Robert Sietsema stands out as my favorite. Sietsema started at The Village Voice in 1993, and continues to be an adventurous writer who will delve into all sorts of genres and locations, from the latest Yemeni addition to Brooklyn's Atlantic Avenue to sampling the water melon with fish stomach in Chinatown's Fujianese neighborhood. He can be scholarly without sounding like an asshole. He can be downmarket without seeming as if he's slumming it with his artisanal buddies.
He's good for a rant too, such as his piece titled "Mayor Bloomberg's Jihad Against Salt." He's also particularly strong on the cheap eats front, and, well, I've discovered a lot of far-flung places thanks to his work.
Sietsema, who moved to NYC in 1977, answered a few questions for me via email on the East Village dining scene.
What new(ish) East Village restaurants are you particularly pleased with?
• Masak, a sleeper bistro on East 13th (Remember when the rents used to be depressed on 13th Street because nobody wanted to live there because of the number?) that serves a fancified Singaporean menu
• Sao Mai, one of the best Vietnamese cafes in the city, with killer pho
• Sabor A Mexico, a taqueria started by immigrants from Guerrero, with beer
• Il Buco Alimentari & Vineria, very nice small dishes, pleasant space, but a little pricey
• Mile End Sandwich, nice addition to the myriad sandwich possibilities in the East Village.
Most overrated and underrated East Village restaurants?
The most overrated restaurant of all time was Life Café, which closed somewhat unceremoniously not too long ago. I ate there several times during its long existence — fueled by the musical "Rent" — and always had a bad meal. That kind of awful hippie cooking is now thankfully nearly gone from the nabe.
I think Veselka is also vastly overrated — and comparatively expensive, too. Not sure how it established its reputation, but a couple decades ago it was only one of over a dozen cheap Polish and Ukrainian places clustered on the avenues. Now most of them are gone and it remains. The food has always been decidedly lackluster, but maybe the late-night hours made it the place to hang.
Underrated? Lots of good Japanese food that gets ignored, some it rather formulaic, but often cheap. Natori and Sapporo East are two good old-timers with sushi much better than you’d expect, both historic refuges for cash-strapped daters.
Still mourn the loss of Vandaag, the only Dutch resto in town, and offering very nice food, the kind you make your parents pay for when they visit New York. Never got enough traction (that corner has been a problem for years), and the sandwich and bakery window they tried to install at the last minute in the back was pretty much a disaster.
Best cheap option in the East Village?
Downtown Bakery is a gem, not too comfortable but with great southern Mexican food. Ramen Setagaya is one of the city’s best noodle joints. Xi’an Famous Foods for some off-the-wall, anti-rice northern Chinese (with plenty of chiles).
I'm very fond of Stromboli’s, since it was the place I often went post-gig when I was a rock musician. You always bond permanently with the first pizza you try, and that was my first slice when I came to New York. The sauce is tangy and a little sweet. Hate the weird space they added on, though.
[Archival photo via]
How do you think East Village restaurants stack up against those in other neighborhoods these days?
The East Village is one of the 10 greatest restaurant neighborhoods in the city; it may be in the top 5. Lots of crappy little storefronts that, even today, are not as expensive as you might imagine, and become home to little ma-and-pa places.
Also good for mid-range bistro-level restaurants and even fine dining. A place where empires can be built, too, and filled with quirky food choices. Lots for vegetarians and carnivores alike, and every time you go around a corner, you see a new place. Japanese presence has long been a boon to the neighborhood, and the East Village also has its very own celebrity chefs. Enough restaurants crowded together there to fill a medium-size Midwestern City. And everyone eats out. Every meal.
Most annoying food trend?
For a long long time along with other neighborhoods in the city, the East Village was able to resist national franchises. I can remember when the McDonald’s on First Avenue was the only such franchise in the neighborhood.
But thanks to Bloomberg — who has no reverence for food culture and culture in general — and the rapacious landlords who are his most eager supporters, these franchises have been flooding the neighborhood in the last five years. Franchises pay employees nothing, source their foods out of state, and undersell small local restaurants. They must be resisted at all costs. And besides, the food they sell sucks.
Did I just see a Long John Silvers go in on First Avenue? Jeez!
James Campbell Taylor]
What's your guilty food pleasure?
Egg cream at Gem Spa plus french fries at Pommes Frites