The Underground Gourmet on Café Nadery and El Aripo Café, Two Humble Oases of Expat Culture
It has been quite some time since Greenwich Village — let alone 8th Street — represented artistic bohemia, political activism, or much of anything beyond NYU bloat and Magnolia cupcakes. But the seventeen Iranian-American shareholders who form the collective ownership of Café Nadery felt the enduringly schlocky block between Fifth and Sixth Avenues was the perfect home for their new public clubhouse, a Wi-Fi-equipped haven for art exhibits, film screenings, live music, and political debate. Its illustrious namesake, Naderi Café, opened in Tehran in 1928 and became for a time the city’s reigning literary and intellectual hangout. Although it was famous for its confections, we can’t speak to the rest of the food.
New York’s Café Nadery, though, has a distinct advantage over its nominal predecessor: a menu created by Louisa Shafia, an Iranian-American chef and food writer whose latest book, The New Persian Kitchen, combines traditional Iranian recipes with her unprocessed, whole-grain, veggie-centric riffs. Shafia’s approach to her ancestral cuisine emphasizes the bounty of fresh herbs, the ubiquity of yogurt, the richness of nuts, and the sweet and tart tanginess of exotically seasoned pickles and chutneys — Iranian as you might not recognize it, health food for this locavore era.
On the surface, Nadery aspires to nothing grander than serving as a social hub, and invites the community to peruse the newspapers and magazines stacked by the door or riffle through a bookcase filled with well-thumbed English and Farsi volumes. There is Gimme! coffee (an alternative to the spiffy new Stumptown down the street) and plenty of craft beers and (mostly) California wines. True, all of those things can be found elsewhere in this super-caffeinated, well-lubricated metropolis, but not in combination with the lyrically named “Iranian garden.” This still life of pristine, unplucked herbs, oiled-and-spiced feta, walnuts, and radishes is served with the Iranian sourdough whole-wheat flatbread called sangak; it’s customary to tear off pieces of bread, stuff them with sprigs and cheese, and nibble them throughout the meal. The “fresh mint green salad” is exactly that: a very fresh, very green heap of butter lettuce, arugula, basil, and spearmint, festooned with pistachios and pumpkin seeds.
There is a chicken-salad sandwich dressed in cucumber yogurt that tastes just vaguely unfamiliar, and a bean, herb, and noodle soup, ash-e reshteh, that tastes utterly so. The contents of the bowl are ribollita-thick and deep green, an Über-vegetal mush of spinach, dill, cilantro, parsley, and green onion mingled with soft strands of pasta, chickpeas, and kidney beans. On top, minted caramelized onions and a dollop of the cultured cream called kashk provide the perfect sweet-and-sour foil. The kitchen employs an equally compelling condiment, tamarind-date chutney, on the beet burger, a meatless patty served with melted Cheddar on a whole-grain roll.
So where’s the kebabs? aficionados of Persian cuisine might be asking. Not at Café Nadery — not yet, anyway. There are rumors of a forthcoming special. But for now, the kitchen is keeping things seasonably light, down to the majoon, a banana-date shake made with yogurt and topped with nuts, coconut, and sesame seeds, appropriate refreshment in the Iranian desert or during the muggiest Manhattan summer.
Another cheerful new spot that handily meets the culinary and Wi-Fi needs of its community — though it cannot be said to be doing much in the way of lowering its collective cholesterol level — is El Aripo Café. Situated at the eastern end of Delancey Street and looking out at the graffitied base of the Williamsburg Bridge, this tidy twelve-seat mom-and-pop shop specializes in hearty Latin American snacks, Venezuelan-style arepas and empanadas in particular.
An elderly dude wearing a jaunty cap and a pastel guayabera shirt stopped by the other day for a late-afternoon shrimp-empanada pick-me-up. He broke out his stash of Purell, scrubbed his hands as thoroughly as a surgeon on his way to an operation, and got down to business. These corn-based empanadas (deep-fried or griddled and variously filled) are long and torpedo-shaped as opposed to roundish and puffy. They’re also served so hot that it’s best to approach them with caution and plastic cutlery, as did our man in the natty outfit, before picking it up with his hands and finishing it off. Mr. Guayabera’s assessment: “You won’t find a better empanada in New York.”
The thick, spongy, stuffed corn-cake sandwiches known as arepas are good, too: faintly crisp on the outside, tender within, and possessing a subtle corn flavor that contrasts nicely with each of nine highly seasoned fillings. Among these, we like the spicy Buffalo-style shredded chicken, and the one generously stuffed with ripe avocado, sliced tomato, and a crumbly feta best.
As rich and satisfying as the arepas are, for sheer gustatory excess they pale in comparison with the other two items on the menu — the seldom-seen patacón and the even rarer pastelón. A novelty in the sandwich world, a patacón dispenses with bread or even a split arepa in favor of two super-size discs of fried green-plantain slices that have been fused together and pressed like a pair of pants at the dry cleaners, then refried to a dense crisp. As with the empanadas and the arepas, you choose your filling, which is enhanced with melted mozzarella, a confettilike barrage of shredded iceberg lettuce, and a tangy secret sauce. If you go with ground or shredded beef, the overall effect is not unlike a Venezuelan Big Mac times two. The other aforementioned gut-buster, pastelón, is often referred to as Puerto Rican lasagna, and rightly so. It consists of layers of candy-sweet plantains, spicy ground beef, and gobs of mozzarella served here in a takeout-container portion that could feed a family of four.
16 W. 8th St., nr. Fifth Ave.; 212-260-5407; cafenadery.com
Hours: 11 a.m. to midnight
Prices: $5 to $10
Ideal Meal: Iranian garden; bean, herb, and noodle soup; majoon.
Note: Check the Facebook page for special events, like wine dinners and televised soccer matches.
Scratchpad: Two stars for the unexpectedly fresh, healthful Persian-inspired menu and another for the inclusive, hospitable setting.
El Aripo Café
172 Delancey St., nr. Attorney St.; 646-823-9781
Hours: Monday and Tuesday noon to 8 p.m.; Wednesday to Saturday till 10 p.m.
Prices: $2 to $7.75.
Ideal Meal: Buffalo-chicken empanada and an avocado arepa.
Note: With a new branch of chainlet Patacon Pisao coming soon to Essex Street, this might be the new tostones-sandwich district.
Scratchpad: One star for the soulful cooking; another for the comfortable, spick-and-span premises and friendly service.
*This article originally appeared in the August 12, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.