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An Eater's Guide to the Lower East Side

Critic Robert Sietsema recommends the best spots for snacking and dining.

Robert Sietsema

Beginning in the mid-19th century, the Lower East Side became the city’s immigrant frontier. Italians vied with Jews, African-Americans, Germans, Chinese, and, later, Puerto Ricans and Dominicans to occupy impossibly-crowded tenements. These five- or six-story multi-unit dwellings — which still dominate the landscape, despite condo development — often hosted an entire extended family per room in the early days. Crowded with pushcarts and shoppers, many stretches of the neighborhood were sure to deliver a lively and tumultuous experience.

Despite gentrification, the Lower East Side remains an international frontier, at least as far as restaurants are concerned. From microscopically small to awesomely large, eating establishments represent a broad range of nationalities and price points; there’s something for every taste and budget. So explore with us now one of the city’s most intriguing neighborhoods.

For the purposes of this piece, the Lower East Side extends from Bowery on the west to the East River on the east; from East Broadway on the south to Houston Street on the north. The restaurants run roughly from south to north. Three price ranges are designated: [C] cheap, [M] moderate, and [E] expensive.

Mission Chinese — What began as Danny Bowien’s transfigured Chinese restaurant with lots of Sichuan peppercorns in San Francisco’s Mission District has morphed into a fine-dining establishment — or perhaps an intentional parody of one — under chef Angela Dimayuga. Order the entire duck roasted in a ceramic shell, a wood-oven pizza, or an expensive steak, or economize with some of the original Mission Chinese dishes, such as kung pao pastrami, which is perhaps more meaningful here than it was in California. 171 E. Broadway, 212-432-0300 [E]

Kopitiam — If you’re tired of the same old coffee bar offerings, drop by Kopitiam, which describes itself as a Malaysian coffee shop, dispensing such arcane beverages as white coffee, along with an assortment of teas and sweets. Perhaps more impressive are the culinary offerings in a breakfast or light meal vein, including pulut panggang, sticky rice wrapped in a banana leaf, or nasi lemak, an assortment of sambals, anchovies, peanuts, and a boiled egg — a full meal in a single bowl. 51B Canal St., 646-894-7081 [C]

Fat Radish — From the street it looks like nothing more than a coffee bar, but then stroll inside to find a high-ceilinged room with skylights and salvaged tables, really quite a Gothic layout. Spawned by a caterer and now open for seven years, Fat Radish’s menu skews slightly British, with plenty of vegetarian options (including a spectacular celeriac pot pie), plus a great bacon cheeseburger. 17 Orchard St., 212-300-4053 [E]

Robert Sietsema

Spicy Village — This long-running restaurant across the street from Sara Roosevelt Park represents the cuisine of Henan, a region of Central China northwest of Shanghai. That means wide, hand-rolled wheat noodles with a rich beef brisket sauce accompanied by a nice bowl of cucumber salad, or the fabulous big tray chicken: hacked poultry pieces cooked in a wok with Sichuan peppercorns, potatoes, and hot chili oil. This place is a gem! 68 Forsyth St., 212-625-8299 [C]

Pho Grand — There are several centers of Vietnamese gastronomy in Chinatown and Little Italy, but almost none on the Lower East Side. With a pair of comfortable dining rooms, Pho Grand rates as one of the best in town, with fine pho, great banh cuon (pork crepe with rice-batter wrapper), and com dia — the broken-rice dishes favored by immigrants form the Mekong Delta. 277C Grand St., 212-965-5366 [C]

Robert Sietsema

Dirt Candy — Amanda Cohen’s temple of vegetarianism originally opened in a narrow storefront in the East Village and moved to this spacious and sumptuous spot on the Lower East Side. The emphasis remains on clever combinations of dairy and vegetable matter; the dishes are as much showy sculpture as they are food. Highlights on a recent visit included stone-roasted Brussel sprout tacos with bibb lettuce "tortillas," a minty winter salad, and kale matzo ball soup. 86 Allen St., 212-228-7732 [E]

Vanessa’s Dumpling House — Founded in 1999, Vanessa’s was one of the first Chinese dollar dumpling stalls to open on the Lower East Side. It now boasts branches in other neighborhoods, but the original is still the best — though seating is limited and the place is often crowded. Order your dumplings (there are many choices, some vegan) at one end of the long counter and pick them up at the other. Don’t neglect the sandwiches made with wedges of warm sesame bread. 118 Eldridge St., 10002, 212-625-8008 [C]

Goa Taco — It turns out you can make tacos out of almost anything, though many turn out unsatisfactory in one way or another. But this spot does the fusion thing with admirable creativity and restraint. The shell is a buttery, multi-layer paratha that would be good by itself. In addition to such Indian fillings as spinach and paneer, you can also get tacos that dash off in Mexican, Vietnamese, and Argentinian directions, and they’re almost all yummy. Counter seating only. 79 Delancey St., 347-276-5103 [C]

Cocoron — This second branch of a well-regarded Kenmare Street soba restaurant goes a little further afield with its homemade buckwheat noodles, including a Thai hot-pot version that arrives at the table boiling and smelling of lemongrass. The place is particularly cozy in winter, with an L-shaped counter that faces the cooks and a scattering of small tables — so don’t bring a big group. It serves plenty of cold noodles for summer, too. Don’t be dissuaded by the ragtag appearance of the façade; it’s at least partly intentional. 61 Delancey St., 212-925-5220 [M]

Cibao — Two decades ago, this was one of over a dozen Dominican and Puerto Rican lunch counters that populated the Lower East Side; now it's one of the few remaining. While the menu of Cuban sandwiches, pork roasts, beef stews, rice and beans, pasteles, and egg breakfasts is entirely predictable, the quality here is very high for the price. Sit down and enjoy a meal, a working class population and diners looking for value ebb and flow through the door. 72 Clinton St., 212-228-0703 [C]

Robert Sietsema

The Whales — Who doesn’t love fried chicken? That glorious dish from a Korean perspective — popularized there by American GIs in the last century — is the mainstay of this bar in the middle of Clinton Street’s restaurant row. From wings to drumsticks, or a combination (tenders are also available, but who'd pick those?) bird is available spicy or soy-flavored, accompanied by a cubed daikon slaw. The menu fills out with Korean and Korean-Japanese fare and some wacky salads, like tempura tomato. 71 Clinton St., 646-882-1305 [M]

Patacon Pisao — This shop evolved from an Inwood food van a couple of years ago, specializing in the Venezuelan street snack called patacones. Crunchy fried plantains are substituted for slices of bread to make a very crunchy sandwich. Other specialties at this trim spot include cachapas (crepes), pastelitos (round empanadas), and tacuchos (Venezuelan burritos). Open late. 139 Essex St., 646-678-5913 [C]

Robert Sietsema

Ivan Ramen — Ivan Orkin became a sensation in Tokyo for his innovative ramen before he moved his operation to the Lower East Side, to this narrow but picturesque storefront decorated with anime and decoupaged brick. You can dine well on a bowl of ramen alone (hence the "moderate price" designation), but then you’d miss the off-the-wall apps, which include pork meatballs in wasabi buttermilk and mushroom tempura. 25 Clinton St., 646-678-3859 [M]

Balvanera — This cozy spot, with its rustic dining room and sophisticated Argentine wine list specializes in the sort of menu you might find in a Buenos Aires restaurant, featuring adapted elements of Spanish and Italian cooking, plus, of course, the semi-feral beef of the pampas. You can’t go wrong with the juicy grilled blood sausages or skirt steaks, and the chef imparts some contemporary twists to dishes like burrata and roasted carrot salad. 152 Stanton St., 212-533-3348 [E]

Robert Sietsema

Souvlaki GR — The best Greek restaurant in the neighborhood is also the most reasonably priced. Done up like a flower-bedecked village on the island of Mykonos, Souvlaki GR excels at humble peasant dishes and will wrap any of its grilled meats in a pita to make a bargain sandwich. But it’s the mezedes (appetizing dishes) that elicit the most excitement, including a trio of bread dips, zucchini croquettes, and dill-laced spinach pie. 116 Stanton St., 212-777-0116 [M]

Paulaner —This spacious facsimile of a Munich beer hall brews its limited suds selection on the premises. The menu was revamped after a second grand opening, and now includes both German and American staples. The four-sausage platter — the links served on a bed of kraut — is particularly fine, and don’t miss the giant pretzel served with obatzda, a spread to smear on your pretzel akin to a Wisconsin cheese ball. 265 Bowery, 212-780-0300 [M]

Robert Sietsema

Pause Café — While excelling at coffee, fresh-mint tea, of-the-moment salads, and acai bowls (great for vegetarians!), this café also provides a glimpse of North African cuisine, with soups, egg dishes, and a spectacular Merguez sandwich. The pillow-strewn interior, furnished with round tiled tables, is as cozy as can be. 3 Clinton St., 212-677-5415 [C]

Dirty French — Ignore the occasionally condescending service and self-conscious sense of hipness at this reimagined French hotel dining room with lots of great things to eat. (You can save some money and avoid the crowds by eating breakfast or lunch there.) The wood-roasted oysters are one "don’t miss" dish, and so are the bass-and-clam bourride and rotisserie saddle of lamb. Yes, the animal fats flow freely at Dirty French! 180 Ludlow St., 212-254-3000 [E]

Gaia Italian Café — One of the neighborhood’s best kept secrets is this walk-down Italian coffee shop and café right on Houston Street. It closes early in the evening (except on weekends), but all day furnishes bargain panini, soups, salads, cheese-and-charcuterie platters, and pastas, as well as real Italian espresso. Keep your eyes on the specials boards for more ambitious fare such as spinach ravioli in tuna sauce and pesto lasagna, with plenty of things to keep vegetarians happy. 251 E. Houston St., 646-350-3977 [M]

Robert Sietsema

Katz’s Delicatessen — Since 1888 this Lower East Side jewel has been hand-cutting its excellent pastrami in a hulking utilitarian barn of a room, which has gradually become plastered with autographed photos of its celebrity devotees. The hot dogs are also worth ordering, or — even better— the mega-garlicky knoblewurst, profusely heaped with sauerkraut. Wash it down with a Cel-Ray soda between bites of house-cured pickle, but avoid the limp fries at all costs. Place your $2 tip in the paper cup before the knife wielder starts making your sandwich. 205 E. Houston St., 212-254-2246 [M]

And here’s a brunch suggestion:

Clinton Street Baking Co. — Starting out as a humble bakery, this recently expanded place has gradually become the most popular brunch destination on the Lower East Side, and perhaps in the entire city. (That means it can get crowded, but waits of 15 minutes or a half hour suffice at between-meals times of the day.) It was also a pioneer of the all-day, everyday breakfast, so you can enjoy the same blueberry pancakes or huevos rancheros at, say, 4 p.m. or 10 p.m., as well as at a more regular time. 4 Clinton St., 646-602-6263 [M]

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