Outside of some undisclosed Target location, a blonde woman in a perfectly coiffed ponytail does sit-ups, lifts weights with baskets full of goods, and literally screams in crazed excitement at a Black Friday flyer. No, this is not real life: It’s one of Target’s bizarrely humorous ads from holiday seasons past, starring comedian Maria Bamford. And while it’s an extreme exaggeration of the planning that holiday shoppers do in order to psyche themselves up to brave the Black Friday crush, some of it is based in truth.
To find the deals you actually want, you must sift through ads, decide which store to stake out, figure out when to arrive, determine how much to bundle up…and choose whether to bring coffee to stay awake or leave it behind because of the inevitable bathroom break it would require while standing in a line that’s snaking down the block. Now that we have Amazon and countless other speedy online delivery services, lining up for Black Friday deals in frigid temps seems quaint, almost old-fashioned. But stores haven’t given up on doorbusters for the old-school tribes of deal hunters, and it’s almost a given that once those doors unlock, there will be viral videos of streams of people risking life and limb trying to get their hands on this year’s hot shit.
But if shoppers have to go through all of this just to get a few hundred bucks knocked off a TV, what about the employees? Imagine watching a stampede of people seeing little more than dollar signs and merchandise rushing at you at breakneck speeds. It’s terrifying.
I’d know. As a retail veteran, I have spent hours upon hours during holiday seasons past catering to customers’ requests: Does this scarf match this jacket? Can you check for another one in the back? Would you get this necklace for your mother? Why doesn’t this coupon work? Are you sure there’s not another one of these in the back? Can you give me another discount? Can I just go in the back and look myself?
Last week, I stopped by Macy’s Herald Square location to pick up a pair of boots. The plan was to be in, out, and on my merry way before I got sucked into the anxious headspace I operated in during my holiday shifts at Macy’s years ago. The poor sales associate who helped me was already completely overwhelmed, and it was more than a week until Black Friday.
In 2016, Macy’s CEO Terry Lundgren told CNBC that an eye-popping 16,000 people entered the flagship location when it opened for Black Friday…at 5 p.m. on Thanksgiving day. Countless more shoppers will queue outside of thousands of other stores around the country on Thanksgiving, too.
Those were the days when I took a deep breath in the stale popcorn stench of the break room, because I knew I’d spend the rest of the day playing catch-up. Backbreaking days of waking before dawn, pulling double shifts, and running from one end of the store to the other were ended with Icy Hot patches and exhaustion before having to go back and do it all over again. A staggering amount of emotional labor went into remaining chipper after having dealt with a difficult customer and a frazzled manager while Alvin’s pip-squeak voice drilled through my ear canals for the thousandth time. Yes, this is what employees are getting paid for, but I’d argue that they’re not getting nearly enough.
For two years, I had Victoria’s Secret managers breathing down my neck, reminding me that my job depended on asking customers — not once, or twice, but three times — if they wanted to open an Angel card and get early access to Black Friday deals. And forget about trying to keep the actual merchandise in order that day: If someone breathed wrong on the panty bar, I spent an hour refolding each thong to perfection only to look back and see it’d been picked through again. It was a Sisyphean task that made me question my sanity every time I stepped into that pink-and-black wannabe boudoir.
And it’s not just the people behind the counter working hard to make your holiday shopping experience a winter wonderland. Those who make the holiday magic happen have pulled all-nighters to make sure everything is just so. On my way out of Macy’s last week, I saw a trio of window dressers bundled up in puffer coats and woolen scarves peeking at their handiwork in progress from the sidewalk. “It works! The perspective is great!” The relief in their voices was palpable.
Now that I’m no longer in retail, there’s once again a sense of wonder, hope, and magic that fills my heart during the holiday season. Just as when I was little, my eyes grow saucer-wide when I see department store holiday displays replete with elfin animatronics, tinsel-tipped trees, and flecks of faux snow glittering under fluorescents — and it’s thanks to those people behind the scenes.
While Black Friday has historically been a good thing for companies and store owners, it’s hell for their employees. Working during the holiday season sometimes means extra hours and overtime pay, but I’d wager that there are few people who truly relish the onslaught of demanding shoppers.
So while you’re making your Black Friday game plan this year, here’s a gentle plea from someone who survived retail hell: Be nice to the people helping you find that perfect pair of gloves, the people putting extra whip on your PSL, the people helping you get to where you need to be, and the people delivering your Cyber Monday haul. Even if you’re the humbuggin’ type or you don’t celebrate any of these holidays, remember that the golden rule goes a long way for everyone — especially those in the service industry.
As you approach Sunday in Brooklyn, the scent of red-cedar embers permeates the air before you’ve even reached the threshold. Chef Jaime Young’s hearth — a holdover from when this space was home to seasoned restaurateur Taavo Somer’s wacky and at times wild Isa — stays ceaselessly busy under its new suzerain. By the time the former Atera chef de cuisine and co-owners Adam Landsman and Todd Enany unlock the door to their three-story Williamsburg complex each morning, the kitchen crew’s long been industriously roasting Japanese sweet potatoes and smoking salmon and wobbly hunks of peppery black cod pastrami.
The fish are served side by side during lunch, on a plate heaped with sweet, chunky radish and green-tomato pickles in old-school appetizing fashion, alongside sourdough toasts and an unconventional dollop of nutty rye sour cream. Landsman and Enany, ex–Major Food Group (Parm, Carbone, the upcoming Landmark Rooms in the old Four Seasons) consiglieri, wanted their restaurant to evoke the days off they’d spend enjoying their Kings County neighborhood. “The name is a state of mind,” Landsman tells the Voice. While that might be a verging-on-saccharine marketing pitch, their pointed service, and items like Young’s familiar yet distinctive smoked-seafood platter, unquestionably get you there.
So do butter-pat-crowned stacks of malted pancakes draped in a hazelnut-maple praline sauce so thick it looks like melting caramel, and a spectacular sausage-egg-and-cheese sandwich flush with spicy gochujang aioli and shoestring fried potatoes. Whether you’re coming for weekend brunch or stealing away for a weekday meal, Sunday in Brooklyn is uniquely suited to playing hooky. Just try getting anything done after finishing a Sundae Coffee cocktail, which tempers cold-brew coffee, rum, and allspice dram with a shot of vanilla cream. Shoestring fries also perk up a roll layered with roast beef marinated in Worcestershire sauce, but the choicest potatoes by far are Young’s “Long Island home fries,” a nod to the chef’s upbringing that mingles onions, green peppers, and plenty of paprika. “Cooked on the griddle until golden and sometimes even well-done,” he affirms. In much the same way, his Long Island patty melt is another hometown hero, the ground beef pressed between griddled rye bread and peeking out from under a deluge of swiss cheese, fragrant yellow mustard, pickles, and caramelized onions. Weekends bring velvety sausage gravy over dense maple-cheddar biscuits (sold on their own during the week) and a decadent steak-and-eggs plate with hot-sauce-hollandaise-drizzled rib eye.
Daytime is also when Sunday in Brooklyn shows off its dining room’s many acute angles to go with its angularly cute waitstaff and shabby-chic patrons. Much of the design was inherited from Isa, and I’m glad they kept the dramatic firewood wall and “urban chic” ultra-cozy vibe. They’ve settled right in while staking their claim with a market area across from the open kitchen, where you’ll find takeaway grain bowls and those roasted Japanese sweet potatoes, as well as pastries, including a suspiciously cake-like carrot “bread” spread with dense gingery cream cheese. The stylish cold cases also hold rows of pickles and other condiments that showcase Young’s “low waste” ethos, which is another way of saying that he’s constantly looking for ways to repurpose. So broccoli stems take a brine bath, and soured plums are sold whole or as tart jam. Funky sambal changes color depending on whether they have red or green cherry bomb peppers, but what sets it apart is the inclusion of thick-stemmed fermented celtuce, which the chef says “has the flavor of aged meat or charcuterie.” On his menus, the chunky chile sauce anoints Japanese sweet potato chips for a fun bar snack and ignites a voluminous mezcal bloody mary.
At dinner, a squat, old-fashioned furnace roars away under dimmed lights across from the jagged natural-wood bar in the main dining area, helping Sunday in Brooklyn perfectly channel the type of urbane lodges that have popped up around the Catskills in recent years. The evening menu straddles a similar refined-rustic edge: Shavings of ham and lamb tongue are crisped up in the wood-fired oven for an appetizer, and juicy pork loin chops — aged and tenderized for two months in a mixture of pasty sake lees and koji (the bacteria responsible for miso) — get a last-minute roasting before joining soured mustard greens and hazelnut Dijon mustard on the plate. Petite honeynut squash come dressed with nuts and seeds and a smooth scoop of cultured cream cheese. And whole Boston mackerel are charred on the wood grill and dressed with lemon juice and earthy fig leaf oil, then laureled with a colorful, refreshing salad of raw sunchokes, pickled Hungarian wax peppers, and both pink and green meat radishes. Both the mackerel and that black cod, offered alone as a starter, make an excellent case for eating more fatty fish.
Dessert’s a streamlined affair, no more than three or four options on any given night. You won’t walk away disappointed from tangoing with thin slivers of burnt honey tart lashed with sheep’s-milk cream and curls of quince. Nor will you likely be able to resist finishing the orbs of fried sourdough doughnuts piled next to creamy whipped beeswax honey and a cup of peach jam. Still, no one will fault you for holding out for a walnut-speckled sticky bun, which you can snag on your way out.
Sunday in Brooklyn
348 Wythe Avenue, Brooklyn; 347-222-6722
Casa Amadeo doesn’t just sell records: Thanks to Mike Amadeo’s love of music, and talent for creating it, the store has started and supported Latin-music careers for most of its history. “I started shopping at Casa Amadeo when I was 13 years old,” says Jason Molina, now 33. “I bought my first LP there, Héctor Lavoe’s Comedia.” To local Latin-music fans, Molina is Jumpin’ Jay, one of the main DJs on La Mega 97.9, spinning and announcing from midnight to 6 a.m., Monday through Thursday. He found many of the songs he spins, particularly the classics, while browsing Casa Amadeo’s stacks.
Before Molina became a DJ, he studied accounting and information technology, staying in touch with his passion for music through frequent visits to Casa Amadeo. “I kept going back because [Amadeo’s] such a nice guy,” he says. “That was my store to get anything, especially salsa. Mr. Amadeo knows his music.”
Amadeo has a good ear because he’s a skilled musician himself, and he often encourages his customers to try making their own songs instead of just listening. “He’s a resource for young musicians,” explains Harvey Averne, 79, a former Latin recording artist turned producer who has taken home two Grammys for his work on Latin soul albums. “If you tell him you play trumpet, he’ll tell you who you need to listen to, or if you’re a singer, who you should study.”
A legend in his own right, Averne marveled for years over the influence of just one man and his store, even though he’d never talked to the proprietor himself. “We finally met for the first time six months ago,” Averne explains. “We hung out for about three hours. He started pulling all my productions out, and in the end he pulled out some orange-flavored moonshine.”
The two old-timers bonded over what everyone connects with at Casa Amadeo: history, shared culture, and a love of music. “He’s outlasted everything and you can’t replace him,” Averne says. “Nobody runs a shop like him.”
On Saturday, April 16, record shops throughout New York wedge open their doors for Record Store Day. The nationwide annual event began in 2008, at the height of record store colony collapse disorder, to “celebrate the unique culture of [independent] record stores and the special role [they] play in their communities.” Its creator is Chris Brown (no, not that one), the marketing manager at Bull Moose Records, a chain of indie shops with twelve locations throughout Maine and New Hampshire. As he said in 2014 of the ever-growing blowout, “We want to let people know that great store in your town would be there as long as you want it to be.”
If the Record Store Day website is to be believed, though, the only stores worth supporting are ones whose customers would swoon at the idea of waiting hours in line to buy Xiu Xiu Plays the Music of Twin Peaks, one of this year’s RSD-exclusive releases. It turns out this holiday is really a sort of Black Friday for music obsessives who keep Pitchfork tabbed continuously open on their browsers, right next to the Pirate Bay and Spotify. Record Store Day exists to remind them to support their local shops instead of just streaming or stealing — that is, as long as those shops fit within hip confines. Stores that sell to other listening demographics are left to celebrate unofficially on their own terms, if they celebrate at all.
We don’t think Big Indie should have all the fun. There are dozens of shops across the boroughs just as deserving of the spirit of Record Store Day, even if the main festivities exclude them because they dare not to be trendy. So, to help you plan your holiday, the Voice sent its music contributors to check out the unsung heroes of local record store culture. While some of them are offering special sales and events, none will sell you the much-hyped official releases (when we called Human Head to ask if they would be offering RSD exclusives, “Absolutely not” came the acid-dripping reply). But they will sell you almost anything else, and your collection will be stronger for it. Happy Record Store Day, and happy digging. — Zoë Leverant
786 Prospect Avenue, Bronx
Casa Amadeo is not unlike your abuelo’s living room. Owner Miguel “Mike” Angel Amadeo’s record shop has been a community space for makers of Latin music to shop and schmooze for nearly half a century. “Forty-seven years have passed and I’m still here,” he says with a smile.
The store is the longest chapter in Amadeo’s musical career, which he began at sixteen, when he wrote his first song shortly after leaving Bayamó?n, Puerto Rico, for New York. He shared his romantic lyrics with Latin acts, penning hits like “Que Me Lo Den en Vida,” which was performed by Puerto Rican superstars El Gran Combo. Amadeo also wrote all ten tracks for his Latin Grammy-nominated nephew Tito Nieves’s album, aptly titled Entre Familia (Among Family). The shop opened in 1969, when he purchased the storefront from famous Puerto Rican composer Rafael Hernandez and his sister Victoria.
Amadeo has been a mentor, inspiration, and songwriter for generations of Latin musicians. Framed and signed photos by stars from Ray Barretto to Selena line the walls. He prizes an autographed copy of Celia Cruz’s hit “Son con Guaguanco,” a gift for contributing two songs to her album. Amadeo is also a keeper of traditions, preserving a range of classic Afro-Latino sounds — bomba, plena, son, guaracha, and the New York blend of those rhythms we call salsa — on cassette, CD, and wax. Crate-diggers at Casa Amadeo might find cuts from obscure merengueros from the 1960s, or from an upcoming local singer.
Now in his eighties, Amadeo has a full head of snow-white hair and plenty of energy to continue running his business, which was landmarked in 2001. “I’ll be 82 in May, but I seem 28, right?” he jokes in Spanish. With another birthday coming up, will he close up shop soon? “No,” he says. “I don’t think about it.” — Desiree Brown
57-03 Catalpa Avenue, Queens
Despite being a baby in record-store years — the place celebrates its first birthday later this month — Deep Cuts adds more to its neighborhood than the average shop. It’s open from 1 to 8 p.m. Thursday through Sunday for relaxed mornings and after-work digging hours. In addition to being wildly well stocked, Deep Cuts abides by a buy-sell-trade ethos that puts the emphasis on the “trade” part to keep locals coming back. In the summer, it hosts a record lovers’ barbecue every Saturday in the backyard.
What else would you expect from a store whose logo is a giant, stuffed, cheese-grinning, Velvet Underground-meets-Peter Tosh rasta banana? A shop that posts memes to its official Facebook page instructing fans and followers not to “judge people by skin color, religion, or sexual orientation” but instead on the content of their record collection? The folks at Deep Cuts take fun seriously, without compromising either work ethic or quality.
Its quickly growing fan base cites how super helpful the staff is — look elsewhere for the elitist iteration of “chill” that’s the punchline of every joke about dudes who work in record stores. Here, you’ve got folks psyched about barbecue, photographs of Slayer holding rescue puppies, and tribute altars to Selena (R.I.P., baby girl). Their stock is ridiculous, too — a total lack of wallet-punishers and a healthy quantity of reasonably priced rarities and foreign pressings. If you show up wanting new-to-you wax but without a sense of what exactly you need, don’t worry: Just start in the “Weird Shit” section and work your way out to heaven. — Meredith Graves
House of Oldies
35 Carmine Street, Manhattan
Fancy a piece of paper containing John Lennon’s handwritten “want list” of 45s for his personal jukebox? Tough — you can’t have it. It’s reserved for Bob Abramson’s kids and grandkids. But many other gems can be gleaned from the packed-to-the-gills Carmine Street store, run since 1969 by Abramson, still youthful at 73.
House of Oldies Rare Records offers up to 250,000 pieces of collectible vinyl — and only vinyl. As the sign in the window states: “No CDs, no tapes.” Don’t look for $2 bargains, though. “I used to buy record stores that went out of business, thirty, forty years ago, when the stuff was new,” says Abramson. “We pride ourselves on the condition of our records.” You won’t find Adele or White Stripes vinyl, either: Nothing in stock has a pressing date past the late Eighties. But if you’re flush, you can grab a complete set of Elvis Presley’s Sun recordings, or Buddy Holly’s 1957 debut album, which goes for about $800. And, if you’re not feeling spendy, it’s fun — and encouraged — to gawk.
Up to 60 percent of Abramson’s sales are to out-of-towners, and he doesn’t sell over the internet. He will answer questions about his stock via email, though, because he likes to be a fount of knowledge for any and all record lovers, which these days means a lot of teenagers. “I handle everything myself. That’s my desire,” he explains. “This is a labor of love, and it’s a lot of fun, and I’m trying to keep it that way, so I don’t have to retire.” — Katherine Turman
168 Johnson Avenue, Brooklyn
Weekend afternoons mean shoulder-to-shoulder action in the aisles at Human Head. On a recent Saturday morning, it was packed less than an hour after opening. Surveying the crowd, co-owner Travis Klein laughed with one customer about the “relaxation” possibilities provided by the rare (and massive) rolling paper that’s included in an original copy of Cheech & Chong’s Big Bambu.
Human Head has been fostering this active but homey vibe since 2013. With sizable sections of Latin, reggae, and jazz titles bolstering a boatload of classic rock, Klein and partner Steve Smith want to make sure every customer can find something cool. The stock is forever fluid, and the owners’ hunt for interesting wax is perpetual. Klein’s voice gets animated when he talks about heading to a Connecticut record fair to bring back the good stuff. “I never want people to walk away disappointed,” he says, “never be like, ‘Aww, man, that place really didn’t have anything.'”
He has nothing to worry about: Here, rarities mix with bargains, with dollar finds ranging from $2 to $6 a pop. The place goes full tilt on Record Store Day, albeit on its own terms, since it’s proudly unaffiliated with the official event. Last year it was a guy cutting digital files into records on a lathe. This time it’s 20 percent off everything, 6,000 albums for 25 cents apiece, and burgers on the grill. “Selling records in NYC is great because [people from] all walks of life come in,” says Klein. “I’m from Wisconsin. If I was [there] right now I’d only be selling rock, country, and polka. This is lots more fun.” — Jim Macnie
1001 Manhattan Avenue, Brooklyn
Before I moved to New York City, I told a friend that my life here would be complete when I had three things: an apartment of my own, a bicycle, and a typewriter. A few months later, looking for a sign that the move was a good choice, I stumbled across a red Olivetti typewriter for thirty bucks outside the most cluttered disaster of a store I’d ever seen. I’d found The Thing, Greenpoint’s ongoing Hoarders-inspired performance art project and one of the city’s best, and weirdest, record stores.
Yelp reviews for The Thing are both spot-on and vaguely terrifying, mentioning excessive dust (“Have some tissues and Benadryl ready”), which only worsens once you start digging (“If risking your respiratory health is something you are OK with, then The Thing is a must”) and sometimes includes gifts from the locals (“I had to blow mouse droppings off any records I took from the very top of the stacks”). Bragging rights aren’t just about what you unearth there, but the simple fact that you made it out alive.
So what makes it worth it? All the records are just $2, for starters, which is a great price whether you’re shopping for rare gems to add to your DJ set or stuff to flip on Discogs. There’s the fact that it has zero qualities of most “cool” Brooklyn record stores (meaning it’s comfortable and not socially exhausting). Plus, there are the bragging rights: You’ve got to be a vinyl addict to make it through, willing to spend the hours required to suss out the gems you will inevitably find in the basement of this lovable shit-show. — Meredith Graves
170-21 Jamaica Avenue, Queens
Entering the retail outlet for VP Records is like walking into the video for Sean Paul’s “Get Busy,” but with better lighting and fewer people. Nevertheless, the vibes here are on point, with owner Patricia Chin’s great-nephew spinning vinyl behind the register in between ringing up customers.
When Chin and her husband, Vincent (the V and P in “VP Records”), moved to New York from Kingston, Jamaica, in the mid-1970s, they already had an ear for the best music from home and a knack for business. At the time, reggae producers and artists sold their own records directly to customers. Chin and her husband opened VP as a storefront in 1979 to help artists distribute their music more widely and efficiently. Aaron Talbert, who runs sales and marketing for the label, says they stood out because “they bought and sold to everybody.”
VP Records expanded to become a label in 1993, becoming home to popular acts in the reggaesphere and putting crossover artists such as Sean Paul, Beenie Man, and Gyptian on the map — and, in the cases of Sean Paul and Gyptian, on U.S. charts. The store and label have both morphed as the tastes of their audience have evolved. Now collectors from across New York and sometimes visitors from around the world come not just for reggae but for dancehall and soca, too.
Much of what VP sells is hard to find anywhere else, and that’s what makes the store both historic and still relevant. “People come here to see the original stuff, and get the feel for the actual location,” Talbert says. “To get a feel for the home of music.” Big ups. — Atiba Rogers
233 West 72nd Street, Manhattan
Walk into Westsider Records on 72nd Street, just off Broadway, and a bric-a-brac vibe hits you: This neighborhood fixture is a mecca of the miscellaneous. Albums, CDs, and books reach to the ceiling, with hand-lettered dividers designating micro-sections that include “POETRY” and “KEYBOARD” (Carl Sandburg in the former, Handel in the latter). With discs spread out on the floor and stacked in tipsy cairns, a sense of possibility dawns: You realize you could find all sorts of stuff here.
Westsider’s sometime manager, full-time enthusiast Bruce Eder, a music and film maven who wrote pop criticism for the Voice in the 1980s, is proud of the shop’s scope. He can advise customers on which Psychic TV title to choose, with the Sibelius Concerto by Heifetz playing in the background. Above the cash register is a copy of The Consummate Artistry of Ben Webster, a jazz classic. In front of it, one of the silliest records of the Eighties: Shimmy Disc’s Rutles Highway Revisited.
There are two Westsider locations; this is the one with the records (80th Street is just books). Regardless of its longstanding rep as a haven for classical and jazz items, there’s plenty of pop, too. Tourists turn up often, and last week a family visiting from Washington State picked up a Sinatra title they’d been hunting for (and the Shimmy Disc, too). Though the shop doesn’t carry new pressings, the recent upsurge in all things vinyl has increased traffic. “Now instead of people looking for a cool cover to decorate their dorm room, they’re actually buying these things to play,” Eder says, grinning. “And they’re discovering a lot of history along the way.” — Jim Macnie
When the dance music record label and distributor Downtown 161 started up in New York in 1991, house music was hitting its stride. The imprint specialized in sometimes-hard-to-find records from across the U.S., fueling DJ sets and influencing the scene locally and nationally. While it never had a full-fledged store, it opened its Lower Manhattan stockroom once a week to fans, who could browse and buy at their leisure. In 2005, as record sellers transitioned to the internet, Downtown 161 became Downtown 304, an online shop that includes a wide variety of dance music imports from today’s centers of electronic music, like Berlin and London.
The shop still has no storefront, but through its Brooklyn headquarters, buyer and warehouse manager Federico Rojas says, it develops relationships with customers, who often pick up purchases in person. “It’s very one-on-one,” he says. “It’s just me and the owner, Joe [D’Espinosa]. So we’re kickin’ it. I see what [they’ve] bought and maybe make suggestions.” This personal touch, along with Downtown 304’s wide variety of new electronic releases in genres like techno and house, makes it an essential resource for the electronic music community in New York and beyond. “In our subculture, we’re part of what creates the vibrancy and the diversity,” Rojas says. That also means embracing competition. “There’s so much variety, you can’t expect to monopolize everything,” he says. “It’s better to be positive and encourage growth across the board. We all do well from that.” — Sophie Weiner
Photos by Santiago Felipe for the Village Voice
On a particularly cold and wet late-December afternoon, chef Anita Lo is looking for sea bass. Potato leaves, too, to finish off a mackerel dish. Her purveyor shorted her on the sea bass and the potato leaves weren’t quite the quality she requires so, as she often does, Lo biked down from her West Village restaurant, Annisa (13 Barrow Street; 212-741-6699) to Grand Street in Chinatown, to hunt for them.
Lo’s mother is from Malaysia. Her father, who passed away when she was a child, is from Shanghai. Her stepfather is American, from Denver. And she grew up in Michigan. None of this plays too much into Lo’s food. French-trained with over three decades in the New York City food scene, she puts touches of Asian flavors and ingredients on her menu, but doesn’t consider herself an Asian cook by any means. Annisa means “women” in Arabic, and her Malaysian is minimal: “I was really young and really rebellious,” she says. “Going to school to learn Malaysian was taking up my Saturday mornings when I should have been watching cartoons like other Midwestern kids.”
But Lo loves wandering Chinatown, and over the years has found gems she comes to rely on for tofu noodles and dumplings, and enough options for fresh fish on any given day. No shop is a sure-fire thing, though: “To get good fish down here, you have to shop around,” she claims, “because the quality is different per day at different stores. I usually go to at least three.”
So she sets off in search of her sea bass and potato stems, stopping into other shops on the way to point out their particular value or to reminisce about things she’s bought there in the past.
Her first stop is the Tan Tin-Hung Supermarket at 121 Bowery, which is densely stocked with a variety of mostly Thai and Vietnamese groceries. Quail eggs sit next to papayas, Thai basil and Vietnamese pork sausage. The shelves are lined with so many roots and herbs that don’t translate into English that Lo can’t identify most of them — which excites her.
“We used to serve raw taro stem on the menu as a garnish,” she says, holding up a massive green stalk. “It grows out of the root. You peel it and cut away to get at the white flesh to get these beautiful little porous bites. You don’t get a lot of flavor, but it’s lightly sweet and has a really crunchy texture.”
Lo doesn’t buy anything, but recommends the market for staples and general browsing.
We head south, on the hunt for more of her favorite haunts, and as she passes Fong Inn Too at 46 Mott Street, we stop inside quickly to look at the fresh, hot tofu noodles coming out of the back kitchen.
We meander down Mott, marveling at the gently curving road and the architecture that hasn’t changed much during Lo’s tenure here, until we make it to Bangkok Center Grocery at 104 Mosco Street. Just inside the door, she finds what she brought us here to see: large raku pestles in red clay that are used for making papaya salads on the street in Thailand. “They take a whole green papaya, peel it, and shred it by hitting it with a knife over and over before sliding the papaya off.” She bought a pestle for making papaya salad at the Palm Beach Food and Wine festival a while back, though she admits to using the “hit and shred” technique only for a few minutes before returning to mandolining the flesh away.
Inside, she points out the fresh tamarind, galangal, kefir lime leaves, Thai eggplant and turmeric that are hard to find in such good quality elsewhere. Cans of lychees, longans and rambutans sit in syrup. In the freezer section, she lands on panda (screwpine) leaf. “It’s delicious,” she says. “It’s a little bit like rice and vanilla together. We’re making ice cream out of it, steeping it into the custard base.”
Wandering back up Mulberry, we pass store windows where cardboard replicas of clothes, cars, houses and daily necessities are displayed prominently, looking like “paper doll” versions of every worldly possession you might hope to acquire. Which is, evidently, the point.
“These are Chinese,” Lo laughs. “When Chinese people die, they’ll burn all of this stuff by the grave to send to heaven with them so that they’ll have them there. So they’ll do things like mansions, cell phones, cars… dentures!”
Still headed north, en route to find that fish, we make a quick stop at the Mulberry Meat Market at 89 Mulberry Street so that she can point our her favorite frozen local dumplings. “I get the pork and leek dumplings and the pork and shrimp wontons,” she says. “They’re so cheap, and you can just keep them in the freezer and cook them whenever you want. I used to buy the juicy pork buns but they’re not that juicy. They’re good, but I like the pork and leek the best. I pan fry the pork and leek, and I make wonton soup out of the pork and shrimp wontons. I just cook them in water with some soy sauce, vinegar and Vietnamese chili sauce. Easy.”
We scoop around to 143 Mott Street so she can point out her favorite buns at the Golden Steamer, then pass a few seafood markets that only get a quick glance before she moves on, finally arriving at Dahing Seafood Market at 127 Mott. There’s plenty of fresh seafood on display, like chunky salmon filets and shrimp in various sizes, and she’s impressed with the overall quality today. But no sea bass.
At the Won Chong Trading Corp at 139 Mott, she finds the potato leaves, picking through bags and holding them to the light before selecting the two that will come back to Annisa with her. She points out yama emo — a yam she dubs the “slime vegetable” for its tendency to turn viscous when cooked down. There are beautiful garlic chive buds that are a little overgrown but, in December, miraculous in their existence. And there are scores of other, more common fruits and vegetables, like kohlrabi, cucumbers, various greens and citrus fruits.
Finally, she wanders across the street to the New York Mart at 128 Mott in one final attempt to find fish. And fish they have — there are live shrimp and crabs, a bin that we deduce are jellyfish without the tentacles, and even alligator claws, ferocious and dragon-like, welcoming patrons toward the front of the store. Lo sometimes stops in here for prepared foods, and the quality of the fish is spectacular: “I’ve never seen a lot of the things in there,” she says.
Leaving empty-handed, she’s back on the street and pondering the special she’ll run to make up for the lack of sea bass. But since Annisa only has 48 seats, she’ll most likely dream up something manageable by the time she makes it back to her bike. Probably something a bit more traditional than jellyfish or alligator claws. But in Chinatown, you never know.
Move over Brooklyn — New York’s other “B” borough has an artisanal food boom all its own going on – everything from an eponymously-named hot sauce and a Puerto Rican moonshine to fermented foods and healthy snacks.
The Bronx is emerging as a natural incubator for small food companies. With Hunts Point (the world’s largest produce market), reasonable rents and a supportive community, it’s no surprise that the borough is attracting talent. “The Bronx doesn’t want to be Manhattan,” says John Crotty, co-creator of Bronx Hot Sauce.
And it doesn’t need to — as anyone who ventures to New York City’s northernmost district has discovered, the Bronx has a flavor all its own. We set out to sample some of the new culinary delights blossoming in the borough, an area already steeped in the food traditions of Arthur Avenue, City Island, and an abundance of authentic Caribbean and Spanish foods.
Crock & Jar
If you think you know what sauerkraut tastes like, think again. Crock & Jar uses your grandmother’s techniques to achieve a modern take on fermented classics. Founder and “Chief Food Preservationist” Michaela Hayes use sustainably grown, locally harvested produce and makes small batches out of a community center kitchen at the Mary Mitchell Family Center in the Crotona Park neighborhood. Hayes, a French Culinary Institute graduate, started off making chutneys for the acclaimed Tabla restaurant. She moved on to establish a pickle program for Gramercy Tavern. In 2011, she founded Crock & Jar. The products — all live, probiotic foods — are as healthy as they are addictive, and include a jalapeño relish that makes an instant guacamole when mixed with avocado; a spicy kraut with dried chilies, and a beet kraut flavored with apples, fennel and cabbage.
When Erica Fair realized she couldn’t eat gluten, she didn’t want to give up taste. She started her own bakery in 2010 and was baking about twice a week for five different accounts. These days she’s baking six days a week, adding customers steadily and building out her own kitchen space in the South Bronx. “Brooklyn gets all the hype, but it’s oversaturated and expensive,” says Fair. Her supplier is close by at Hunts Point and the rents are reasonable. You can find her delectable cakes at high-end coffee places around the city including Birch, Café Grumpy and Think cafes. For Aussie coffee spot Bluestone, she makes a salted caramel slice with an almond meal, coconut and sorghum flour cookie-crust, filled with caramel and topped with chocolate and sea salt.
Pulse Roasted Chickpeas
About a decade ago, Linda Kim shared a snack with a friend – Armenian roasted chickpeas. It was a bite that (eventually) launched this healthy Bronx-made treat. At the end of 2012, Kim started her snack company with 200 pounds of chickpeas. Now she orders 2,000-pound pallets. Thanks to an early flash sale on FAB.com she got great exposure, and her background in sales helped her get into Whole Foods. A buyer for Fresh Direct sampled her chickpeas at a benefit event and later got Kim to sell them on the company’s website. The snack is high in fiber, gluten-free and full of plant protein. Flavors include sea salt and garlic, spicy lemon zest, coconut sugar and truffle. Kim also created a cross between a sport and a chocolate bar with her latest Pulse product – a crunchy chocolate vegan bark using coconut oil, sugar and dark chocolate.
Essie Bartels likes to see herself as a mad scientist of flavor. Founded just two years ago, Essie Spice combines the seasonings of her native Ghana with the flavors of her travels around the world. “I blend the best of the cuisines,” she says. In her “Coco-for-Garlic,” Bartels mixes coconut oil and garlic, as well as roasted peppers and some West African spices such as nutmeg and Grains of Selim (also known as African pepper). Her most traditional spice mix, Meko Dry Rub, marries African and Asian seasoning including a roasted ground peanut powder and five-spice.
Mrs. Kim’s Kimchi
Gina Kim, who started a Korean food company with her mom after she retired, says she’s thankful for her Bronx artisanal community. “It’s like a family.” She often gets retail tips from the other owner/makers in the incubator kitchen they share. The mother-daughter team entered the retail market in 2014 after successful stints at local weekend food markets like Smorgasburg. What makes her kimchi so much better than mass produced versions? Besides using copious amounts of garlic and scallions, Mrs. Kim insists on hand selecting all the cabbage and other vegetables that go into the dish. “Mom is really particular and meticulous,” says Gina. She also adds whatever looks fresh, like Fiji apples and Asian pears. The Kims only use pepper flakes from Korea for the most authentic taste. They sell three versions – original, vegan and mild (great for kids).
The Bronx Hot Sauce
Here’s a product that’s all about community — literally. Last year, Small Axe Peppers, the partnership behind the Hot Sauce, donated serrano pepper seedlings to 23 community gardens in the Bronx with the agreement that they would buy them back from the growers at market price at harvest time. They made 5,000 bottles of the spicy condiment with the local peppers. Chef King Phojanakong, who is a Bronx Science grad and a nursery school friend of one of the pepper company’s co-founders John Crotty, created the sauce. This year enough seedlings for 30,000 bottles were distributed. Each bottle has deep roots in the area – Crotty is a developer of affordable housing in the Bronx and GrowNYC, the Greenmarket’s parent organization, supports the gardens. A majority of the profits from sales of the sauce will be returned to low income communities in the city. The next step: the team hopes to start selling half-gallon containers of the sauce to restaurants.
Port Morris Distillery
It took about two years for Port Morris Distillery to produce its first bottle of Puerto Rican moonshine, Pitorro Shine, in 2013. The three-ingredient family recipe uses New York state apples, local honey and brown sugar. “My uncle was a long time moonshiner on the island,” says Ralph Barbosa, who co-founded the company with his childhood friend William Valentin. They convinced Ralph’s uncle to move to the Bronx and legally make his hooch. The 92-proof liquor is often macerated with tamarind, honey or habanero. For the holiday season, there’s an infusion with coconut and cinnamon called Coquito. Pitorro Shine and Pitorro Anejo, an 80-proof version aged in oak barrels, are sold in stores and served in NYC bars and restaurants. The distillery offers free tours and tastings as well as a cocktail bar, and next year they’re planning to open a restaurant next door.
For all the supposed joy of the holiday season, gift shopping can bring out the Grinch in the best of us. Regardless of how well you think you know your friends and loved ones, that perfect item remains stubbornly elusive. Your dad clearly doesn’t need another tie, and a gift card to the iTunes store is far too impersonal to carry any lasting significance.
But there’s a simple solution: booze. It’s fun to shop for, everyone loves getting it, and it’s readily available all across town. It also runs the gamut of pricing, so you can land on an appropriate bottle for naughty and nice alike. Here’s a look at some stocking stuffers this winter to please everyone from casual acquaintance to devoted spouse. Invest appropriately, and you might even end up turning the former into the latter.
Like most brown liquors, Cognac is enjoying a renaissance in New York. The double-distilled grape spirit from southern France is turning up in more cocktails, while it continues to reveal its virtue and accessibility as a soulful sipping beverage. There’s also some damn good deals to be had from quality producers. Celebrating its 250th anniversary this year, Hennessy unleashed a collector’s edition release that retailed at $650 a bottle. It flew off the shelves. The elegant expression, packaged accordingly, is befitting of a loved one. But if you’re shopping for a co-worker, or a semi-decent friend, the brand offers their VS Holiday Gift Box at a far more affordable pricepoint. The juice inside, aged for at least two years in French oak, will surely deceive the gifted into thinking you spent at least double the $32 it commands at most liquor stores.
At a similar price, Hochstadter’s Vatted Straight Rye Whiskey is a veritable steal. The blend incorporates grain spirit from across North America, much of which fetches a statelier sum when packaged in prettier bottles. Don’t fall for the hype — it’s what inside that counts. And the rye lovers in your life will surely appreciate Cooper Spirits’ mixture of slightly spicy stock, ranging from four to 15 years in age. A throwback label imbues the gift with a nostalgic edge, best appreciated by seasoned drinkers. Give this one to dad — or grandma, if she’s a badass.
While nobody wants coal in their stocking, Scotch lovers wouldn’t necessarily mind a similar flavor profile in their whisky bottle. Oblige them with Bowmore Small Batch Single Malt. It’s a meditation on bourbon-like tones of oak and vanilla, peered through the peat bogs of the Scottish isles. Straddling that chasm between smoky and sweet, it exists as a sensible Scotch for bourbon aficionados. Best of all, it sits on the shelf at the inviting price of $40 a bottle. A tremendous value for any single malt scotch, particularly one arriving in any easily wrap-able gift box.
Beer, too, can be a thoughtful present. Though a six pack of Coors Light might be pushing it, craft beer connoisseurs in your circle are likely clamoring for something a bit more exclusive. Seek out the 2015 editions of the Bourbon County Brand Stouts, from Goose Island. Aged for a year in ex-bourbon barrels, these heavy-hitting dark ales upwards of 10% in ABV, age beautifully, and are always in high demand after their annual release, the day after Thanksgiving. Here in the city, you’ll be able to find the original stout, as well as the Barleywine, and coffee-infused variations at most high-end bottle shops. They’ll typically range from $10-15 a pop, so you won’t be too intimidated to secure the entire set. Thick on the tongue, with lingering notes of vanilla, caramel, and roasted cocoa, it’s dessert disguised as beer.
If you’re looking for something seasonally-inspired to bring to an upcoming holiday party, Brooklyn Brewery and Captain Lawrence Brewing out of Westchester, each produce their own take on a Winter Ale. Brooklyn’s is a take on a scotch-style beer, with creamy notes of caramelized malt. Captain Lawrence’s is a solid example of a winter warmer, brewed with tongue-tingling spices reminiscent of nutmeg and clove. Both beers are in bottle throughout the city, retailing at under $12 a six pack.
If you want to make your gift a bit more immersive, The New York Beer and Brewery Tour is just the ticket. For $115, attendees get a four-hour adventure highlighting a few of the best brewpubs and beer bars of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens. Beer, food tastings, and transportation are included.
For something a bit more playful, if not far more expensive, the Whisky Advent Calendar from Master of Malt is a welcome surprise. The 24 day countdown to Christmas is honored with two dozen, wax-sealed 3cl drams of single malt, each hidden behind their own cardboard window. The set, available for $188 online, includes an exclusive 50-year-old Scotch, Japanese whisky, and other rarities, some of which go for as much as $500 in full bottle format. If you haven’t ordered it already, fret not, whisky lovers will surely have little problem playing catchup to arrive at the proper day of the calendar. Alternatively, you could enjoy them all on Christmas, to make your in-laws that much more tolerable.
No alcohol crams as much festivity into the bottle as bubbly. And the world’s most renowned Champagne brand has packaged something special this winter to light up the lives of your loved ones. Dom Perignon’s Luminous Collection includes a ten year old vintage, branded with it’s own backlit label, available in several colors. The $250 bottle isn’t overly extravagant, and it expertly navigates the thin line between classy and flashy. Plus, there’s the added bonus that whomever your gifting it to might pop it open in your presence. A gift that keeps on giving. Even after the bottle runs out, it still makes a radiant mantle piece. The glowing glass is now only offered on-premise, but Shoppers Wines in Union, New Jersey is currently offering a limited allotment on discount for December. Easier on the wallet is Veuve Cliquot Brut’s holiday gift bag. The special packaging includes a space to sign and dedicate the offering, and the water resistant packaging doubles as a makeshift ice box.