By Jackie Gentilesco
Gem Spa at St. Mark's Place and Second is a 24-hour convenience store that sells magazines, cigarettes and authentic New York-style egg creams.
"If you see the line, it is sometimes 200 people," said Salim, a Gem Spa manager, "Some people are coming from Europe, from all over the world."
Egg cream had its days in the 1950s, where names like Jack Kerouac frequented Gem Spa's small East Village space.
In "Iconic Foods: Egg Cream," Robert Simonson notes, "This was a time when neighborhood soda fountains were more common than today's Starbucks."
Nearly 80 years after its opening, only four people know the secret recipe for Gem Spa's version of the egg cream. The drink contains chocolate or vanilla syrup, milk, and seltzer water. No eggs. However, its mystery is hidden in the technique.
"Frozen milk," said employee Shimul Paul as the drink was prepared. "Don't tell her that," Salim retorted.
Vendors of this "mythical New York elixir keep mum on how they make them, sometimes even refusing to tell you their own name," said Simonson in his "Edible Manhattan" article.
Salim, who has been working at Gem Spa for twenty years, will not reveal his surname, or let guests take pictures as he prepares the concoction. His family legendarily learned the recipe for New York City nostalgia from the previous owner, who left behind a milk frother, a high-pressure seltzer spout, a syrup dispenser and the secret recipe.
"It will never change," Salim said, of both the egg cream and hole-in-the-wall location of Gem Spa. "Jack Kerouac used to hang out here, and crowds still gather to taste the famed drink. They want to keep the tradition going," says Shimul.
"We both make it," said Salim and Shimul of the drink. "He's the best one," they added, pointing to each other.
A man who opted for "vanilla" and wished to remain anonymous said he has been coming to Gem Spa for "three years, maybe four – I don't come anywhere else."
Steve Dunayer, a customer at the store, had his first and only memory of egg cream as a child on Martha's Vinyard, where his "hippy" father taught him the recipe. "And that's it – he started making me egg cream," said Dunayer, who has never tried Gem Spa's. "You came here just for the egg cream?," he asked, as he bought some Dentyne gum.
Though the recipe dates over half a century, its roots in a 1950's subculture have not lost touch with modern day.
"Can you take a sip?," requested Salim, as he smiled to a woman who ordered a chocolate cream. It is Gem Spa tradition to ask this of every customer.