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 one of few safe havens, offering a judgement-free zone 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 one within walking distance of wherever you are right now, and that fact is one of the more comforting things about living here.
Bodega coffee & clerk
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 ingredients, but others call virtually any small convenience store a bodega. There are bare-boned 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 and Don'ts: More than one Tasting Table staff member 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 a 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," John Bush, a partner at Talde, Pork Slope and Thistle Hill Tavern, says. Bodega staffing, too, is a particular thing. "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," Joseph "JJ" Johnson, chef de cuisine at The Cecil, adds.
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, which has an improbable stash of imported tropical fruit. Keep that intel at the ready—bodega knowledge is a precious thing.
The Bodegas Chefs Love
Jonah Miller, Huertas
The bodega: Hana Food in Williamsburg, Sunny & Annie's in East Village
The order: "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 jalepeños. 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."
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