In mid-August, my great friend and epic eating comrade Boykji visited New York for a whirlwind tour of the city’s eats. The five days I spent sharing meals with Boyk reminded me of how lucky I am to live in New York, where one can literally spend hours on end walking, eating and repeating without ever getting bored. They also tested my limits more than any stretch of time in recent memory – there’s something to be said about bad influences when two insatiable appetites egg each other on against the better sense of gastric conscience.
For better or for wurst, here’s the finale to our eating marathon. Let the feast of a thousand hams come to an end!
Any story you’re likely to read about Shopsin’s inevitably comes down to the fact that Kenny Shopsin is entirely willing to kick your ass out of his diner. Trying to seat a party of five? You’re out. Answering a call on your iphone? You’re out. Asking too many questions about the menu before you place your order? You are definitely out. At Shopsin’s, money is not the medium of exchange, and the customer is never as right as the man at the grill. Demanding an explanation? Believe: You were being an asshole, and he’s a prick, and this way you don’t have to deal with each other’s shit.
I’m a fan. Could there be any question about it? The sheer quality of most of Shopsin’s menu — a breakfast-wise universe of mash-ups, re-imaginations and the occasional serendipitous toss-off — is enough to make me a loyalist. There are the infamous “Blisters on My Sisters,” an intense take on huevos rancheros served in the same stainless steel skillet in which they were cooked to bubbling. There’s the “Pete,” which heaps three poached eggs and some hearty variety of trimmings onto toasted garlic cheese bread. There’s “Moe,” a breakfast sandwich made of buttery pancakes, with thick, chewy, maple bacon as the filling and two sunny-side eggs sitting on top (“Moe II” varies this formula by switching out the pancakes for French toast). There are “postmodern pancakes,” which are pancakes cut into pieces, mixed into fresh pancake batter and thrown back on the griddle. Then, there’s everything else.
I was fated to be a Shopsin’s booster. Abrasiveness and New York inflation index aside, Kenny’s ontology of diner-ism is essentially the same as that of Jodie, my favorite cook in the world. It might make more sense to say that Kenny Shopsin is Jodie Royston’s dopplegänger, but they’re two sides of the same coin.
On weekends, Jodie – a small, wiry black man with the charm of ten Southern grandfathers – bustles around his six-person dining counter, hamming it up and getting his customers to help him serve their food. Shopsin – a hulking, unapologetic mafia don of a greasy spoon cook – perches himself at the entrance to his stall in the Essex Market and re-reads the inside of his eyelids. While both cooks have rules to enforce and eccentricities to indulge, Jodie expresses himself through
Consequently, one might be tempted to consider these two characters moral opposites. But listening to Kenny’s credo, I feel that they share a high respect for the common meal and high expectations of the common diner. Not because we’re really that terrific, but precisely because most of us need to be reminded that we’re not. Whether we realize this by carrying a plate from Jodie Royston’s kitchen to his customers outside or by getting sent to McDonald’s by an irate Kenny Shopsin, there is value in flipping the idea of restaurant service on its entitled head.
Seeing how Boykji is the man who inspired my first trip to Jodie’s, it only made sense that we finish our week of food tourism with breakfast at Shopsin’s. After four days of nearly nonstop noshing, I was ready to switch to leafy salads, simple soups and the subtle flavors of unadorned whole foods – all the more reason to go out with a bang.
Boyk went for Kenny’s mac and cheese pancakes (plain griddle cakes with macaroni and cheddar cheese grilled into one side). I ordered the Repete, a member of the Petes menu. Crunchy, spicy garlic toast would have been reason enough to call this one a winner; the three poached eggs, chicken sausage, bell peppers, cilantro and poppy seeds spread across it made it official. Our choices – $15 each before tax and tip – were not cheap, but they were worth their weight in the most telling way possible: After one bite, I asked myself why I couldn’t make eggs and toast like this home, while David wondered aloud what exactly made Kenny’s pancakes so fantastic (the answer probably involves butter).
The same elevation of basic diner food blessed Shopsin’s breakfast doughnuts – while the Donut Plant down the street churns out cute cakes in the shape of doughnuts, Kenny fries the genuine American article to order. Each ring is proof and justification: The novelty of eating at Shopsin’s might be enough to attract the itinerant diner, but the simple thrill of gruffness is not what keeps people coming back for $25 lunch tabs. Doughnuts like these – crisp and fluffy, springy yet yielding, and served piping hot – are pure inspiration.
Truth be told, not everything at Shopsin’s is a hit (nor should it be). Occasionally, Shopsin’s tosses off a bowl of shit, but in doing so it still bats far above the man’s philosophical average.
According to Kenny I’d say that “being a piece of shit and then occasionally doing something that’s good and true is a much easier place to be” than engaging in the circus of perfects and bests that has come to define too much of life; as such, to appreciate a meal at Shopsin’s is to separate eating from consuming.
In any case, both are certainly more enjoyable with a friend. Namaste, Boykji!
120 Essex Street
Essex St. Market, Stall #16
New York, NY 10002