The East Village has always been a part of me. I was born at the hospital that used to be on 14th and 2nd Av. When I simply don’t know where to meet friends, the East Village is my go-to for bars, food, and history. It is where I find comfort in something familiar and the liberation to be me at the same. No stiletto heels, no manikin makeup, no designer labels needed. I never feel like I have to be anyone but me in the East Village, and there are plenty of neighborhoods where I feel completely out of place. It must be this all-accepting atmosphere that invites so many Asian cultures to take root in the neighborhood. In just one tour of my East Village, I will take you from the Middle East to the Far East.
Known for being the cradle of punk subculture since the ‘70s here in the States, the atmosphere has always felt a little grungy, a little different, and never plain. Some habits still linger from the days of punk culture. Nothing opens before noon. People flood the sidewalks, and shops are open all night. Back in the day, your mother told you never to cross into the lettered avenues, but now, lots of people cross into Alphabet City. Jon Savage once described punk as a “bricolage” of almost every previous youth culture that existed in the West since the Second World War “stuck together with safety pins”. These days, you can still see safety pins holding together the community and studs still decorate its fabric, but you also see a lot of Asians from diverse origins meandering around St. Mark’s and beyond, finding haven in the East Village. No more keeping to K-town or Chinatown for us anymore.
Let’s start from Avenue A and make our way towards Astor Place. On St. Mark’s, you will find the Holyland Market, which is an Israeli convenience store or kolbo in Hebrew. It’s like someone took a convenience store in Israel and plopped it near Tompkins Square Park – named for the ancestor of a close college friend of mine oddly enough. Try the Egozi or Hazelbar – like a Snickers, but you get hazelnuts instead of peanuts. A few more steps and you reach Hummus Place. The Israeli “health salad” reminds me of sitting on the fortress wall in Acre, lunching at Abu Cristo. Please don’t tell me the Middle East is not in Asia – it is firmly planted on Asia Minor. Cheep’s on 2nd Ave has a great falafel pita almost as big as one’s face for the tiny price of $2 with all of the salads you can pack into the fluffy pita purse. Mamoun’s Falafel, Café Mogador, Café Orlin, and Paprika also take Mediterranean cuisine in different directions.
As we continue to move south in Asia, a few blocks down on East 6th and 7th, you have Curry Row with all of the delights of the subcontinent at your beck and call. A variety of Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and British Indian favorites are one after the other. Brick Lane was featured on Man vs. Food for their ghost chili pepper sauce called phaal. My friends and I just ask for a side of the sauce to share and have it with our meals. I’m not sure that I would want an entire entrée steeped in the sauce, though. It’s not for the faint of heart.
Thai, Vietnamese, and Himalayan restaurants pepper the blocks. Tsampa, Shangrila, and Khyber Pass take you from India through Nepal over the Himalayas and into Tibet. For Thai, I like to go to the ever popular Klong for a little reminder of Thai street food. Though there is nothing better than my aunt’s cooking, I can get my fix at Klong. Holy Basil and Lychee Home Cooking is always packed with their patio style front windows, and Tara Thai has a very modern sensibility when it comes to food. If you need a pho fix at 3AM, stop by Pho 32. Baoguette may be a chain, but they serve up a decent banh mi aka Vietnamese sandwiches as well as pho.
As we move into the culinary Far East, Grand Sichuan and the Dumpling Man are the representatives from China. Taiwan is represented by TKettle which brings the best of Taiwanese street food to the East Village. If you want to have a Korean night out, try Song 7.2 at 7th and 2nd Ave. I highly recommend the watermelon and the pineapple soju with a large bowl of kim marie. Their lunch menu is really reasonable and absolutely delicious. Almost all aspects of traditional and not-sotraditional Japanese cuisine is represented all over the East Village from Tompkins Square Park to Astor Place. If you love food on a stick as much as I do, try one of the many yakitori shops such as my favorite Oh! Taisho! My favorite little noodle shop isn’t Ippudo or Ramen Setagaya, but Kenka right on St. Mark’s. The free little cup of cotton candy sugar at the end of your meal is a great hook, but the kitschy World War era décor and life-sized diorama is pretty amazing. Sushi shops are on just about every block, but the deals at Sushi Lounge are unbeatable. Enjoy a green tea latte and a Japanese bun at Pan Ya – some of the best macaroons in the city. JAS Mart and Sunrise Mart can provide all of the Japanese supplies you’ll need to make your own Japanese dishes.
So, in one quick tour around the East Village, we started in the Middle East and made our way to the Far East. Start your culinary adventure one country at a time… without ever having to leave the East Village.