The other day I was riding my bike through the Lower East Side, headed for the Manhattan Bridge, when I swerved over to the curb and put my kickstand down. What I’d seen was a row of tiny restaurants on the southernmost block of Essex Street that I’d never noticed before, which appeared to be of recent vintage. Some of the restaurants had no permanent signage, but rather letters stenciled crudely in white over their black pull-down gates. This looked promising.
The first place I targeted was Cabalito, Salvadoran slang for "right on the nose." Walk inside its narrow confines, lined with bright tropical paintings, and find an eating shelf with stools along one wall and a couple of tables on the other. A kitchen stands at the rear, whose main feature is a flat-top griddle with a metal bowl of masa beside it and not much else. You’re in the city’s most authentic pupuseria, a place totally dedicated to the fabrication of El Salvador’s admirable stuffed corncakes.
Yes, Washington Heights, Jamaica, and Bushwick are loaded with establishments that call themselves pupuserias, but they’re really all-purpose cafes offering a complete range of Salvadoran dishes. Their pupusas are often made elsewhere and trucked in, or if actually hand-patted on the premises, frozen prior to cooking. Here, you order a pupusa, and the proprietor will step up to the griddle like a baseball player about to hit a home run.
You’re in the city’s most authentic pupuseria
He forms a ball of masa, makes a hole with his thumb, and stuffs it with a choice of fillings such as cheese, refried beans, and chicharron; or cheese speckled with tiny loroco flowers, which taste something like pickled oregano. Flattening the ball into a thick round, he pitches it onto la plancha and cooks it till the exterior is brown and the cheese melts inside. This guy is clearly obsessed with pupusas, and the end product shows it.
Served with a fresh tomato relish and spicy cabbage slaw, two pupusas ($3.75 each) make a grand meal. The side dishes at Cabalito (including potatoes with flavored mayo and guacamole with chips) are largely forgettable. Bigger appetites will go instead for the plato tipico ($9.50), a Central American peasant classic of two thick tortillas, refried beans sprouting planks of pressed white cheese, fried sweet plantains squiggled with crema, and a runny egg. This is one of the best meals I’ve had so far this year.
Like Cabalito, Sam’s Spring Rolls is one of those storefronts telegraphing its earnestness with only a stenciled sign. Its specialty is a fried starch cylinder with a crisp wrapper that tastes more like a Mexican flauta than a Chinese spring roll. These come with a choice of five fillings, including one that mimics a samosa, while others taste vaguely Korean, Chinese, and Spanish. Buy three of these shorties for $5 and get your pick of sauces that run to Thai, Argentine, and Cantonese. The sauces are fine, but the spring rolls taste a bit dull.
Instead, order one of the rice bowls. These are lively affairs with grain, greenery, a meat choice, a sauce choice, one spring roll, and a fried egg, and make a very nice meal at a decent price ($8). Though there are already two taverns on this Essex Street block with a kind of honky-tonk charm to them, Sam’s also boasts a bar that dominates the room; it recently received a beer and wine license, and that may be the whole point of the place. Run by Samantha Chu, Sam’s is six months old.
With a blue and boxy temporary shelter that thrusts onto the sidewalk, Les Crepes & Taqueria is perhaps the craziest of the new Essex Street eateries, offering the unusual combo of French and Mexican food. The place is really just a well-equipped kitchen fitted into a cave, with the bill of fare chalked on a pair of shutters. All seating (a couple of chairs and a bench) are located in the shelter.
The crepes are better than they have any right to be
The crepes are better than they have any right to be. Some of them, such as the caprese ($7), adds an Italian filling to a French pancake, just to confuse things. It’s delicious, almost as good as the salad of the same name. Other commendable combinations include fig jam with aged cheddar, and, in another flight of fancy, a sweet crepe filled with crushed graham crackers, marshmallows, and Nutella. I don’t have to tell you what it’s called.
As the cook makes crepes with one hand, he’s fashioning tacos, burritos, and sometimes tortas with the other. The shrimp burrito ($9) is a particular delight, furnished with a little cup of Pueblan-style guacamole sauce, and the fish taco is as close as you can get to the Baja Peninsula on snowy Essex Street. Best of all is a lamb taco with a pungent filling that might as well be an Italian ragu. Some interesting cross-cultural experiments are going on here at reduced prices.
As you stand on the block, you can’t help but spot Mission Chinese across Seward Park. You can blow $75 or so savoring Danny Bowien and Angela Dimayuga’s culinary mash-ups bridging Chinese, Jewish, French, Texas, and Philippine cuisines. Or you can simply step inside newcomer Taco Recipes and try some gastronomic hijinks of your own. Taco Recipes is one of those places where a Chinese staff makes their version of Tex-Mex food. It's a wacky cuisine with some inadvertent Asian flourishes that first appeared on Lower Lexington in the '80s, when an immigrant Chinese family arrived from Mexico City bearing a tortilla machine.
Anything you get that involves these made-to-order flour tortillas — such as a quesadilla or a taco — is notably tasty. In fact, you can thoroughly enjoy eating the still-warm flour tortillas by themselves as a snack. But why not freestyle, as if you were a chef? One day I blew the cook’s mind by asking for lo mein with Tex-Mex chili ($5.95) instead of the usual chicken, pork, or shrimp.
When the noodles arrived, the chili wasn’t mixed in but rather heaped on top. It tasted a lot like spaghetti with meat sauce due to an entire lack of cumin. But bring your own cumin, and you might have something really innovative, at a fraction of Mission Chinese prices.
Cabalito: 13 Essex St, (212) 456-7899
Sam's Spring Roll: 23 Essex St, (212) 777-7211
Les Crepes & Taqueria: 25 Essex St, (917) 924-1484
Taco Recipes: 23 Essex St, (212) 353-1886