's paradise.

Neighborhood No. 1, The Lower East Side, was certainly the place to be when I was hungry, thirsty, or just plain gluttonous. I had many choices at my beck and call. When I was able to rub five pennies together, I had a monumental decision to make: Do I run to Schimmel's Knishery on Houston Street for a potato knish, scamper to Katz's delicatessen on Ludlow Street for a frankfurter smothered with mustard and sauerkraut, or hurry to Hoch's candy store on First Street for a chocolate egg cream (containing neither egg nor cream)?

As a young teenager with money I earned delivering flowers, I would go to Katz's Deli and order a 15-cent pastrami sandwich AND a 5 cent knish AND a 5 cent orange soda. And then top the meal off by a visit to Ratner's Dairy Restaurant for a blueberry pocket (a Danish pastry filled with blueberries.). That was a meal fit for a king.

And, I also strolled by Guss's Pickles on Ludlow Street where, for a nickel, I could pluck from a pickle barrel pickled tomatoes, red peppers, watermelon, and sour pickles. Kossar's Bakery was ideal for a "nosh" (a snack) of a bialy or "pletzel" (12-inch onion wheel), still warm from the oven. And, Russ and Daughters, on Houston Street, was tops for takeout lox (smoked salmon), butterfish, and baked salmon.

In later years, Katz's candy store on Orchard Street (no connection with the deli) entered the mix. When my taste buds yearned for liquid refreshment, I would cross Houston Street to drink one of their perky carbonated fruit drinks, such as crab apple (with a solitary crab apple on the bottom), quince (with a piece of quince on the bottom), blueberry (with luscious blueberries swirling around on the bottom), and my favorite, the fig drink (with a whole fig lying on the bottom). It was a decision-making problem.

However, I soon developed a strong passion for the fig drink. By the time I was 8, I was hopelessly addicted to fig sodas. One of my most frustrating times occurred when I was sent to sleep-away camp for two weeks in the summer. The withdrawal pangs were unbearable. I had to stuff a towel in my mouth to overcome the craving. When I finally returned home fig-free, I immediately began imbibing again and renewed my addiction. Since Katz's candy store is long gone, does anyone know where a confirmed, fig-crazed columnist can now get a fig fix?

Neighborhood No. 2 - A short walk took me to "Little Italy" for the best Italian food this side of Sicily. I loved dining at Vincent's on Grand Street on a plate of large shrimps and biscuits in "medium" sauce. I once tried the "hot" sauce and almost didn't make it to the next day. I also visited other restaurants in the area which were all delightful, but the shrimps at Vincent's were my favorites.

Neighborhood No. 3. Just beyond Little Italy was Chinatown where one can eat like a Chinese emperor. For 25 cents, at Sam Wo's on Mott Street, I stuffed myself with egg drop soup, chicken chow mein, rice, tea, and an almond cookie. The ambiance was drab but who cared, just as long as the food was good and plentiful.

As a child, I knew I was living in the best of all worlds in a gourmet's paradise.

When I married and moved out of my three neighborhoods to Queens, I found joy in my fourth neighborhood, in and around Times-Ledger country. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that there were also many wonderful restaurants in Queens and Long Island.

I occasionally brought my two boys to the three neighborhoods and they loved the food as much as I did. However, once they married and moved out, my visits abruptly ended.

However, last Sunday morning, Gloria and I revisited the three neighborhoods. There were many changes. No more Ratner's or Sam Wo's, but Kossar's Bakery, Katz's Deli, Guss's Pickles, Russ and Daughters, Vincent's and Wo Hop (Sam Wo's successor) were there. Incidentally, the waiter at Vincent's was so happy to see us, he didn't charge for our two cannolis with green dots.

However, I still miss Katz's candy store and the drink with the fig on the bottom.

Reach columnist Alex Berger by e-mail at timesledger or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 140

Today’s news:
Share on TwitterTweet
Share on Facebook

Get our stories in your inbox, free.

Like TimesLedger on Facebook.

Reader Feedback

Enter your comment below

By submitting this comment, you agree to the following terms:

You agree that you, and not or its affiliates, are fully responsible for the content that you post. You agree not to post any abusive, obscene, vulgar, slanderous, hateful, threatening or sexually-oriented material or any material that may violate applicable law; doing so may lead to the removal of your post and to your being permanently banned from posting to the site. You grant to the royalty-free, irrevocable, perpetual and fully sublicensable license to use, reproduce, modify, adapt, publish, translate, create derivative works from, distribute, perform and display such content in whole or in part world-wide and to incorporate it in other works in any form, media or technology now known or later developed.

CNG: Community Newspaper Group