The East Village Restaurants Where a Restaurant Critic Cut His Teeth

Hi, it’s Pete Wells, restaurant critic of The Times and longtime pierogi appreciator.

It would be an exaggeration to say that I moved to the East Village for the pierogies. This was 1988, and rents were still low east of the Bowery.

Still, the pierogies did whisper in my ear. Before my move to New York City I’d made a lot of weekend visits to friends who lived in the East Village. After scratching the cue ball at Julian’s or dancing at the Pyramid Club, we’d end the night at one of the Eastern European restaurants that used to be thick on the ground. (The best scene was at the Kiev, on Second Avenue, where you might spot Allen Ginsberg or Quentin Crisp or Jonas Mekas.) Dragging one corner of a pierogi through mounds of fried onions and sour cream, I thought: This would be an interesting place to live.

I was right. The East Village was my home for most of the next 12 years. I was always ready to eat something new, and I was always broke. You could go pretty far on that combination in the ’80s and ’90s. I found Egyptian grilled chicken, Filipino chicken adobo, Sicilian spleen sandwiches on palm-size seeded buns, Awadhi stews steamed under a lid of pastry, and a hundred other things.

I thought I was getting dinner, but I was getting an education. Many of the places I loved then are gone, but not all. Here are some of the survivors, the restaurants where I used to go on my own dime before I turned pro.

The old Polish and Ukrainian coffee shops weren’t always known for nuance. Little Poland’s cooking, though, has a subtlety that sets it apart, even from two other survivors that I love, Veselka and the Ukrainian East Village Restaurant. The challah at Little Poland, unbraided and only slightly sweet, is springier and moister than some others. You could almost call its cold borscht, swimming with chopped cucumbers and eggs and beets, a Polish gazpacho. The potato pancakes crackle under your fork and the blintzes, which stretch from one end of the plate to the other, are as evenly browned as if they had spent the summer on the Algarve, lying on a reflective blanket.

In the ’80s and ’90s, the neighborhood started to attract young Japanese bohemians. While Midtown had staid Japanese restaurants for men in suits, the East Village got street food and noodle counters. The first time I saw balls of takoyaki with leaves of shaved bonito fluttering miraculously on top was at Otafuku, on East 9th Street. And while I had left the neighborhood by the time Curry Ya opened on East 10th Street, it’s where I ate my first katsu curry. Both restaurants are gone now but their menus, and many of their fans, have been transferred to Rai Rai Ken, on East 10th, where I had my first bowl of ramen that didn’t come out of a packet. All three places are owned by T.I.C. Restaurant Group, which brought at least a dozen genres of Japanese dining and drinking to the East Village starting in the 1980s.

How many sandwiches has Sunny & Annie’s invented? I know there were already more than 100 when I lived across the street, because my favorite was the 101, a mutant Reuben with bacon. Early on almost everything was assembled from deli staples. Now there are many variations on the banh mi, sandwiches that resemble Mexican cemitas and a few that are unclassifiable.

One of the hubs of the old Loisaida neighborhood is now its most impressive survivor, carrying on in spite of an eroding Hispanic presence, a rent dispute and the death of its founder, Adela Fargas. And so, against the odds, Casa Adela is still there from morning to night with hand-wrapped pasteles, sancocho, roast pork, soupy pots of beans, fried plaintains mashed into mofongo, unaccountably good rotisserie chickens, and fresh orange juice that goes into Adela’s marvelous morir soñando.

The counter at B & H was where I sat when I was overstimulated. I’d come back down to earth after a whitefish salad on soft fat slices of challah and a bowl of pea soup as thick as pudding.

It does everything a slice shop should, including staying open an hour after the bars close.

I could rarely afford John’s, but when I had the money I would come just to stare at the burning candles emerging from encrustations of wax so long in the making they look positively medieval.