Shopsin's: As Good As Its Reputation
Shopsin's in New York is well-known as being an incredible diner: at its previous location in the West Village, it boasted a menu with over 1,000 items. In its new cubby at one end of the Essex market (at the corner of Essex and Rivington, in the Lower East Side), it lives in a small unadorned area without even a sign for a name, and the sparse clattering of tables seems like it's the set for some TV version of a diner rather than the real thing. The menu is not 1,000 items right now, but it's still dazzling.
Shopsin's promises a lot, and it delivers the goods. It's inexpensive and the ambience is open, friendly, casual, and high-energy. I chatted with several other patrons during my time there, with the conversation centering around the exciting food and menu. I ordered what my smiling, harried waitress warned me was too much food: a huevos rancheros and a "chocolate banana nut french toast bread pudding" (typical). The huevos came out steaming hot and fresh, and nicely spicy, just as I requested it. The eggs were cheesy and runny and golden and served as a blazing anchor for the stew-like vegetable-and-beans next to it. The color and presentation worked well. Fresh corn tortillas acted as the traditional sop.
The bread pudding was simple but craveable, with the cooked multi-textured bread pieces contasting against the textures of the chocolate and the banana in a homey harmony. My only slight complaint is that it was a little dry -- maple syrup helped, but at the cost of obscuring some of its flavors.
All in all, this is an incredibly fun restaurant with a great atmosphere and value. My only pan is that there are too few tables: you're liable to wait, especially if you come with a group. I plan to come back over and over anyway...
The Vegetarian New Yorker: http://vegny.blogspot.com/
Woke up this morning, fiance is out of town, and the apartment felt too quiet. My dog? Not a good conversationalist. I knew there was only one place to go: Shopsin's. Slid into an empty spot on the counter and I knew my day would immediately be better. "You want breakfast Lunch?" "Everything!" I said. "That's what I like to hear."
Chatted with Melinda and Zach a little, met their other brother (Denny, I think). Kenny came out for a breather and was his usual self. "I'm in a bad mood" "Now how do you feel?" "I'm in a good mood, but now everybody else was in a bad mood!" Denny ordered some sliders and his brothers and sisters all grabbed bites of his food.
Ah, yes, the food: I had bacon and egg pancakes. Small pancakes with scrambled eggs and pieces of bacon pressed into the batter as they good. Great with some butter, maple syrup, and hot sauce. I picked up the Siracha sauce from the counter, and Melinda offered me some of their homemade BBQ sauce. It's nice and spicy, and vinegary, kind of like a better Tabasco. Went great with the pancakes.
Shopsin's is one of a kind. Well, it's kind of like eating in the home of a cranky, loud, boisterous, messy, hilarious family that isn't yours. You don't go to be coddled, although they'll treat you right, feed you, include you in their conversations, and tell you jokes about Shari Lewis, who apparently always ordered lamb chops in restaurants because she thought it was funny.
Shopsin's is a one-of-a-kind experience. That's not to say a necessarily comfortable one. What makes it distinctive will have the side effect of making it pleasingly novel and rewarding for some, intolerably inhospitable and oppressively not-about-the-food for others. For anyone sufficiently interested in food that they're trawling through this site in the first place, then it's almost indisputably worth a visit. My first trip was a few days ago, on Friday May 23. The below are first impressions, so should not be treated as any definitive assessment. But I paid close attention so that others might be tempted to do the same.
* I walk over to the stall, and Kenny is sitting in a chair near the three tables set up to the side of the counter, loudly holding court about Michelle Pfeiffer's movies with a young twenty-something Asian female sitting at the counter. Roughly every third sentence he speaks contains the f-word or some derivative.
* I sit at one of the three side tables. I ask the waiter (who I think is one of Kenny's sons) for chicken avocado tortilla soup with no cilantro (enjoy the flavor, but mild allergy causes it to flood my mouth with bitterness). He asks how hot I want it on a scale of 1 to 10; I ask for 6. I then ask also for a half-order of slutty cakes. The response to the half-order: "He says no." I get up to grab an extra menu and swing by the kitchen door on the way back to my seat and ask what's this about no. "He says no." Kenny joins in: "It's too much food." My response is that it will be my only meal of the day. Kenny: "So go f*ck yourself. Eat this first."
* I go back to my table. I eat the soup. A possible criticism is that there is no blended flavor at all. The soup is a fast series, not a quiet merger, of flavors. I understand that Kenny prides himself on making every soup to order, with only chicken stock as the pre-prepared component. That approach will more likey result in a heterogeneity of taste, so arguably that criticism is unfair. Like judging a sports car based on trunk capacity. I enjoy the soup tremendously--crisp fresh cabbage, chunks of soft and not-too-sweet hominy, soft fleshy avocado. Incidentally, notwithstanding the suggestion in Calvin Trillin's New Yorker article (or more accurately of the waitress referenced therein) to the contrary, the heat in the spicy dishes is not substantial. The duck salad and spicy pork chop I ordered "mild" at Sriphiphai two weeks ago was many times as spicy as the "6" at Shopsin's, which was just there enough to start pleasing.
* The best thing about the soup was that, though the components barely blended, the series of flavors was as enjoyable as it was utterly unfamiliar. And the flavors seemed logical, natural together. (You put toothpaste on lamb and you'll get something unfamiliiar all right, but something jarring and contrived. The last time I tasted something this unfamiliar but "right" was the foie gras brulee at Jean Georges.) I've been rolling around the flavors of that soup in my head for the last few days, like a kid worrying a loose tooth with his tongue. That's always a good sign.
* As I eat, the young Asian woman at the counter calls to Kenny, "Hey, Kenny, this is really good today." Without a pause, Kenny calls back out from the kitchen, "Yeah, we took out the secret stuff that keeps Asians from reproducing." The delivery man rolls in with his hand trolley at 11:55am to drop off supplies, and Kenny shouts, "Nice time to show up, a**hole."
* For the record, I could have and would have accommodated a nice half-order of slutty cakes. But after finishing the soup, why validate the guy's rudeness by requesting them again? As much as I wanted to know what they tasted like, there's a point at which dignity requires that self-regard trump edification. As I handed Kenny the check and the money, he asks "Now wasn't that enough?" I simply said "It was good" and left. (If he wasn't interested in what I was thinking when I ordered, he's not suddenly interested now.)
* Here's the deal: The food is great. The guy is obviously an extremely talented chef and intelligent guy. If one meal is any indication at all, the atmosphere can range from refreshingly strange to mildly alienating to distractingly oppressive, between the guy's gunshot sentences and abrasive personality, and the deer-eyed, permanent-smiled obsequiousness of the relatively young, south-of-14th-street types that appear to haunt the place regularly and sit at the counter and call out first names to those in the kitchen. There's nothing wrong with that, if you're one of the regulars (I know Trillin suggested about the old place that there were no such thing, but either he was wrong or the new place is different), or you don't happen to expect the basic hospitality of a diner-oriented experience. It's too bad that a place with such great food has to be about so much other than the food, and more specifically--and almost arrogantly--about the people behind the counter rather than in front of it.
I've been going to Shopsin's for around twenty years, since I wandered in there one afternoon not knowing if it was a restaurant or a "General Store", as the sign in the front said (this was the original place on Morton Street). I was the only one there. I sat down at one of the tables and, after a few minutes, a boy came out of the back with a notebook and sat down across from me (even though all the other tables were empty). Without looking at me he began to do his math homework. Then Eve came and took my order.
Later, I went with myhusband and son. It was seriously the only place in the West Village that was truly kid-friendly. Not only were there toys all over (the Shopsins have five kids) but the waitress at that time, Julie, would walk around with my son on her shoulders (he loved this) so my husband and I could have a little time to relax and talk to each other.
I've recently started to go to the Essex Street (their third) location and it's great to see Kenny again, though really sad that Eve is gone. He's got one of the boys working in the kitchen and one of the girls (woman, now) seems to be doing a lot there too.(The boy with the math homework is apparently now a software engineer.)
I can't compare Shopsin's to any other restaurant. It can be expensive for what it is, but really it's a whole experience, not just a diner meal. Kenny is a great guy, one of a kind. My favorite thing is the bread pudding, which is extraordinary!
Here's an excerpt from the documentary "I Like Killing Flies", about Shopsin's:
I don't know if the movie's rentable yet, but it's really great. Shopsin's is not for everyone, but it is unique.
I recommend the flick very highly. Ditto Calvin Trillin's NYer article:
"friendly" "smiling" "fun" .... i guess a lot has changed with the new location. I used to occasionally subject myself to the abuse and eccentricities of the couple who ran Shopsin's when it was on Carmine for the sake of a great brunch ... and hopefully a good story. Is the grouchy couple no longer in charge?
shivohum, thanks for posting a review. I went to shopsin's for the first time this year and also had a good experience. I respectfully disagree about shopsin's being inexpensive. Like Clinton Street, breakfast can set you back $20. You do get what you pay for - fresh and delicious. The slutty pancakes are my favorite. I look forward to trying the huevos rancheros based on your experience.