NEW YORK — Tradition is not the first word that comes to mind when one plans a visit to Manhattan’s East Village, sometimes referred to as New York’s counterculture capital known for punk rock, new wave bands, drug dealers and tattoo parlors.
But the area, loosely spreading between First and Third avenues in Lower Manhattan, is also a destination to find affordable yet authentic culinary offerings — including Irish, Italian, Jewish, Ukrainian, Korean and Japanese — that have evolved with the passing of different ethnic groups over many years.
The hole-in-the-wall Japanese restaurant Otafuku is one such eatery, frequented not just by Japanese expatriates but also by students of nearby New York University in search of cheap, tasty eats. The restaurant, opened in 1998, specializes in such down-to-earth Japanese fare as “takoyaki” (octopus dumplings), “okonomiyaki” (vegetable, meat, seafood pancakes) and “yakisoba” (fried buckwheat noodles).
A few minutes away, the Japanese supermarket Sunrise Mart offers all things Japanese, including burdock root and yams not readily available at American supermarkets, along with a range of green teas, snacks, cosmetics and housewares.
An adjacent Japanese bakery, Panya, is stocked with an array of soft-crumb breads preferred by Asians, Japanese-style filled-buns such as “curry pan” and the spongy strawberry shortcakes so ubiquitous in Japan but rarely found in American bakeries.
Candy Chan, president of New York Food Tours, a firm that specializes in guided tours of ethnic eateries, often takes visitors to the supermarket and lets them taste “onigiri” rice balls. Chan explains to those who are totally new to Japanese cuisine that onigiri is a “traditional Japanese sandwich,” as it “fulfills the majority of the characteristics of a sandwich — it’s easy to pack, it’s easy to make and easy to eat.”
Chan lets visitors pick their onigiri fillings, which are typically cooked salmon, “umeboshi” pickled plum, fried shrimp or chicken cutlets. She says her personal favorite is the pickled plum, partly because she likes to see the “dramatic change” in facial expressions when the visitors first experience umeboshi.
A few blocks away, an American husband and his Japanese wife run a much-raved-about “dessert bar” named Chikalicious that offers desserts paired with drinks. Opened in 2003, the restaurant, which is named after chef Chika Tillman, is the longest-running establishment of its kind in New York, said Angie Dykshorn, its manager.
The bar features a three-course, fixed-price menu that changes daily. For example, one day it offered a warm chocolate tart with pink peppercorn ice cream and red wine sauce, served with Churchill Graham Reserve Port.
“Our desserts are French and American flavors but Japanese portions,” said Dykshorn. “They are all quality desserts made with the freshest ingredients. But you will have fewer calories because you are satisfied with much smaller portions. And nothing is overly sweet here either — that’s another nice thing.”
While Japanese or Japanese-inspired eateries are relatively new additions to the East Village, old favorites whose founding goes back to the 19th century are still open for business.
McSorley’s Old Ale House is one such place, sitting near the corner of East Seventh Street and Third Avenue. Established in 1854 by Irish immigrant John McSorley, it is reputed to be the oldest Irish tavern in New York City and its legendary guests include such historical figures as Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt.
Lincoln visited New York City in February 1860, shortly before he won the Republican nomination for the presidency. According to legend, Lincoln dropped in on McSorley’s after giving his historic antislavery speech at nearby Cooper Union, a free university founded by industrialist and philanthropist Peter Cooper, a friend of McSorley.
Despite such a progressive resume, visitors may also be amused to know that McSorley’s was a “boys only” establishment until the 1970s. The bar’s justification for the policy was that it had always been a blue-collar hangout shunned by women. But it was forced to open its doors to female customers when it lost a lawsuit filed by two female New York City lawyers.
An equally seasoned establishment, Veniero’s Pasticceria and Caffe, offers authentic Italian pastries such as cannoli, oft filled with ricotta, and rum baba, a sponge pastry soaked in rum.
Founded in 1894 by Antonio Veniero, an immigrant from Sorrento in southern Italy, the store originally opened as a billiard hall but developed its reputation through the high quality baked goods and coffee drinks it served.
The bakery is still family-owned and is now into its fourth generation. It has made cakes for many important public figures, including for Franklin D. Roosevelt’s inauguration as New York governor in 1928.
Veniero’s owner, Robert Zerilli, said he often gets requests to open another branch, but firmly says, “That’s not going to happen.
“There’s only one. When something is that old, nobody wants a repeat. It’s like movie sequels — they often don’t work. You have to have the original,” he said.