And, being a reader, I read about New York. Voraciously. Somewhere in all those years, with decades between visits, I learned about Eisenberg's Sandwich Shop. When I began to visit the city with some regularity, I saw it from Fifth Avenue buses, although I was usually busier looking at the Flatiron Building across the street. But I never got there.
Eisenberg's began in 1929. It's not a legend, like, say Barney Greengrass. But it may be even more evocative. A long, narrow room, a counter and a few tables in the rear dining room, it feels like something out of a 1947 black and white movie. And the menu is uber-New York. Here you have your egg cream, your knockwurst, , your cream cheese and chopped olive sandwich. Whitefish salad, meet grilled cheese with bacon. "Individual can sardines", say hello to peanut butter and jelly. Cold borscht, hot matzo ball soup and manhattan clam chowder, the latter only on Friday. Got the idea? By St. Louis standards, this is a pretty big menu for such a small spot. Not in the Big Apple. (Maybe they should rename it the Big Pastrami?)
As it turned out, I wasn't too late to appreciate Eisenberg's. It was a breakfast visit on a weekday, with a fair amount of carryout business going on but plenty of room at the counter to watch the cooks at work. Coat hooks on the wall behind the counter stools, purse hooks under the counter, the latter always a sign of someone paying attention. Cholula hot sauce with the ketchup and what I suspect were fluorescent bulbs in light fixtures were about the only reminders of the contemporary era.
Better coffee than I would have expected, stronger and not sour, meaning the coffee makers get properly scoured. I watched them toss fresh mushrooms on the grill for an omelet and pondered my morning food. I ended up with one of my favorites, salami and eggs. Very properly offered the choice of scrambled or flat, I went with flat, the version I first encountered. The salty, peppery salami seasons the eggs perfectly, and it's one of the great unsung dishes of the city's traditional cuisine. I was surprised to see grits offered, but it was a little too much cognitive dissonance; besides, this calls for potatoes. What Eisenberg's designates "home fries" isn't what most of us would expect. Potatoes, onions, a few bits of sweet pepper, fried in such large quantities the potatoes cook before many of them brown, the whole seasoned with what I suspect is generous amounts of paprika to give the characteristic ruddy color. I've only ever seen this at New York-influenced delis and sandwich shops, and despite what may be an off-putting color, they're very tasty. And the Cholula was a good match when sprinkled here and there. Instead of toast, I went for a bialy, another item seldom found hereabouts. Flatter than a bagel and sprinkled with onion on top, they're less chewy than an authentic New York bagel, and lack the hole in the middle. Read about them here. Toasted and buttered, it finished things off nicely, although I did consider an egg cream to go.
While it's not exactly in the middle of Tourist Central in New York, this is an easy walking city, and if you walk from the Empire State Building to the Union Square Greenmarket, a spot all food-lovers should go, http://www.grownyc.org/greenmarket/manhattan-union-square , this is a good spot to stop, or to have a pre-market breakfast. The service is pleasant, and the watching and listening to the locals is good fun. And the prices are good, too.
Eisenberg's Sandiwch Shop
174 Fifth Avenue (22nd and 23rd Sts.)
Breakfast and Lunch daily, Dinner nightly but early closing on Sat. and Sun.
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Difficult