Originally published by the Village Voice, May 17, 2017.
The shops where New Yorkers buy milk, beer, and other last-minute basics go by many names. To some, they’re delis; to others, corner stores. But to most of us, any small shop stocked with grocery essentials is a bodega. Yours might have a cat, and yours definitely has the best bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich, since proximity makes food more delicious. But the bodegas listed here, though standard at first glance, offer within their doors items worth a special trip to their neighborhoods.
You’ll find a good assortment of Japanese pantry goods — including Kewpie mayonnaise and soba noodles — between the Budweiser and tins of La Morena pickled jalapeños at this Astoria shop. Sushi and sashimi are prepared daily at the front of the store before they’re packed and displayed in a refrigerated section that also holds pre-packaged, house-made “Tokyo special” sandwiches, seaweed salad, and vacuum-sealed packages of imitation crab. Three bucks will get you a “classic” sushi roll (the basic salmon avocado is a good bet) that is fresh and mildly sweet, with vibrant-green avocado and a smooth, buttery texture that transports you from a bustling Queens street to the seashore. You can’t beat that price at any of the many nearby Japanese restaurants — and what you save on dinner, you can use to splurge on a six-pack of Orion beer.
A business strip bordering a quiet residential neighborhood may not be where you’d expect to find a 24-hour deli, but if you need to grab milk for cereal at 3 a.m., Cherry Valley is here for you. More likely, though, at that hour you’ll be stepping inside to eat something to soak up some of the evening’s booze; drunkenness might have inspired some of the more outrageous sandwiches here, anyway, where restraint is left at the curb. Cherry Valley ups the ante on Pittsburgh-style fries-filled sandwiches, adding waffle fries to its Coyote — along with chicken cutlet, bacon, mozzarella, and ranch dressing on a garlic bread hero (the bread of choice for several sandwiches on the menu). But why stop at fries? The Bomb, an accurately named gut-assault of grilled steak, bacon, cheddar, and gravy, again on a garlic hero, includes onion rings.
At J&H Farm, peanut butter, potato chips, and other American pantry basics sit adjacent to jars of fermented black bean paste and bags of the Korean red pepper flakes known as gochugaru. And next to the mozzarella cheese are dozens of plastic clamshell containers filled with kimchi — all made in the back of the shop by Sandra Kim, who owns the place with her husband, Sam. The varieties of this fermented Korean staple include cucumber, sliced or cubed daikon, and “Mom’s kimchi,” in which cabbage, daikon, and Kim’s special combination of spices mingle into a funky treat. Even that traditional version is prepared in two ways — with or without pungent brined baby shrimp. “For the vegans,” Kim explains with a knowing nod.
Between a controversial, tone-deaf viral video review and some pricey “upscale” versions at White Gold and Whole Foods, a sandwich that’s about as humble as they come has prompted surprise at all the attention. The chopped cheese sandwich is rumored to have started in East Harlem at Blue Sky Deli (better known to customers as Hajji’s, and identified by its signage as Harlem Taste), and as weird as it was to see tourists flock to the corner of First Avenue and Tito Puente Way after Anthony Bourdain ate one of the deli’s creations on television, there’s a reason the sandwich is so popular. The chopped cheese is like a relaxed cheeseburger: Ground beef is spread on the griddle and topped with American cheese (and anything else you’d like on a burger), then pressed, in a satisfyingly sloppy manner, into a hero. Here, it has the underlying flavor of all that’s been on the griddle before it, which you certainly won’t find at Whole Foods. Proving that the most satisfying foods are often the ones a place has made a million times, Hajji’s experiential perfection is difficult to replicate, and worth seeking out.
As a woman pays for tortillas and a bottle of soda, her daughter stands on tiptoes to look into a compact freezer near the counter. “Oh, wow!” she shouts, sliding open the door and gently touching the rainbow of frozen jewels inside: deep red hibiscus, electric blueberry, and rich brown tamarind paletas. These Mexican popsicles are made in small batches in the back of the family-run bodega, and distributed throughout the year to other stores around the city. Pineapple and mango versions are given a slightly spicy, smoky complexity with the help of added chilis. But if you want to try something new without testing your heat tolerance, get a mamey (one of Sley’s most popular flavors). A tropical fruit native to Central America, the mamey pairs perfectly with dairy in this paleta for a creamy treat reminiscent of sweet potato and honey. There are also ice cream sandwiches and, in the summer, a freezer case of ice creams and ices. It’s enough to make grown-ups say wow, too.
“Come on, step up — it’s Friday!” It’s busy at Yafa Deli’s counter, where people crowd to place sandwich orders or pay for beer, milk, and bananas — when they’re not lined up for the fried chicken. It doesn’t look promising under the heat lamps, but it goes fast, especially at prime times like a Friday evening. “Where’s the chicken?!” one woman demands. (Really, she means drumsticks, as the tray remains full of thighs and breasts.) “You know better,” the man behind the counter responds, friendly as ever. “You gotta call first!” Wise advice, because if you miss your choice pieces, you will miss out — or at least, have to wait for the next batch. There’s no reason to eat KFC when Yafa is an option, its fried chicken so crispy and juicy, perfectly seasoned and satisfying. You’ll just have to wait until you get home to find that out, since there’s nowhere to sit. Though, come to think of it, it tastes plenty good eaten standing on the sidewalk.
All photos by David Williams for The Village Voice. Food Stylist Jill Keller.