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Ode to Loisaida

Food & Drink

Thompson LES nabe is a gastronaut’s landing pad.

“It’s four in the morning, the end of December/I’m writing you now just to see if you’re better/New York is cold, but I like where I’m living/There’s music on Clinton Street all through the evening.” – “Famous Blue Raincoat,” Leonard Cohen

When the lights finally came back up on Lower Manhattan earlier this month, my wife and I needed to stay at a hotel while we were moving to a new apartment. Nice timing.

Needing proximity to our West Village neighborhood, but desiring as well to be slightly removed from it too—try something new-old on in both of our old stomping grounds–we checked in at the Thompson LES on Allen Street, in the heart of the Lower East Side–a zone that just around the corner Leonard Cohen lived and wrote those haunting, aforementioned lyrics that were playing in my head each night while there.

Our cat, Sonny-Boy Kittyball, already frazzled from being shuffled from place to place, quickly took to the floor-to-ceiling window in our toasty, wood-floored room, where I watched with amazement the gigantic red orb of a sunrise each morn on the East River.

Besides how refreshing it was to have a hotel “super” tell me “I love what I do!”–as he worked a plunger in our bathroom–and that we were even permitted to keep our cat in the spacious environs–we were invigorated by the wealth of choices we had for eating, drinking, and chilling out surrounding the LES.

Of course, there was Blue Ribbon Sushi Izakaya on the second floor below, a sushi destination that we were more than familiar with from living blocks from Blue Ribbon Bakery and the original Blue Ribbon on Sullivan Street.

But when we walked out of the lobby, we were constantly faced with: Where to go? Too many choices. We’ve long bored with our go-to’s in the Village, all of which seem to get more expensive each year.

Here are our top picks–all in or close to the zones of Allen, Stanton, Rivington, and Orchard streets–starting with A Casa Fox, then Boca Chica, Mission Chinese Food, El Sombrero, The Meatball Shop, and Rosario’s Pizza. There were so many more we didn’t get to try.

A Casa Fox (173 Orchard St.) is about as romantic as a cantina restaurant can possibly get. You walk into the cozy storefront space, which seats maybe 50, and you’re hit with the aroma of a working fireplace crackling away and comingling with that of grilling chorizo. The margaritas are made with love (and flecked with pepper), as is the not-to-sweet homemade red sangria.

The chef and owner, Melissa Fox, is one of the most down-to-earth culinary goddesses I’ve encountered. Funny, smart, and makes the most delicious tapas, empanadas, and clay-pot dishes we’ve all ever had. With each visit, we brought more and more friends, who hadn’t experienced it either. And we kept re-ordering our favorites.

Chef Fox’s mom and pop were there one night, holding court and chatting with the customers. Our favorite empanadas ($5) included the portobello-and-smoked gouda, the chorizo and manchego, and the spiced beef and tomato. Tapas, we could not order enough of the chorizo-stuffed dates wrapped in bacon, and the roasted poblano peppers stuffed with rice, beans, pico and queso.

Clay pots: marinated and braised pork short ribs and the carne enchorizada (ground beef cooked in Latin spices, served with tropical and seasonal vegetables).

Our bills were never shockers–as almost no dish costs over $15. After five days, the waiters were like pals of ours, sharing stories, and allowing me to put wood on the fire when it was simmering. It’s a magical little Hobbit house, with candlelight and a sense of out-of-time-ness and –place-ness. I could easily see “L. Cohen,” sincerely, scribbling up lyrics on a pad there.

For a food coma, we’ve always loved El Sombrero (The Hat), and seem to always go for the Dixie Cup-sized margaritas (there’s small, medium, and large). My favorite cheese enchiladas in the city (sue me, purist they ain’t). And as for best slice of pizza in the city, for me, it will always be Rosario’s Pizza, open ‘til 3 a.m., on the corner of Stanton and Orchard. It has that Jersey Boardwalk fold-in-half style and no scrimping on the cheese.

There were lines around the block for The Meatball Shop, one of the original locations of this wildly popular chain. We took ours out, and to our rooms. And one nutty night, I decided I had to see what all the buzz was about Mission Chinese Food, the San Francisco-moniker restaurant that earned multiple stars in the New York Times, and is on every gastronaut’s map. I didn’t make it there until 11 p.m., when some of the items were 86’d. But I enjoyed drinking the little plastic-cup shots of beer you serve yourself from a keg out front. Then I ordered the kung po pastrami, that nod to the nabe and nearby Katz’s (“That’s All!”). Did not disappoint. But man, there is fire in there. I needed about eight glasses of water, and just as many beers to put it out.

This is only a taste of the Lower East Side. But if you’re staying at the Thompson LES, you’re facing an embarrassment of riches…and richness. We’re finally in our new apartment, but will be heading “East” every week now. Got to support the troops. – Steve Garbarino, Editor