New York Eats

In New York's pickle palaces, the divinely brined

Email|Print| Text size + By Bonnie Tsui and Jonathan Natchez
Globe Correspondents / October 10, 2004

NEW YORK -- Pickles, like yellow cabs and attitude, are a New York tradition, and their epicenter is the Lower East Side.

Loosely framed by the East River, Houston Street to the north, and Bowery Street to the west (and sharing a nebulous southern border with Chinatown), the Lower East Side gained its formative briny character around the turn of the last century, as Eastern European Jews arrived and established themselves in the neighborhood.

Seventeenth-century Dutch settlers were the first to bring pickles to Manhattan, but the item became a distinctly New York institution via the pickle pushcart of the Lower East Side.

''Pickles were always a staple of European Jewish food, like Romanian pastrami and corned beef," says Marvin Weishaus of the Bronx-based wholesaler United Pickle, which began as a pushcart in the 1890s. ''At one point, there were literally hundreds of Jewish delis in all five boroughs."

Clustered in the ''pickle district" of Essex and Ludlow streets, early 20th-century pickle vendors gave birth to what will forever be thought of as ''New York style" pickles: the explosive full-sour and its more delicate sibling, the half-sour.

Today, the pushcarts have vanished from the Lower East Side, but the area remains a prime destination for a pickle safari on foot.

Guss Pickles is the last holdover from the days of the Essex Street empire. Founded in 1910 by Izzy Guss, the store has moved to Orchard Street and changed ownership several times, but still retains the flavor and feel of its pushcart past. About a dozen barrels line the sidewalk, filled with a wonderful array of pickled options. Guss's employees answer all inquiries before plunging their hands into the barrel of your choice -- after putting on sanitary gloves, just about the only 21st-century detail. Guss's full-sour is uncompromising; its soft consistency and powerful, almost overwhelming, vinegary bite make no concessions to modern notions of subtlety and complexity. The half-sour is divinely crisp, robust, and fruity, and the new pickle, yet another variety that has been stewing for just a few days, retains the brisk taste of fresh cucumber while adding a hint of pickling spices.

Guss's best is perhaps its hot pickle, a modern invention that spices a traditional half-sour with a distinct but not overpowering kick. Also spectacular are Guss's pickled celery (salty and coated with mustard seeds) and pickled red bell peppers (delicately sweet without being syrupy).

A few blocks away on Essex Street is The Pickle Guys, in an area that has retained a large Orthodox Jewish population. . Born of controversy a few years ago (Alan Kaufman, a longtime manager at Guss Pickles, set out to establish his own store down the street), The Pickle Guys produces fine pickles, but distinguishes itself by making them on-site. (Guss uses a warehouse facility in the Bronx.)

The Pickle Guys also offers every possible nuance of basic pickle: full-sour, three-quarter-sour, half-sour, new pickles, hot new pickles, and hot sour pickles, all of which are slightly crisper and fresher than Guss's, if a touch less flavorful.

Of special note are the store's pickled garlic and pickled green tomato, which avoids the waxy, soft consistency that usually plagues its deli counterparts.

For a little variety in your pickle tasting, head a few blocks west into Chinatown, where you'll find the unprepossessing Mott Street storefront of China Food Import Corp., a small grocery packed with barrels, jars, and tins of such Asian staples as pickled ginger, hot artichokes, and salted lemons. Proprietor Mary Ng is the resident expert and will cheerfully explain any of the store's mysterious offerings, chiefly imported from mainland China.

The most popular preserved product? Pickled scallions, and they alone are worth the trip. The large scallion bells are mellowed by the pickling process, which results in a surprisingly sweet and refreshing nibble with a light oniony flavor.

China Food's pickled mustard greens and salted turnips, made in-house, also draw raves. None here for the pickled sweet cucumber salad, its gelatinous texture, or cloying, candied flavor.

Several subway stops and a world away in the Garment District, you find still other briny concoctions at Just Pickles, a two-shop franchise on 28th and Fifth Avenue and, in Murray Hill, at 33d and Madison. Green paper fliers at the tiny, barrel-lined shop proclaim, ''Move over apples! A pickle a day keeps the doctor away!"

''Pickle juice is very healthy; it really cleans out your system," says owner Tom Saat. ''The guys in the gym upstairs, the boxers, they come down here to drink the pickle juice."

Just Pickles is relatively new, but already each branch has its own loyal neighborhood following. Most of the pickles are made with the franchise's partner, United Pickle, but all spicy and half-sour varieties are made on the premises.

Just Pickles' unique offering is spicy sweet gherkins, which are among the sharpest, crispest, most hair-raising palate cleansers you'll encounter in New York. The hot pickles here are markedly spicier than other versions on this trail, and connoisseurs will appreciate the intense flavor.

For more adventurous pickle hunters, Brooklyn's M & I International provides an ideal excuse for an excursion off the beaten path. In Brighton Beach, a primarily Russian neighborhood on the Atlantic Ocean, M&I is chowhound heaven: a simple storefront that opens into a vast cornucopia of Russian delights, such as pierogis and pastries.

Russian pickles are known for their intensity and variety, and M&I has an entire counter dedicated to pickles and pickled salads. The standard pickles are modest; it is the less traditional (by non-Russian standards, that is) ones that offer the greatest surprises. M&I's famous pickled watermelon, available in warm weather only, is a unique offering that might overwhelm some with its soft, pulpy texture and powerfully briny taste. But the pickled golden delicious apples are truly an unexpected treat. Pickling adds just a hint of vinegar at first bite, and the apple is firmed by the process, with its flavor mellowed and broadened.

Outside, Brighton Beach is worth a visit even if you ignore the many charms of M&I. Like the Lower East Side, it is a lively immigrant neighborhood that transports visitors to a time when neighborhoods like it defined the city's character. The wide boardwalk running along the beach leads to Coney Island, the amusement park that also retains the city's polyglot, energetically chaotic pleasures. A stroll along the wooden slats, pickle and hot dog in hand, captures a blissful essence of New York.

And as United Pickle's Weishaus says, ''People who eat pickles are just generally happier people."

Bonnie Tsui is a freelance writer based in California. Jonathan Natchez lives in Brooklyn.

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