$5.63. What can one realistically purchase in NYC for $5.63 today? A fancy bottle of water. The Brothers Solomon from Duane Reade's bargain bin. A small candy at AMC Loews. Nobody with $5.63 is getting too far in New York City. That is, until he stops into a bodega.
This cornucopia of bodega foodstuffs cost me $5.63. I challenge you to name another place (Chinatown excluded) where you can find six distinct food items, from all across the bodega food pyramid. That $5.63 comes out to 2,000 calories.
The bodega is an NYC bastion of convenience and saturated fat, rivaled only by the cheapest of food stalls around the city. As Dallas and Rafi noted in their revered short film "Bodega," (watch below) these small grocery stores form the backbone of many communities, especially in New York's less affluent neighborhoods. The price of entry is low, the selection is wide and the eats, while not always the healthiest or most sophisticated, are sometimes just what you're looking for when you're hungry, broke, drunk or all three.
Watch the Bodega Film
This video, in fact, was the inspiration for this post. I wanted to recreate their bodega feast (minus the 40 oz. malt liquor, nobody needs that at 3 p.m.—unless you're Will Gordon) and look a bit deeper into the bodega as an institution.
For my research, I focused on 88 Gourmet Deli on West 88th St. and Manhattan Grocery Corp on West 108th St. These two stores offer a solid portrait of the state of the New York bodega.
Grocery Corp is the Platonic ideal: slightly grimy and super cheap. Gourmet is another common example: slightly less grimy and equally cheap. The smell in both is immediately recognizable and oddly comforting: wet cardboard, flattop grease, cigarettes and all-purpose cleaner. The sights, from the eccentric regulars to surprisingly masterful sandwich making, emanate the same familiarity. No matter where you go in this city, you can find bodegas that follow this very consistent format.
Chatting with Shorty and Flaco, two of the bosses at 88 Gourmet, I realized that for the owners, the bodega is their personal realization of the American dream. It's a legitimate business, necessary in every community and beloved by its patrons. Open 24 hours a day, it's a go-to spot for groceries, sandwiches and other goods, often daily. These daily visits generate the rapport that is missing in large supermarkets or chain pharmacies—a rapport that the owners realize and value, whether that means running tabs, special deliveries or occasional discounts. But enough about the stores, time for the food.
In "Bodega," Dallas and Rafi highlight several bodega staples, from pork rinds to packaged pastries. I decided to retrace their steps, as well as taste each and every (somewhat) delicious item.
Oreos ($1): Decided to start with the most familiar item first. We've had our fair share of Oreos at Serious Eats, and 6 for $1 sounds mighty good to us. They weren't stale, like some bodega cookies, and were just about as good as their plastic sleeved brethren.
Linden's 3 Large Chocolate Chip Cookies ($0.75): I remember really, really liking these Linden's cookies when I was little. Unfortunately, weeks (months?) on a bodega shelf or general decline in quality has left them rather stale and uninteresting. They aren't offensive cookies, they just pale in comparison to bakery cookies...or even Chips Ahoy!
Lady Linda Original Crunch Mini Donuts ($0.59): I was pleasantly surprised by these guys. Super sweet with a little citrus note and a bunch of sugar crunch on the outside. I might buy these again, actually. Also, at 340 calories it's not a light snack, but also not half a day's worth of fat and calories.
Utz Pork Rinds ($1): Partway through the video, Dallas claims that he's losing weight by eating pork rinds because they have no carbohydrates. Not sure if that's actually the case, but these are fine snacking. "If you're not eating Utz, you're eating butts."
Lam's Plantain Chips ($1): I had high hopes for these. Bodegas often carry some special ethnic food items depending on the ownership. At Grocery Corp., there were some Latin American pastries and a variety of plantain chips. Unfortunately, these weren't very tasty. The seasoning, a bit spicy, was fine, but the chips tasted somewhat metallic.
Cloverhill Bakery Jumbo Honey Bun ($0.50): This massive, dense cake doughnut was actually my favorite thing i tried. It didn't taste far off from a glazed doughnut from any random shop around the city, and the layer of icing seemed to protect the cake from becoming stale. If it weren't 600 calories, I would even recommend it—but let's face it, snack cakes are just not good for you, ever.
Quarter Water ($0.25): At the top of the bodega food pyramid, quarter waters are a cheap, sweet drink that come in plastic barrels to make you feel like a kid again. Curiously, one could purchase three quarter waters for less than the price of a Poland Spring bottle. Hydration win? You bet.
So there you have it, my bodega rundown. Do you have a bodega that's near and dear to you? Any interesting bodega stories? What about your favorite bodega purchase? Share it all in the comments!