The Lower East Side may be swarming with hipsters in search of swanky bars with happy hour deals on lychee martinis, but there’s one relic from the neighborhood's past that still pays homage to its days as a Jewish immigrant section with overcrowded tenements. Through all of the Lower East Side's changes, Kossar’s, a Jewish deli that opened in 1936, has remained the New York spot for bialys: the doughy roll that hails from Bialystock, Poland.
You might expect the staff at an institution like Kossar’s to be snippy if you don’t know exactly what you want, but when I told the guy behind the counter that I hadn’t quite decided on my order yet, he quipped, “No rush, we’re open ‘til 8!” If you find yourself stuck on the difference between bialys and bagels when deciding, here’s how it breaks down: bialys are baked and slid out of the oven before their yeast has a chance to fully rise. They don’t have a hole in the middle and are soft, chewy, and powdered with flour on the bottom. “It’s like a Jewish English muffin,” the server told the customer ahead of me. Bagels, on the other hand, are boiled then baked, and turn out tougher, crisper, and (because their yeast fully rises) a bit bigger.
The only real move is to order both (and throw in some babka and rugelach, too). The kitchen makes its first batch at midnight and continues until 4pm, so everything is supremely fresh. When it comes to the bialys, you have a handful of flavors to choose from: onion, garlic, sesame, sun-dried tomato, and olive. As if the seasoned rolls didn't already beg you to mix up your typical breakfast routine, the made-to-order sandwich menu will too: go for an egg and cheese combo on an onion bialy, made with roasted bits of onion in the center, or get The Classic, a pungent sandwich with sliced nova, everything cream cheese, tomato, red onion, capers, and a dill pickle, on a sesame bialy. Bagels and bialys are available by the dozen, and spreads range from blueberry and scallion cream cheeses to whitefish salad and lox schmear. Once you’ve made your pick, savor every bite on a red stool inside the bright, bare-bones deli, or on one of the outdoor benches that hosts a cast of neighborhood characters. Come here often enough, which you’ll undoubtedly want to, and you just might become one of them.