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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Yonah Schimmel

The knish is perhaps one of the most distinctly New York City foods, rarely found outside the city environs. Most roads and knish conversations lead to the Yonah Shimmel Knish Bakery on the Lower East Side. You may find the service here a little on the rough side, but this is customer service, olde New York Style, and that means let's get our business done, you know what you want, we've got what you want, we sell it to you, transaction completed. No hand holding. Like the famed Soup Nazi of TV's Seinfeld.
You will also find that the interior has an authentic 1910 decor. But the knowledgeable patron comes here for knishes, not service, decor, or ambiance.

The knish is essentially a baked or fried dumpling-like snack food - a dough-covered filling which is baked or deep-fried. It has its roots in Eastern Europe and is very similar to many Polish, Romanian, Ukrainian, and Austrian pastry-wrapped dumplings. The modern knish is a New York City creation, a food introduced by Jewish immigrants. Knishes come in basically two varieties - square or round. The square style are fried and reheated. Fillings run the gamut, but the classic and most common is the potato filled knish. From the website:

It’s probably just that most tourists—most New Yorkers, even—don’t know the pleasures of a true knish. And by true I mean not the square, soggy, fried, gluey potato hand pie you still find stuck sadly to the side at most Famous Ray’s, but the round, open-faced, somewhat strudel-y incarnation.

I concur completely with this view. Ironically, you will see reviews that contradict this and refer to the round style as doughy, etc. The opinions span the spectrum, both of what style is best and how Yonah Schimmel's knishes stack up.

Look at it this way - if square, fried knishes were the standard by which all knishes are to be measured, then why would Gabila's, who introduced the square fried knish and has sold over one billion of them since 1921, also make round baked knishes and refer to them as "gourmet style"?

My first knishes were the square type, which, at one time, were readily available at most hotdog carts on the street. Regulations in 1996 made it much more difficult to sell knishes from street carts, so knishes in New York City are not as commonly available as they used to be. So if you look to have a genuine potato knish, visit Yonah Schimmel :)

Note: Yonah Schimmel was a Romanian immigrant who started selling knishes from a pushcart on the Lower East Side in 1890. A small shop was rented by Schimmel and his cousin, Joseph Berger. In 1910, they relocated the business to 137 East Houston Street, its current location. Much of the business is take out, but there are a few tables and a menu of other items.


Andrea (ace1028) said...

I don't know how I lived and worked in NY for so many years and I've never heard of this place. I do know that I recently found some knishes here in NC, the square, old-fashioned kind, and have never been so happy or finally felt a little piece of "home!"

Brian Dubé said...

Try to find the round homemade style. I think you will find them much better.

Anonymous said...

Oy. What I wouldn't do for a potato knish right now.
Haven't been to Schimmel's in years.
Visited fairly frequently when I had an office on Greene between Spring and Prince.
Nice to know they're still there.
Will HAVE to make a visit next time we're in New York and get the rounds.

Anonymous said...

My husband and I stumbled across Yonah Schimmel on a trip to the city to visit our daughter a few years past. We sat at one of the tables, felt like authentic New Yorkers and ordered some knishes. We also got the chance to chat with the proprietor about the place, how the food was cooked and the working of the dumbwaiter in the dining area. He explained to us how the knishes were made and the difference between the square and round ones. The food was great, the conversation pleasant and interesting, and I even bought a pink tee shirt that had Yonah Schimmel printed on it. When back in the city, I'll need another knish for stamina.