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Shopsin's serves delicious, eccentric food

By Samantha Lim

Sometimes a menu item sounds so wacky that I absolutely have to order it. If this scenario sounds familiar, then I'm sure you empathize; how could I simply turn down the ‘Red Velvet Poppy Seed Pound Cake French Toast' at Shopsin's? I didn't.

Calling the menu selection at this tiny diner in the Essex Street Market eclectic would be an understatement, while describing it as tiny would be an overstatement. Shopsin's is not a good place for crowds; less than ten tables fill the entire space of the eatery, plus seats for three at the counter. And that's just the way the owners like it.

The first time I visited Shopsin's after hearing of its reputation for so long, I wrenched my flamboyantly large Canon out of my handbag and took aim at the steaming platter before me to commemorate the moment. A stern, but polite, tattooed waiter barricaded the camera lens before I could even click: "No photography is permitted here."

A little confused as to why any restaurateur would not want good publicity, I tried to pry more out of him. All he offered was a shrug and the statement, "We're good." No kidding, I thought to myself, mouth already full of mac n' cheese pancakes. That's right, mac n' cheese pancakes.

I am almost certain that the waiters and waitresses at Shopsin's are Buddhist. Otherwise, they are just really good at adhering to the following job qualification: ‘Great patience with customers who ooh and ahh over multifarious menu for lengthy minutes.' Who can blame indecisiveness with platters dubbed, ‘Blisters on my Sisters,' ‘Boner' and ‘Springsteen'? My ‘Oaxaquenos tamales' sounded tame in comparison with some of the other items on the menu. Tastewise, they were among the best I ever had—and I have eaten plenty of tamales in South America.

Taking in my surroundings at Shopsin's, I think of a communal kitchen shared by international students. Bottles of BBQ sauce, packets of curry powder, jars of habanero peppers and tins labeled ‘Katsu seasoning' sit side by side on high shelves. A bottle of their homemade hot sauce is always plunked down alongside your order, whether you ask for it or not. The condiment makes its competitors hot with shame, for whatever secret ingredients go into it certainly kick a punch like no other.

 I personally find Shopsin's savory dishes to be more satisfying than their sweets. The latter are just as good, but rarely match the unique concept of the dishes themselves. But as said before, I could not pass up the opportunity to try the likes of Chocolate Malted French Toast. The wise customer would order a combo tray, which throws together four random items from the menu, thus having the best of both worlds.

The staff here, who obviously share some kinship, are as colorful as the menu. At my last visit, I got caught in a crossfire between dad and son. Affectionate profanities were hurled back and forth, only to be pattered down by the intervention of a regular customer. When the couple seated next to me ordered curry, their waiter asked how spicy they wanted it, only to immediately retract the query with, "Oh, wait. We don't ask that anymore."

They only accept cash, something I find a tad bothersome when settling the bill, which tends to be expensive. On the optimistic side, think of it as paying for two meals. Just try to hide your mirth when they hand your leftovers to go in an IHOP plastic bag.

I can see why the owners like to keep Shopsin's on the down low, though the food is so good it becomes hardly possible. Quality control is one thing they undoubtedly have under their belt, and being on a first-name basis with your customers is another asset. As a contented-looking couple settles their check, a head pops out of the kitchen to cry out, "Bye, Kevin! Bye, Michelle!" I've decided that another incentive of frequenting Shopsin's is so that I will eventually hear, "Bye, Sammie!"

Neighborhood: Lower East Side

Address: Essex St Market, 120 Essex St, Stall 16, New York, NY 10002

Hours of Operation: Wed-Sat: 9AM – 2PM, Sun: 10AM – 3PM

Phone No: 212-924-5160

How To Get There: Take the F, J, M or Z subway to Delancey-Essex St.

Essex Street Market houses the small but famed “Shopsin’s Diner.” (Samantha Lim/ The Chronicle)

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