Eating on the Lower East Side, Part I: Sammy's

By: Ashley Bode

While Harlem has some great advantages, there is a different, yet slightly similar appeal to another neighborhood with an equally rich cultural background; the Lower East Side. Personally, I split my time between Harlem, Midtown and LES, with most time spent at the later two. Not nearly as many hours are in Harlem as I would prefer, but I find LES to be a nice compromise.

LES does not always have the prettiest streets, the most convenient bus routes, or the  glitz and glam of some other neighborhoods, but what it lacks in those departments it makes up for in authenticity, grittiness, and character. During the day it is like any other neighborhood; bodegas are on every corner with the community cat taking perch, sandwich shops serve up lunch and boutiques sell the best commodities they have to offer. At night, the neighborhood's lights attract New Yorkers away from their homes and to the vibrant scene that gives this town the nickname, The City That Never Sleeps.

This is an old neighborhood, one with residents that have never left, stores that have stayed open for decades and a deli that has been in business since 1888. It was once a farm, then a tenement neighborhood, then a working-class Jewish community that now shares the streets with Latinos, Chinese, Bangladeshis, Japanese, Ukranians and WASP-y girls from Chicago, like myself. This was once called Little Germany, Corlears Hook and Crown Point. Now its comprised of the East Village, NoLita, Chinatown, Alphabet City, Bowery and Little Italy. This is the neighborhood of immigrants, the history of America.

Any history buff would find days worth of exploring in this part of town, I recommend the Tenement Museum on Delancey and Orchard that offers a series of walking tours, but this girl has only one thing in mind: adventures in food. My love affair with this neighborhood is so strong because of the variety of eats. There is no other part of the city that showcases such a wide selection in a radius of this size, that's why in this series we'll feature great LES eateries and must-sees. This week, we take a look at Sammy's.

On Allen Street, just south of Houston stands a well-known spot, frequented by the hungry: the landlady who has lived on Suffolk since 1970, the Wallstreet Broker out for a rowdy evening with friends, off-duty NYPD and tourists visiting for the week- it's Sammy's Roumanian Steak House. This is place is quintessential LES, celebrating homestyle Jewish cooking. Don't expect a romantic dinner for two, but a more than lively party that has not missed a beat for the last thirty-something years. The walls are plastered with photographs of previous patrons, there's Alka Seltzer offered at the door, vodka frozen into blocks of ice, live accordian music every night and a menu like no other. For a neighborhood that was once home to a working-class Jewish community this could have been their after-Temple feasting spot. There's schmaltz on every table, that's right, rendered chicken fat placed on each table as if it were butter waiting for bread. There's chicken liver to order,  prepared table-side, potato pancakes and of course the signature, an enormous tenderloin covered with enough garlic you're sure to not get a kiss from your date.

Ask any patron about their experience at Sammy's and nearly every time their face becomes animated, jubilant and anxious to tell their story. Multiple generations of the same families from Florida, Arizona, Brooklyn and Chicago have trekked to this East Side nook to relive and share the comforts of their family heritage, likening it to a never-ending Bar Mitzvah. Places like Sammy's make or break a neighborhood. They are the backbone for hard times and the fixture during many wonderful times.   Every Manhattan neighborhood has their niche, LES is no different.

Check in next week for a look at trendy late night spots for a quick bite, featuring the area's newest edition, Little Muenster, home of "super fancy grilled cheese."

Photo: Payton Chung

For more of Ashley's tips and recipes, follow me on Twitter (@MarcusCooks)