A Tribute to the Food of NYC Past

NYC is an amazing city, but it can be an overwhelming place to settle back into after being almost anywhere else. Urban or rural, non-New York is just about always going to feel low-key and tame in comparison to the total madness of this congested island. Coming back from my 2-week road trip was no exception, and I retreated into my alcove of an apartment for 24 hours of movies and takeout after we got home. It takes (at least) a day to transition between two such extremes, especially considering I was starting a new job the next week!

Like any change, the first week had its ups and downs…and it’s exhausting to jump into a totally foreign environment and try to make sense of your new responsibilities. I emerged on Friday feeling pretty comfortable with my progress, and having acquired a handful of menus from time square area restaurants for future lunches (it’s not an easy feat to weed through the barrage of hyper-inflated prices at tourist trap eateries…and we all know that hour of my day is pretty important to me).

Because my only new cooking adventure of my first week back in “reality” was a mildly disastrous attempt at a greek yogurt, lime and cilantro sauce for tilapia (it did not work…or maybe I’m just a perfectionist), and because I am regrettably restricted in my ability to travel for a while, I thought that I’d dedicate this post to a small bit of NYC food history. Here are a few (sorely missed) mini-legends of food past that I had the fortunate of experiencing during my concrete jungle upbringing:

Big Nicks                                                                                                                                                  Formerly located at: 2175 Broadway, New York, NY 10024

I grew up frighteningly close to this Upper West Side dining icon which reigned strong for over 50 years. For NYC, that alone is a monstrous feat and deserves a high degree of true New Yorker respect. Unfortunately, a huge and sudden rent increase forced Big Nicks to close its doors just last year, at the outrage and dismay of lifelong Upper West Siders. It always feels like a New York neighborhood dies just a little bit every time an iconic restaurant closes its doors, and it’s (unfortunately) almost always due to some kind of crazy rent hike (like this should surprise anybody at this point??)

To be honest, I actually didn’t eat at Big Nick’s that much. Their 483948530495 page menu could be overwhelming for somebody like me who puts so much stake into my mealtime choices and becomes unnecessarily anxious about said serious life decisions. Regardless of this, I had my share of middle-of-the-night burger runs at Big Nicks, adorned with its wall-to-wall photos of the place’s history and vintage-style signs with menu options…and a genuine old-New York, neighborhood-y vibe that made you feel like you were eating at an old friends place. I have a fond memory of consuming my first solid-food meal at Big Nick’s following my decision to pierce my tongue on Saint Marks Place when I was 16. I figured if my mother was going to murder me with her bare hands that I might as well enjoy my 6pm pancakes first.

Thanks, Big Nicks 😉

                     Big Nicks           Big Nicks1

Soutine Bakery                                                                                                                                  Formerly located at: 104 W 70th St, New York, NY 10023

Soutine was one of those bakeries that you could smell from half a block away. This was highly dangerous, especially if you foolishly chose to venture down that particular block when you were rushing somewhere or late for something. The smell was intoxicating. The closet-sized bakery counter had magic powers that forced you to come inside and eat cheese rolls. It wasn’t ever my fault. It was the magic powers.

When I say that the place was closet-sized, it’s no exaggeration. There was barely room inside to stand and wait in line behind one other customer as you gawked at the glass counter that protected lines of mini fruit tarts, heart shaped fudge brownies and child-size cartons of orange juice (always an interesting feature in my opinion). Behind the counter, you could catch a glimpse of employees shuffling around with trays of baked goods inside the miniature kitchen. To the right of the counter there stood clear jars of extra large cookies in assorted flavors, and a wicker basket full of those infamous cheese rolls. The rolls were shaped like over-sized garlic knots, but in place of garlic was toasty, crunchy, savory orange cheese that was baked to perfection inside the chewy dough. For me, nothing else in that tiny place could touch these rolls…they were unique and perfect, if not painfully addictive. I could have lived off of those things and a few mini apple tarts with almond paste, for the rest of my life. Oh, and cartons of orange juice…with straws.

Soutine closed its doors at the end of 2012 after over 30 years (I missed its closing by only one short month, sadly). Despite a rent-hike being the most common reason for an iconic eatery closure, Soutine ended its run due to the fact that the owner was ready for retirement. Supposedly some of the bakery’s best recipes were sold to the shop that would take its place. I have yet to check it out, but I can only hope that those mystical rolls of crunchy cheese will live on indefinitely…in memory of that tiny bit of homey bakery heaven.

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Jenny Chang’s Cafe                                                                                                                             (aka “Jenny’s Cafe”)                                                                                                                Formerly located at: 113 St. Marks Pl, New York, NY 10009  

Jenny’s is the kind of place that almost nobody I speak to has ever heard of. It’s not (technically) a “New York” icon in the sense that it wasn’t around for 50 years or featured in food magazines or on TV. It was unassuming, if not completely unknown. But for me, Jenny’s remains one of my favorite (former) restaurants in the entire city, and a personal icon of the East Village’s culinary past. It closed its doors without warning in 2007, the reasoning of which still remains a mystery.

Jenny’s was a Japanese cafe that served appetizers, bowls of noodles and icy smoothies with tapioca. My friends and I would pour into Jenny’s nearly every week throughout our high school years, consuming the cluster of tables in the back room like they had our names on them. I virtually always ordered the exact same thing: custard cream buns, scallion pancakes and a strawberry smoothie (closer in consistency to shaved ice, with the option of either a straw or a tiny spoon). Occasionally, I would add the house special noodles, which were flavorful and filling. Their scallion pancakes were delicate, thin and perfectly crispy without being overly greasy, and the custard cream buns go down in my book of food history with honors. I have yet to find anything that compares to them anywhere (not for lack of trying). An order of these contained two warm, fluffy steamed buns filled with lightly sweet, syrupy yellow custard. Three bites each of perfect dessert bliss. I can still taste it…and the pain of missing them is unreasonably difficult as I write this. Jenny, if you are out there, please come back. I am about 80,000 cream buns behind my quota.

Popover Cafe                                                                                                                                 Formerly located at: 551 Amsterdam Ave, New York, NY 10024

Popover was most definitely an Upper West Side icon for the 32 years that it served the neighborhood. My family probably spent 1 in 4 birthdays eating there throughout my whole childhood, and it absolutely never disappointed. It was known for its puffy popovers…crispy-outside-and-eggy-inside…with accompanying sweet strawberry butter. These were included as a side with most entrees on the menu (and if they weren’t, you were morally obligated to order one). Brunch and dinner were equally appetizing, with a combination of consistent menu options and occasional rotating dishes like butternut squash ravioli with creamy sauce. My favorite brunch item was the lemon twist pancakes, which came with a tangy vat of lemon sauce to drench your fluffy pancakes in. My little brother must have ordered the pasta pomodoro for dinner so many times that he should have gotten a punch card for a free order.

I learned of Popover’s closure after unknowingly heading that way for brunch one Saturday, only to be met with that foreboding closure sign which stated that they had lost their lease. Needless to say, this is always the most difficult way to learn of a closure. I can’t even remember where we ate instead, but brunch definitely tasted especially sour that morning.  

  Shining Star Restaurant                                                                                                                    Formerly located at: 377 Amsterdam Ave, New York, NY 10024  

Shining Star was the poster child of a neighborhood diner. While they didn’t have a “signature” food item or a selection that was wildly unique from any other area eatery, Shining Star had the special distinction of really knowing the community of Upper West-Siders who frequented it. The people who worked there knew my entire family and consistently greeted us with warm smiles and provided the comfort of being somewhere familiar. I did my fair share of munching down weekend breakfasts, post school-day plates of melt-y chicken parmesan platters, and drunken 4am delivery orders of chicken fingers and slices of cheesecake (to be consumed on the roof of my building). This was the only place in the area where I could call and say, “I would like an order for delivery please” and receive the response: “Oh hey Sara, how are you??” If I didn’t order cheesecake, sometimes it would mysteriously show up at my door regardless. It was like they could read my food-brain.

Shining Star was lost in 2010 due to the fact that the building owner did not wish to extend their lease. I learned of its closure while living in NJ post-college, and I thought that I would be prepared to come home and see the empty space where it once stood. By “prepared”, I mean that I cried on the sidewalk in the middle of the day like 6-month-old. Losing this place didn’t hurt because of an irreplaceable food item, but because of an irreplaceable group of people who made it a necessary part of the neighborhood. I don’t know where everybody ended up, but I hope that they know that they won’t be forgotten.

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Food of NYC past…you meant a lot to all of us. There’s something about New Yorkers that causes us to cling with personal conviction to our stores and restaurants, like we feel a sense of individual ownership over a neighborhood icon. We protect them like we have a responsibility towards preserving their history. Rent hikes and neighborhood changes can cause roadblocks for foodie veterans, but the least we can do is not let their contribution be forgotten 🙂

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