Market Tours: Irish Ham, Boiling Bacon, and Black Pudding at The Butcher's Block in Sunnyside, Queens
On a quiet side street off Queens Boulevard in Sunnyside, Queens, there's a cartoony wooden cutout of a maniacally gleeful butcher (with unnaturally blue eyes), grasping a red cow. He serves as a marker for a sidewalk sandwich board on which the specials of the day are written. They're in line with what you might expect at a large NYC deli—salmon steaks, chicken cordon bleu. Then you notice the shamrocks painted on the window behind him. And the bold red letters hinting at other treats inside: boiling bacon, corned beef, black and white pudding, rashers.
Welcome to The Butcher's Block, one of NYC's few Irish grocery stores.
Inside, the butcher counter is staffed with cheerful men that belie their sidewalk mascot. Leading the group is gregarious co-owner Noel Gaynor, who hails from County Mayo, Ireland. Gaynor moved to New York in 1992, and got a job working at the Jefferson Market in Greenwich Village (since closed). By night, he and some buddies would experiment with making black pudding and cured bacon at home. In 1995, he opened his own spot—The Butcher's Block—in his Irish neighborhood of Sunnyside (bordering the Irish neighborhood of Woodside) to sell his creations. In the years since, The Butcher's Block has become something of a unique institution, serving up house-cured meats and imported Irish goods, many otherwise unavailable in the city. (Gaynor now stocks all the well-known English and Scottish products, too.)
True to its name, the Butcher's Block is a meat-friendly place, with knowledgeable staff and all the supplies you might need for a proper Irish meal. There's house-cured rashers (bacon) and skinny breakfast sausages, long-simmered corned beef, boiling bacon (cured, unsmoked pork loin, often served with cabbage), and fat coils of black pudding (blood sausage, which in Ireland's made with barely, rather than rice), and white pudding (same thing, but without the blood).
Deli meats are on hand for sandwiches at the counter, along with a daily menu of rotating specialties (fish and chips are served on Fridays!). And, if Gaynor's homemade sausages don't quite live up to childhood brand loyalty, in the refrigerator case you'll find plenty of imported packaged meats, alongside fresh yellow Irish butter and cream (better for baking, or so Gaynor's wife's ladies magazines say).
There's bread and potatoes to go with your meat, too: Irish soda bread, scones, and bright-yellow packages of Brennans Family Pan, oversized slices of white and wheat bread, perfect for corned beef sandwiches, wrapped "old school style" in wax paper.
But more than just a butcher, The Butcher's Block is a treasure trove of sweets that would make the child in any ex-pat squeal with glee. Gaynor smiles proudly: "We try to bring what we can from Ireland, that we're allowed to bring, anyways. We have about 75 different cookies from Ireland. And potatoes, we have about 60 different kinds of potato chips."
He's not exaggerating. Boxes of Tayto potato chips are stacked along one wall, and an entire aisle is dedicated to cookies, including digestives and teacakes for dipping in your afternoon tea, two kinds of fruit cake, two kinds too of marshmallow treats—Jam Mallows and snowballs (which are coated in coconut)—and several cookies apiece from well-known brands such as Cadbury, Jacob's and Bolands. And there's tea for all that sugar, including Barry's Tea (Irish, and considered better than Lipton, which is Scottish.)
The wall of candy bars is a feast for the eyes, with Irish truffles, Maltesers, honeycomb & chocolate Crunchies, Trebor mints, Aero bars, fruit-flavored Chewits, Rowantrees fruit gums, Swizzle Matlow's Refreshers (in lemon), Smarties, Fry's peppermint and orange creams, and the usual and unusual from Jacob's and Cadbury brands (including Snack! bars, Picnic bars and Milk Buttons) are on display. (I counted 47 kinds, and that's excluding the bags of Bounty and licorice piled in the aisles.)
And on the childhood sugar-rush kick, The Butcher's Block stocks soda, and lots of it: several flavors of Tango, Club, and Lilt, White's lemonade, Idris' fiery ginger beer ("try it if you dare!"), and elegant grey & purple cans of Ben Shaw's Dandelion & Burdock soda.
When he's not working, Gaynor likes to make himself a sandwich of his own baked ham, on a roll, with Boar's Head cheddar and a plowman pickle. And for some light reading over a lunch of a Gaynor special & a Shandy Bass (a British concoction made up of half soda and half beer, in this case Bass beer), stop in next door for an Irish paper.
The Butcher's Block
43-46 41st Street, Sunnyside, NY 11104