Water Sliding in New York

From hot dogs to headcheese: A Midwesterner's guide

Dear Dara,

My wife and I are heading to New York City for a week. We've never been, so it's all exciting and scary and stuff. Kinda like one of those really steep water slides where--at least if you're a dude--you have to cross your legs before you slide down so as to prevent injury and/or wedgies.

Anyway, I know from reading your column that you love it out there. Anything we shouldn't miss? We've got nothing but time while we're there.

No sweat if you can't respond, I'm sure you're stupid busy all the time.

Here's a Dara haiku I just wrote for you:

 

Dara writes 'bout food
She taught me what "corkage" means
I'm still a "dorkage"

Yep,
Dave of Minnesota

 

Dear Dave,

Oh, you're not a dorkage! What you are is cute. All you readers are so cute, with your cheering notes and the way you sit around at home counting syllables and worrying about water slides. You poor dears. What New York does to you! The idea of it. Going right for your tender and delicate regions.

I feel terrible for you. And what with you all going to New York all the time, too, and much more often than you get to Hudson, Hugo, Orono, or any number of places far easier to pack a lunch to.

What makes me think this? Because of a heretofore undisclosed gift: the chronic inability to erase e-mails. Why, I tell you, this and the need to express every single thought that passes through my head have made me an invaluable addition to many a toad-hunting society. In fact, right now I have at least a dozen notes from readers looking for tips about what to eat and do in New York, the land of my birth, the place I keep my mom.

Actually, I have been debating for the better part of a year whether to write this in a column, because on the one hand I think: Of what earthly use would this be to some poor temp sitting in a skyway in Minneapolis? But then I think, well, who the hell am I to dictate what goes in these columns, when the readers are using ancient poetic forms and jetting about the nation? And so another bold experiment, brought to you by you:

 

Dara's Clip-and-Save Top Three Guide for Food Stuff to Do in New York City Because the Top Five Got Too Damn Long

 

1. Katz's Deli, and What's Left of the Lower East Side Jewish Thing

Whoa! Owing to the miracle of advanced technologies, I write this paragraph to you from a table at Katz's Deli. This place has been serving the salty soul foods of classic New York delicatessen since 1888, and right now it's looking so classic I fear the whole damn thing is about to get airlifted by the Smithsonian. Whoops! Now the Southern teen beside me just asked the server for grape jelly for her hot dogs, and it doesn't seem so dangerously classic anymore.

Then again, the place is literally sepia-toned, its interior a rainbow of the less expensive wood surfaces of mid-century, the maples and indistinct dark honeys. Not Ye Olde Yankee Workshoppe sepia, but old-photo-in-a-trunk sepia, all knocked around and scarred. I am right now looking at a wall of salamis, which dangle around a neon sign in the shape of America advising you to "send a salami to your boy in the army." By which they mean the army that's fighting World War II. Smithsonian alert...

And look! The same thing I always order has arrived: a hot pastrami sandwich ($10.95), a round potato knish ($2.65), and a chocolate egg cream ($2.95). The egg cream is basically like fizzy chocolate milk, the knish is oniony mashed potatoes wrapped in a chewy sheet of dough. They're good, but it's the pastrami that drives people to fits. Why? Because the stuff is as seductive as a half-heard song and it packs as much oomph as a steak. The meat is the color of dusky roses printed on chintz, each slice of the spiced, brined, smoked, and steamed brisket is edged with a black ring of herbs and spices, select pieces embroidered with the lush streaks of fat that make it succulent, that make it all as tender as if it were jellied, that make grown folks quiver. I gotta quit typing now.

But please know there is more of this in the neighborhood: Guss' Pickles down around the corner about 10 blocks, at 87 Orchard, that's where they sell two pickles for a dollar from big old plastic pickle barrels (or get a quart for $6). Just a few steps away on Houston there are more not-to-miss places: Russ & Daughters, for exquisite smoked fish, and Yonah Schimmel's Knishes, for, well--I'll let you guess.

Anyway, the reason you should make a circuit of some of these places is not just that they connect us all to some long-gone American past, the Jewish ghetto of the Lower East Side as prize-winningly chronicled by important dead people, but because the food tastes really great, and there's nothing quite like it in the world. It's the same reason you should eat barbecue in Texas, and soft-shell crabs in Baltimore: the taste of the place. And at $19 with tip for little more than a sandwich, you'll have something to tell the grandkids.

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