Beginning at Third Avenue and Cooper Square and ending three blocks east at the scruffier Tompkins Square, St. Mark’s Place is one of New York City’s most colorful thoroughfares.
Along its length find a jumble of commercial enterprises, including small cafes, honky tonk bars, ice cream and marshmallow parlors, oddball apparel stores, and shops you must enter to figure out exactly what they’re selling. The street reflects complex layers of culture, so that you can view in vestigial form its German, Jewish, Ukrainian, Italian, and Japanese heritage, and that of Bolsheviks and Anarchists, beatniks, jazz musicians and rockers, hippies, punks, and more modern tribal styles.
Come with us now as we sample the culinary delights of St. Mark’s Place after the sun goes down. Let’s begin at Cooper Square and wend our way eastward, along a route that comprises nearly 75 food and beverage establishments.
With Cooper Union’s brownstone main building at our backs — where Abraham Lincoln famously spoke in 1860, a year before he became the country’s first steam punk president — we begin. Don’t be tricked by the visual come-on of Ray’s Pizza and Bagel Shop right on the corner: the doughy pizza, overcooked gyros, and stale bagels are aimed at the hapless tourist. Nearby are far better Japanese, Taiwanese, and Chinese noodle shops, yakitori grills, and dim sum joints, but we’re flying, and these should be saved for longer meals.
On your right is the St. Mark’s Hotel, long known for entertaining tiptoeing couples for short periods. Our first stop is Spot Dessert Bar, which specializes in off-the-wall desserts, with names like matcha waterfall and milky puff. Stand at the brightly lit counter and order the baked Alaska cone ($8.45) with either raspberry or mango sorbet, and see the attendant wield a hand-held torch that turns the meringue brown while the sorbet remains frozen. Starting an extended meal with dessert is a good move on crazy St. Mark’s.
Dart across the street, watching the traffic carefully, to Mamoun’s Falafel, a local fixture for great, cheap Middle Eastern food. Arriving from New Haven, its parent establishment on MacDougal Street first popularized falafel in a pita back in 1971. This branch is far more comfortable, with a seating area out front that provides a view of the street until 5 a.m. every morning. What to order? The falafel sandwich ($4.25), of course, topped with tahini and the gritty red hot sauce.
Scamper down the street past ramen parlors, a dollar pizza establishment, and one exceptional Chinese restaurant (Szechuan Mountain House) to reach 24-hour Gem Spa, which was referred to by punks in the ’80s — when Iggy Pop, Madonna, and Allen Ginsberg roamed the neighborhood — as “Germ Spa.”
With a yellow marquee and a famous fortune telling machine out front — try it! — the premises has been a newsstand since the 1920s, and named Gem Spa since 1957, when Second Avenue was known as the Yiddish Broadway. The fabled beverage called the egg cream, which paradoxically contains no egg and no cream, is a specialty here ($4.95). Get the chocolate.
The block of St. Mark’s between Second and First avenues is rather sparsely populated, commercially speaking, which gives you a chance to admire its 19th-century row houses and church architecture. There are, however, a cheap chicken joint that mainly serves boat-size drinks (BBQ), and a long-running bistro with a classic French menu (Jules). In the middle of the block is newcomer Clay Pot, which presents a series of Hong Kong-style rice dishes steamed in clay pots right in the front of the restaurant. Pick two proteinaceous toppings for $12, maybe eel and Chinese sausage, and wait a few minutes for your dish to be done.
We’re ignoring a couple of good food-tour targets, Café Rakka because it closes too early, and Xi’an Famous Foods because there are so many of them. At the corner of First Avenue instead, you’ll spy one of the city’s best neighborhood pizzerias, Stromboli Pizza. Staying open till 5 a.m., it’s been a mainstay of rock bands and rappers since it opened in 1976. The Beastie Boys were fixtures here, and the slices ($3.25) possess a sweet tomato sauce with a sprinkle of oregano, a nice carpet of cheese, and a perfect crust.
Ready for more food? Next we hit Xe May, an improvised subterranean Vietnamese banh mi parlor with a congenial staff and not much seating. To save room in your tummy, skip the big sandwiches and head for the list of tacos ($3.25) on the chalk board. My fave is lemongrass chicken, which comes heaped with pickled and shredded vegetables, and at request, dotted with sliced jalapeños and squirted with sriracha, to make the spiciest thing on the tour — unless you grab the spicy redneck across the street at Crif Dogs.
Once again utilizing an underground space, Crif Dogs is the city’s foremost purveyor of doctored franks, some wrapped in bacon and deep-fried, a style reminiscent of New Jersey and California, others cooked more conventionally and topped with frankly weird combinations. With jalapeños, coleslaw, and chili con carne, the spicy redneck is a great choice, or you might also get the BLT, which is like a bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich only with a wiener added.
As you chow down, perhaps playing the tabletop Ms. Pacman, you may notice people furtively sneaking in, entering a phone booth, talking on the phone, cursing, and then exiting the premises. They are trying to get into a famous “secret” bar called Please Don’t Tell, a futile name if ever there were one. Give it a try and be disappointed. Which is good, because our next and last stop provides cocktails aplenty.
Holding down the eastern end of St. Mark’s, Empellon Al Pastor offers views of Tompkins Square Park and its Temperance Fountain (1888), reminding you not to overindulge. The place strives to be both a dive bar and one of the city’s most innovative taquerias. Sit and enjoy a blood orange margarita and a cheeseburger taco. If you’re really in an adventuresome mood, try the sweetbread milanesa slider. And now thank your lucky stars that the food on St. Mark’s Place is so darn good.