Come for the Statue of Liberty, stay for the just-greasy-enough sandwiches!
When I say my favourite thing about New York is the bodegas – its distinct variety stores – I’m aware that I sound silly, or at least contrarian. When you think about New York, you’re probably not thinking about mom-and-pop retail. You’re probably thinking about the big stuff that the city is famous for. It’s the city of the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, and Times Square. It’s huge in every way.
But while there is a sort of thrill in being at the centre of such human saturation, I don’t think the gigantism of New York actually does much for its inhabitants. There’s only so much you can see in a day or a lifetime. Anything more than you can personally take in is effectively nonexistent. What does it matter that there are a billion square blocks of high-end clothing stores? Do you actually want to visit 30 different trendy brunch places? How long is your life?
When you live in New York, the first two weeks are exhilarating – and then you realize that you have a finite capacity for wonder. The glamorous grime of the subway starts to seem like regular grime. Your glandular response to seeing immensely beautiful and wealthy people is normalized. You’re a simple person who has simple needs. You just have to figure out where to buy your stuff.
Enter the New York bodega. The bodega is a wonder of retail. It has roughly everything you’ll ever need in life, except for a loving relationship and a MacBook. While that may be the mission of any variety store, I’m here to tell you that among the variety stores of the world, the best bodegas are unmatched in their comprehensiveness and warmth. Really. Though I love the aggressively air-conditioned 7-Elevens in Thailand, especially because of their weird green doughnuts, they feel a bit clinical, and their hot food is atrocious. Scotland’s Tesco supermarkets have excellent selection, but the music is always terrible, and there’s an inescapable whiff of cool British sadness.
‘Cigarettes and candy.’ A bodega on Amsterdam Avenue in Manhattan.
What really sets a bodega apart, I suppose, is the sandwiches. At any decent bodega, you can get a hot Reuben, or a drippy cheesesteak hoagie. This is an immense improvement in one’s quality of life, assuming that you’re not one of those no-gluten people. (If you are, I have no advice about how to improve your quality of life, but I understand there is plenty of information to be found on the internet).
If you are indeed a sandwich person, you’ll never willingly go back to those creepy pre-prepared grocery store sandwiches in clamshells after you’ve had a bodega sandwich. Grocery store sandwiches are dry, cold, and smell like nothing. Bodega sandwiches are salty, warm, messy, and just at the right level of greasy where you feel satisfied but not poisoned.
Meanwhile if poison is actually what you want, bodegas typically carry all the best brands of cigarettes, as well as non-fancy beers. Many sell every kind of boxed grocery, from Corn Pops to weird organic crackers made of pressed Scandinavian berries. They also have headphones, in case you’ve just broken or mislaid your old pair, which you always have. Some have umbrellas and plungers. Whatever kind of person you want to be, you’ll be more like that person once you leave a good bodega.
The ‘pho real’ sandwich
My favourite is probably E&I Deli (4912 Vernon Blvd. in Long Island City). Not only is it excellent, but it’s favoured by cops and people who work at the United Nations, whose New York headquarters are located just across the river.
To my thinking, if you spend all day dealing with violent criminals and/or ineffectual governmental officials, you have little patience for anything but the excellent. Surprisingly, even the salads are good here – obviously, being able to get a decent salad at a variety store is a privilege.
Be warned that the people at the counter aren’t overly friendly. They mostly just look at you funny and take your money. But what do you expect? You’re not at the Ritz Carlton. You’re buying two cans of Modelo at three in the morning. By the way, it’s open 24/7.
If you’re in Brooklyn, may I suggest Good Deal Deli & Grocery (245 Troy Ave.)? The selection of cereal here is particularly good, probably owing to the influx of hipsters, who demand strange multi-grain cluster-type breakfasts. Also, the owners are incredibly friendly – almost effervescent. By my second visit, we were old chums, and they were regaling me with neighbourhood gossip and offering me complimentary extra cheese.
I do not guarantee that you will get complimentary extra cheese.
Finally, if you’re in the East Village, Sunny and Annie’s (94 Avenue B) has the most daring sandwiches of all. The “pho real” sandwich is essentially Vietnamese soup, minus the soup; it includes beef, hoisin sauce, sriracha, sprouts. The “Monarisa” (sic) is a chicken cutlet sandwich with fresh basil and balsamic vinegar. Along with the non-standard lunches, there’s standard, cheap, delicious coffee. Have your sandwich outside in Tompkins Square Park and observe the neighbourhood life.
When you leave New York, there’s a lot you won’t miss. The summers are beautiful, but the smells can be extreme. You’ll pay too much for even minimal shelter. Even if you’re a tourist, the tourists will annoy you. Nevertheless, once you’ve found your favourite bodega, you’ll long for it forever, no matter where you live. Often, back in Toronto, I dream of the sandwiches from E&I Deli as if I’m dreaming of home.