An Ode To The New York City Bodega

Photo: Courtesy of Tasting Table.
By Jamie Feldmar

There are a million reasons to love New York, but my first was a turkey-bacon-mozzarella-pickle-cream-cheese-mustard sandwich. That's what I, completely overwhelmed by choice, ordered the first time I went to a bodega. At 2 a.m. To his everlasting credit, the guy behind the counter didn't bat an eye.

Chances are, he'd heard worse. In a city obsessed with the next wunderkind chef, bodegas are rare safe havens, offering judgment-free zones in which no sandwich is too gnarly, no late-night craving too odd. Many are open 24 hours. Some have cats. There is almost certainly a bodega within walking distance of wherever you are right now, and that fact is one of the more comforting things about living here.

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Photo: Courtesy of Tasting Table.
The Bodega, Defined
If you visit a lot of bodegas, like I do, and think about them for too long, like I have, you'll start to question what exactly defines one. In Spanish, la bodega is the catchall word for "grocery store," but almost no one would describe a Whole Foods as a bodega. Some use the term to describe only stores specializing in Hispanic foods, but others call virtually any small convenience store a bodega. There are bare-bones bodegas selling only canned food and cold beer, and fancier bodegas with full sandwich bars and sometimes hot buffets (though this arguably pushes them into deli territory).      

"A bodega should sell sandwiches, loosies (individual cigarettes), and beer — that's pretty much it," says GG's executive chef, Bobby Hellen, who's from Staten Island and contends that the best bodegas are those physically located on corners. Chef/owner at Huertas, Jonah Miller, who grew up amid what he considers "a sort of 'Museum Mile' of bodegas on Amsterdam Avenue between 90th and 110th streets," says that a bodega must have all of the above, plus "milk, snacks, and coffee that I wouldn't enjoy."    

Bodega Dos & Don'ts
Several Tasting Table staff members have strong feelings on what a bodega should and should not sell. "A bodega can be a deli, but a deli is not always a bodega," assistant photo editor Dave Katz says. "You can get a sandwich at a deli, but not dried pasta." Food editor Andy Baraghani says that bodegas need "lots of things that have nothing to do with food, like paper towels and lotto tickets. And, cats." Associate managing editor Jillian King, who hails from Long Island, is strict in her belief that the only true bodegas are those selling hot rice and beans.      

Several chefs and staffers have expressed the sentiment that a bodega is a (welcome) backup when traditional grocery shopping doesn't go as planned. "You could make a whole meal out of stuff from a bodega, but it's usually where you go when you forgot something somewhere else," says John Bush, a partner at TaldePork Slope, and Thistle Hill Tavern. Bodega staffing, too, is rather particular. "You see the same dude working there every day, blasting his way-too-loud reggaeton with a straight face," Bush says. "They treat you like family, run the neighborhood, and let you drink beer with them," adds Joseph "JJ" Johnson, chef de cuisine at The Cecil.

Bodegas are highly personal. Aficionados keep a mental Rolodex of local options, filing away information on which has the best bacon-egg-and-cheese, which owner will float you a stray buck when you're drunk and short, and which has an improbable stash of imported tropical fruit. Keep that intel at the ready — bodega knowledge is a precious thing.

Related: Fancy Egg & Cheese Sandwiches Are No Yolk

Photo: Courtesy of Tasting Table.
The Bodegas Chefs Love

Jonah Miller, Huertas
The Bodegas: "Hana Food in Williamsburg, Sunny & Annie's in the East Village."
The Orders: "Usually, a roll with pepper turkey, Muenster, lettuce, tomato, hot peppers, mayo, and mustard. But, once or twice a year, I get an unexpected craving for a toasted everything bagel with tuna salad, avocado, and jalapeños. Also, nothing wrong with a Snickers ice cream bar."

Joseph "JJ" Johnson, The Cecil
The Bodega: "Nancy Design Daenauris Grocery, Upper West Side."
The Order: "Bacon, egg, and cheese on multigrain toast with Muenster cheese."

Bobby Hellen, GG's

The Bodega: "Whatever is closest to me."
The Order: "Turkey, mayo, avocado, B&G spicy peppers, lettuce, tomato, cheddar, and mayo again. The bread depends how I feel about myself. A roll for not giving a shit. A hero if I'm riding high, and nothing can stop me. Whole wheat when I pretend it's good for me." 

Next: The Best Southern Recipes, Ever
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