Foods of the Lower East Side range from new hipster pizza spots to famous bagel shops. The Lower East Side has a storied history of cultural delicacies, dating back to the 1800s when immigrants began to settle in the area. Today, one of the most famous historical food spots in the Lower East Side is Yonah Schimmel Knish Bakery, a small, unassuming storefront churning out Eastern European classics, including their famous knishes.
Yonah Schimmel Knish Bakery has been in business since 1890. Yonah Schimmel, a Romanian immigrant, first started selling his knishes out of a pushcart, later renting the storefront at 137 East Houston Street in 1910. Today, the family-owned bakery is owned by Schimmel’s great nephew.
If you’re like some of my friends (no judgment here, but maybe a little bit), you may be wondering: “what is a knish?” Simply put, a knish is one of the most famous foods in New York City history. The Jewish snack is made up of a filling (usually mashed potato, buckwheat, or cheese), covered in a thin dough, and baked or fried. When I was growing up, my mom would buy fried knishes from the grocery store (like you’ll find in Coney Island) and served them with spicy mustard on the side.
Yonah Schimmel Knish Bakery is nothing less than an institution, with Milton Glaser and Jerome Snyder famously declaring in a 1968 edition of New York Magazine that, “No New York politician in the last fifty years has been elected to public office without having at least one photograph taken showing him on the Lower East Side with a knish in his face.” I can only assume this doesn’t include Bill de Blasio.
If it’s not abundantly clear by now, I love studying New York City history. Knowing there are food spots that have been around for so long excites me in a way I can’t describe. I recently did some genealogy research, and I found that my great-grandparents came over through Ellis Island in 1918 before settling in New York City. That means, assuming they loved food as much as I did, visiting these old restaurants in New York City means that I get to eat where my great-grandparents once did. That’s so cool.
Geeking out aside, Yonah Schimmel Knish Bakery definitely represents “the olden days” of the Lower East Side. Over the years, many Jewish residents have left the area, and the neighborhood is vastly different than it was when Yonah first sold his knishes from a pushcart. Today, the bakery is one of the few distinctly Jewish businesses and restaurants in the area.
I wanted to see if Yonah’s was just getting by on its “open since” date. I also don’t need a reason to support a local business and eat a lot of food. On a Saturday morning, I made my way to the famous yellow (currently covered in scaffolding, naturally) storefront. A fun fact to note: while the storefront reads "Yonah Shimmel," the spelling is wrong. They just never bothered to fix the sign. And at this point, why would they?
I was the first customer there (there can be lines during busy times, and by the time I left there were 4 others waiting for their potato treats. Obviously, I needed an original (with spicy mustard, per the demands of my mother). The special knish of the day (it’s always different) was jalapeño cheddar, which I was more than happy to order. Yonah’s does sell sweet knish also (ranging from cherry and blueberry to chocolate), but I didn’t want to be responsible for eating three knish, so I stuck to the savory ones.
Since we’re in the midst of the pandemic, indoor dining wasn’t available. During normal times, you can take a seat inside (check out that decor!), and order up everything from borscht to egg creams, while enjoying the view of the bakery's old school dumb waiter that brings the knishes up from the kitchen basement. Right now, a to-go menu is available, and you can get knishes shipped to you nationwide. I sat, quite literally, in the middle of East Houston Street, to enjoy my food.
So is Yonah Schimmel Knish Bakery worth a visit? I give both of my menu options a resounding YES. They were both delicious in different ways, but I give the slight edge to the jalapeño cheddar special of the day. I had never had a knish that wasn’t tossed in a deep fryer, and these were super soft and filled with flavor. And hey, I have a reason to go back to try one of the sweet menu options now.
If you’re looking for things to do on the Lower East Side, I highly recommend taking a step back in history and eating a knish from Yonah Schimmel Knish Bakery. Hell, eat a few. Yonah Schimmel has been around for 110 years - here's hoping for another 110.