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Food & Travel

Good eats and treats on Lower East Side

Jerry Cohen, owner of Economy Candy, which is stocked with old-time sweets, including Bit-O-Honey and Pez dispensers. Jerry Cohen, owner of Economy Candy, which is stocked with old-time sweets, including Bit-O-Honey and Pez dispensers. (Lisa Zwirn for The Boston Globe)
By Lisa Zwirn
Globe Correspondent / June 2, 2010

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NEW YORK — “LES Is More’’ is the Lower East Side’s slogan, and it refers to the abundance of restaurants, food shops, clothing boutiques, galleries, and night life, coupled with a vital history and unusually diverse population.

Comprising about 10 square blocks — south of Houston Street (pronounced HOW-stin), east of Bowery, and north of Canal — the Lower East Side has absorbed millions of immigrants since the 1840s, including Germans, Irish, Eastern European Jews, Italians, and later Puerto Ricans and Chinese. The neighborhood is once again a magnet, mostly for young, artistic, and creative types. It’s also a great place to eat.

Where to begin in this maze of edibles depends on what time it is. If it’s morning, then head to the Doughnut Plant on Grand Street for perfect yeast and cake doughnuts, round or square, in flavors such as Valrhona chocolate, blackout cake, and coconut. One irresistible item is a petite “creme brulee puff’’ with a dollop of custard and a sugary coating torched to a delicate crunch. The shop closes when the day’s supply is sold out. Fresh bialys and kosher cookies and cakes are a few doors down.

Take your bag of goodies a few blocks west to Orchard Street to the Roasting Plant for what is likely to be the freshest cup of java you’ve ever had. Beans are roasted daily and stored in clear cylinders in the company’s patented Javabot. Once you’ve chosen your bean and brew style, beans are sucked up into pneumatic tubes that sweep across the ceiling and drop into the Swiss brewing system that grinds them and brews the perfect cup.

From here, stroll over to the ever evolving Essex Street Market, an indoor food court celebrating its 70th anniversary. One highlight is Roni-Sue’s Chocolates, maker of delicious buttercrunch and truffles. Founder Rhonda “Roni-Sue’’ Kave’s bacon buttercrunch has a subtle smoky-salty flavor and spicy peanut coating, but it’s her “pig candy’’ that steals the pork: crispy, curly strips of fried bacon are coated with milk or dark chocolate. Also, in the market are Saxelby Cheesemongers, where Anne Saxelby sells American farmstead cheeses from about 30 Northeast farms.

When it’s time for lunch, there’s pizza by the slice at Rosario’s or Southern-style barbecue at Georgia’s Eastside BBQ, both on Orchard; dumplings and noodle soups at Vanessa’s Dumpling House on Eldridge; 55 varieties of savory and sweet crepes at the shoebox size Creperie on Ludlow; and Italian sandwiches at Bruschetteria on Rivington. Or go to the granddaddy eatery of them all, the renowned Katz’s Delicatessen on East Houston, where the pastrami or corned beef on rye is piled on thick. Just a few doors down is the almost 100-year-old Russ & Daughters, where smoked fish, caviar, and cream cheese spreads are the specialties of the house.

One of the new kids on Stanton is The Meatball Shop, a lively cafe specializing in the much adored roly-poly comfort food. Get classic beef, spicy pork, vegetable, or the weekly special as heroes or sliders, or on top of spaghetti or mashed potatoes. Want pickles with that? At The Pickle Guys on Essex, barrels are filled with various styles of sour cukes, as well as pickled tomatoes, tomatillos, green beans, peppers, mushrooms, herring, and much more.

If the weather is nice, snag a table at ’inoteca, at Rivington and Ludlow, for optimal people-watching. The wine bar offers an extensive Italian list and lovely menu of small plates, panini, and salads. Truffled egg toast, a thick slice of grilled Pullman bread with two yolks nestled on top, comes covered with melted fontina and drizzled with truffle oil. For dessert, grab a scoop of creamy gelato or sorbet at Il Laboratorio del Gelato on Orchard.

Among the dinner options are hearty Austrian fare at Cafe Katja on Orchard, contemporary Italian at Falai on Clinton, and innovative and chic food at Wylie Dufresne’s wd-50 on Clinton.

In the end, it might be candy that wins the hearts of many visitors here. The Sweet Life on Hester is a charming spot for fine chocolates, dried fruits, and nuts. But for children of all ages, Economy Candy on Rivington is the stuff of memories. “It brings back your cavities,’’ says Jerry Cohen, whose father started the business in 1937. The store is jam-packed with old-time favorites such as Chuckles, Jujyfruits, Bit-O-Honey, wax lips, Pez dispensers, halvah, Fruit Stripe and Bazooka gum, and other treats.

LES is more, alright, and very sweet.

Lisa Zwirn can be reached at lisa@lisazwirn.com.