When you’re walking down East Houston Street, it’s difficult to choose something to eat with so many great places nearby. “Oy vey!” you might shout, drawing attention from nearby Lower East Side hipsters or Jews. “Where should I get my next nosh?” If whoever is nearby is a mentsch and not a shmendrik, he’ll direct you to Yonah Schimmel’s Knish Bakery.
Within a few blocks of each other are three staples of both Jewish and New York cuisine: Katz’s Delicatessen, Russ & Daughters and Yonah Schimmel’s Knish Bakery. Katz’s does a mean pastrami sandwich or hot dog, Russ & Daughters will entice you with endless choices of smoked fish and bagels and Yonah Schimmel’s will give you a big and tasty knish. The difference, however, is that while all three establishments have been around since the late 19th (Katz’s) and early 20th (Russ, Yonah) centuries, Yonah Schimmel is still cheap and reflects the prices of another era, as a knish is only $3.50. Compare that to a $15 sandwich or $10 bagel.
A knish, by the way, is basically a big pocket of dough baked or fried with a filling, traditionally potato. However, you can also get knishes with fillings such as spinach, cabbage or cherry cheese.
When you walk into Yonah Schimmel’s, there is an immediate sense of Old New York. Looking around, you can see the place has probably barely changed since it first opened its doors in 1910. In a city that is increasingly gentrified and dominated by chain stores, it’s a treat to have an old-school meal at an old-school place. You practically hear the Jewish mothers gossiping, the little boys with yarmulkes talking about the Brooklyn Dodgers, or the men yelling “They hiked the price of a soda pop to a nickel! What kind of mishegah idea is this?” more than a hundred years later.
The timelessness of Yonah Schimmel’s Knish Bakery makes it a feel a little bit like a museum. The ratty refrigerator is stocked with Stewart’s Cream and Dr. Brown’s Black Cherry sodas. The window displaying the knishes is a little grimy. The yellow plastic bottles on the tables have probably been refilled with spicy brown mustard thousands of times.
Biting into my classic potato knish, I was filled with a warm and fuzzy feeling. A knish is simple, tasty and filling, the way Jewish food should be. I felt a connection to my meal, knowing that my Grandparents ate these things long ago and we have a shared experience.
If you’re looking for a flavor explosion or flawlessly executed meal, you’re in the wrong place. If you want something timeless, tasty and cheap, then raise your Dr. Brown’s in the air and say L’Chaim.
Yonah Schimmel’s Knish Bakery is located at 137 East Houston Street. You can take a look at their website which, in true Yonah Schimmel fashion, seems old.
*GUIDE TO THE YIDDISH USED IN THIS POST*
- Oy vey: Oh no, geez, ugh, what an annoyance, man oh man.
- Nosh: A bite to eat or snack, however, what begins as a nosh often ends as a meal.
- Mentsh: A stand up guy, an all-around good individual.
- Shmendrick: A stupid person.
- Mishegah: Crazy. A mesheginah is a crazy person.
- L’Chaim: Hebrew, a toast, “to life!”