At a certain point on Essex Street, in the Lower East Side’s Chinatown, you start to feel like you’ve wandered into a different neighborhood without noticing. A kosher deli here, a shop with a menorah in the window there, just-baked bialys at a bakery next door—and at the heart of the unexpected pocket of Jewish Eastern European heritage, a shop called The Pickle Guys.
“There’ve always been pickles in this neighborhood,” says Alan Kaufman, the owner, who’s taped a favorite Yiddish joke onto the front counter and banters easily with staff and customers alike. He weaves between the rows of waist-high red barrels that take up most of his open-front store, dipping in with a toothpick to spear colorful pieces of pickled fruits and vegetables, olives stuffed with jalapeños, sweet and hot peppers, and eight types of cucumber pickles.
This neighborhood was once known as the “pickle district”; on Essex alone, Kaufman remembers four pickle shops. He used to work at Guss’ Pickles, when he had time off from his regular job as a commercial photographer. That job is history, but so is Guss’ and the other pickle shops. The Pickle Guys, founded by Kaufman in 2001, is the last one standing. Other businesses in the neighborhood have left, too; Kaufman says he’s watched three kosher bakeries close their doors over the past 20 years.
Cultural change is in the nature of the Lower East Side, as it was one of the first stops for immigrants arriving from Ellis Island in the 19th and 20th centuries. Italians, Irish, and Eastern Europeans settled in the neighborhood and left, giving way to a more recent wave of immigrants from South Asia, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic.
It was the predominantly Jewish Eastern European immigrants who brought the pickles. “They brought what they knew how to do,” speculates Kaufman, who has Eastern European heritage. Pickles were inexpensive, and more than that—they were “a comfort food […] from home.”
Kaufman still follows the old-fashioned brining methods that his predecessors used. The pickles are cured in barrels without preservatives—just salted water, garlic, and spices—and the entire process is under rabbinical supervision to ensure its adherence to kosher standards. Among Kaufman’s regular customers are Orthodox Jews who shop before he closes the store on Saturdays for the Jewish Sabbath.
“I must know at least three generations of customers,” he estimates. The Pickle Guys has even developed somewhat of an international reputation, with tour buses often pulling up in front of the store.
People come for the quality traditional pickles: full sour, half sour, three-quarters sour, new, hot new, hot sour, horseradish, and sweet gherkins. The tangy full sour pickles are the most popular. They break open with a satisfying crunch, shaming limp jarred deli pickles with every trickle of salty juice that runs down your hand.
People come for the less-than-traditional pickles too-- many of which are developed by Kaufman’s staff. The long and ever-evolving selection includes pickled okra, beet, cantaloupe, mango, and sweet, vinegary pickled pineapple with crushed red pepper that sends a rush of heat down the back of your throat after swallowing.
The store also offers homemade sauerkraut, horseradish, mustard, pickled herring, and a variety of peppers and olives.
“I hope that I finish out my lifetime here,” says Kaufman. The Pickle Guys has another location in Brooklyn, but there are no plans to expand any further.
“We’re not looking to become Heinz or anything like that. We’re here to make good pickles.”
The Pickle Guys
Lower East Side - 49 Essex St
Brooklyn - 1364 Coney Island Ave