A pickle’s just a pickle, right? Wrong. So wrong. These pickles are special, and I already know I’m not going to be able to do them justice. Here’s to trying, though.
When I started eating at Katz’s—and believe me, I started—I stopped eating pickles. Theirs are beautiful, but I just can’t deny how bad they taste. Their new pickles are basically just unadulterated cucumbers (ick! not for me), and their full-sours are just too sour for human consumption. I know, of course, that there are better pickles out there, but…I don’t know. The ones at Katz’s totally demoralized me, so I’ve been off pickles for a while now.
But whenever I walk over to Kossar’s—home of some of the best bagels ever—I can’t help but gaze longingly at The Pickle Guys, a real-deal Lower East Side institution that sells—can you guess?—pickles, and lots of them. But cucumbers are not the only thing The Pickle Guys brine; they also do olives, tomatoes, pineapples, mangoes, beets, peppers, okra, string beans, garlic, turnips, and a whole bunch of other shit, too. (Plus, come Passover, the employees grab their gas masks and head out to the sidewalk to grind up absurd amounts of horseradish. I don’t know about you, but I happen to think that’s pretty badass.)
After walking by enough times (and after doing some Pickle Guys–related reading), I decided I couldn’t put it off any longer. I’d have to stop by, and soon. Before I could, though, I (of course) had to make sure their food wouldn’t kill me—so I sent them an email, asking whether they might have any nuts on-site. Within a day or two, I had my answer: “No we don’t use any tree nuts. We used to carry Almond Stuffed Olives but that was over 2 years ago.” Sweet. (Sour?…I’ll see myself out.)
Anyway, I stopped by on the first day of Sukkot, which meant the store would be closing at 4pm, rather than the usual 6pm. Despite that—or maybe because of it—there was a line out the door and a moderately large crowd of pickle-suckers beside it. (They were loud. The suckers, I mean. I think they were on one of those godforsaken “food tours.” It was disconcerting, on multiple levels.) Really, though, I didn’t mind the crowding (and neither did Sam, who might just love pickles two or three times as much as he loves me). Nothing was going to come between us and our brined produce.
In we went, then.
Inside, there is not a single frill in sight. The bulk of the teeny-tiny space is occupied by big, red barrels, each carrying a different sort of pickle. One wall’s exposed brick; the other, painted white, bears a menu, above which a single sentence is printed in all caps: “PLEASE KEEP HANDS OUT OF BARRELS.” Noted. There’s a slight breeze (fan-sourced) and a strong, strong smell of all things pickley. Employees move quickly and take orders via shout, scooping pickles into plastic containers, pausing only to offer samples and to poke fun at customers.
The employees are obviously proud of their product, and the customers all seem to know that something good’s about to come their way, so one seems much to mind all the chaos. (Plus, it’s not all that chaotic. The whole affair actually runs rather smoothly, despite its disorganized appearance. It’s quick, easy, and painless—plus, you walk out with pickles. Good deal.)
Though the line was long, it moved quickly—so quickly, in fact, that by the time our turn came, we hadn’t yet decided what to order. I decided to wing it, which resulted in my ending up with a whole bunch of shit: a new pickle, a full-sour, a half-sour, a quart of three-quarter-sours, some sweet gherkins, some Greek olives, a lot of grape tomatoes, and a particularly overstuffed quart of string beans.
Once we’d paid, Sam and I headed over to a nearby park bench for some sampling (and some photos that apparently couldn’t wait. Sorry. For the extra-lame photos and for how much of Sam’s fingers you’re about to see).
First, we ate our singular pickles, beginning with the mildest. Here, from left to right, is a new pickle, a half-sour, and a full-sour:
Now, I’ve literally never enjoyed a new pickle. I have a rule: “fuck the flavor of cucumber.” But I’m happy to make an exception for these pickles. I think I like them so much because they aren’t just cucumber-y; they’re also just salty enough, just sour enough, just far enough from your average cucumber that they’ve actually been able to win me over. And like the rest of The Pickle Guys’s pickles, these have a snap (and spray!) that’s straight-up absurd. Like, holy shit. I’ve never bit into a pickle so satisfying.
The half-sours and three-quarter-sours are great, too. Naturally, they’re just what you’d expect: a sourer (and sourer yet) version of the new pickle I so loved. I don’t really have a preference between the two—which I’d rather eat probably depends on little more than my mood—so I’ll leave it at this: Both are good. So good.
With regard to the full-sour…well, it was my least favorite of the bunch, but I blame that on the facts that (a) I ate it last, when I was probably a little pickled out; (b) I ate it alone (that is, without the sort of grease-soaked entree such a sour pickle usually balances out; and (c) I spilled some of its (near-overabundant) juice on my pants, which, um, gave me a little bit of a bias, I guess. Still, a great pickle (if you’re into full-sours), and a worthy companion to a deliciously greasy meal.
But we didn’t stop there. (How could we have?!) Below (clockwise, beginning on the upper left) is a pint of string beans, a half-pint of Greek olives, a half-pint of sweet gherkins, and a half-pint of grape tomatoes:
The string beans are nice and snappy, but thinner and more manageable than a regular pickle, were delicious, and the grape tomatoes, which seriously taste like they were fresh from the farmers’ market, are even better. Sam and I liked them so much, in fact, that we ended up re-braving the line to get our hands on an additional pint (which was also when we picked up the pint—yes, pint—of three-quarter-sours).
That was where our fun ended, though. Neither of us much enjoyed the sweet gherkins (too sweet!), nor were we able to find much use for the Greek olives (too salty!), so we ended up giving them away. Honestly, neither product was bad; they just weren’t…to our tastes, though I’m sure they’d be fine in the right hands (or dish).
There are still approximately half a billion Pickle Guys products I want to try: pineapples, bread & butter pickles, tomatoes (both sliced and unsliced), and some other types of olives, to name a few. But it’ll be a while, because at the moment, my fridge is well over its pickle capacity. They keep for a while, though—and I can’t stop eating them—so I’m really not all that worried.
In any case, if I haven’t yet made it clear enough: The Pickle Guys is a lovely, lovely, store, and their pickles are practically unbeatable.
Find The Pickle Guys at 49 Essex Street, between Grand and Hester. They’re strictly kosher, though—so don’t even think of stopping by on the Sabbath.
P.S. Here‘s some awesome pickle-related fiction, which I highly recommend.