A few years ago, it was announced that the egg cream required reinvigorating by the foodie tastemakers in town, and they went about artisanalizing the thing, mixing it with flavors like espresso and hazelnut. This started at the Chocolate Bar, then on 7th St. Today, on the same block, shaved ice is getting its turn with the glamour treatment as the People's Pops pop-up comes to the neighborhood to serve a classic Lower East Side treat in local, greenmarket flavors.
When this happened to the egg cream, I did an egg cream tour of the Lower East Side. Now, I offer a shaved ice tour. But first a bit of history.
In New York neighborhoods wherever Puerto Ricans settled, a cup of flavored shaved ice is known as a piragua and the men who do the shaving are piragueros. Wikipedia tells us that the word "is derived from the combination of the Spanish words 'Pirámide' (pyramid) and 'Agua' (water)" because the piragua has a pointy, conical shape.
For nearly a century, the city's piragueros have served shaved ice the same way--from a rattling cart loaded with bottles of syrup, from a big block of ice, and for very little money. Today, in the East Village and Lower East Side, you can still find them, mostly in Alphabet City and along Delancey, where Latin culture still manages to hang on.
photo by John Albok, 1940, E. Harlem
In my search for piragueros, the northwesternmost one I found was on 7th Street and Avenue B, across from Vazac's Horseshoe Bar. His blue cart under a red and white umbrella offered a respite from the heat.
He wore a second-hand apron from Katz's Deli. His glass bottles fit neatly into circular holes in the cart's wooden top. His block of ice was smaller than most, but it sent up a fine spray of shavings as he worked it. I got my favorite flavor, tamarindo, with a skinny straw for $1.00.
I found another by following a trail of happy ice eaters that led me into the winding paths of the Campos Plaza NYCHA projects off 12th Street between Avenues B and C. The cart stood by a playground, sheltered beneath a tropically decorated umbrella.
The white-painted wooden cart featured glass bottles and a large block of ice protected from the sun by a plaid tea towel. The piraguero shaped the ice's tall head with a gloved hand and his metal shaver. Coconut, a classic flavor, cost $1.00 for a small.
The next piraguero was parked on Avenue C at 6th Street. This gentleman wore a shirt with horses embroidered over the pockets and a weathered hat. His cart was made of wood, with round holes to hold the bottles, and painted a lovely shade of pistachio green. His ice was protected by a green garbage bag.
He gave the ice something of a pyramidal top with the metal scraper and, like the last two piragueros, served it with a slender cocktail straw. Another tamarindo for $1.00.
On Avenue C and 3rd, the piraguero keeps his syrups not in glass bottles, but in plastic ones recycled from supermarket colas. His block of ice is protected from the sun by a rooster-decorated tea towel and a red, white, and blue umbrella. His cart is also made of wood.
From him I got the blue--raspberry? blueberry?--a flavor with a startling color best left to kids for its too-sweet taste. This one was not shaped into a pyramid, but it was served with a cocktail straw and cost $1.00.
I did not find one piraguero on all of Avenue D, nor in East River Park, where I remember them being years ago. Delancey, however, was a hotbed. Here, the scene changes a bit as the piragueros feature more fanciful straws. At Delancey and Clinton, from a wood and metal cart painted a mossy green, an assortment of colorful bendy straws are kept in a repurposed juice bottle.
The piraguero matches the straw to your ice--in this case, orange for orange. This one tasted pleasantly like Gatorade. It also cost $1.00.
Finally, at Delancey and Norfolk, from a stainless steel cart reclaimed from a hot dog vendor, we find a piraguero who shapes his ice with a funnel to get that perfect pyramidal top. Before he adds the syrup, he presses the funnel onto the ice, giving it a point. With no circular slots to hold his bottles on the hot dog cart, he keeps them in red plastic Coca-Cola trays. His ice block is protected inside a plastic garbage bag.
Like his Delancey competitor, he pairs the flavor with its corresponding straw--here it's purple for grape--and, like every other piraguero around, he charges $1.00 for the small.
There may be more out there, but I stopped here. Later, for comparison, I tried the People's Pops pop-up.
I had been wondering where the piragueros get their blocks of ice. The server at People's Pops was telling another customer that there are places "around here" to get block ice, but they get theirs from "a guy in Pennsylvania." He talked about the ice for a bit--the impressive size and weight of it--then talked about local strawberries, how it's late in the season for strawberries, but due to a frost, they were able to have them for their popsicles.
The block of ice sat uncovered and melting in the sun. There were just two bottles with two flavors: rhubarb or red plum. The small cup cost $2.50, it is not shaped into a pyramid, and does not come with a straw of any kind. Instead, you get a flat wooden spoon. The ice is difficult to maneuver with the spoon. I wished for a straw. The mixed red plum and rhubarb flavors are hard to discern, like a subtle herbal tea, more ice than juice.
While the classic piraguas really are refreshing drinks, this one's more like a sno-cone that you have to figure out how to get into your mouth.
This seems to be the future of shaved ice in the city. Last year, the Times announced that the snow cone has "grown up" and it's only become more popular since with Imperial Woodpecker Sno-Balls, the Kelvin Slush truck, and many others upscaling this poor person's treat. On the Lower East Side, while an icy war rages between Ray's Candy and NYC Icy, at Pulino's the chef "freezes a purée of almonds, sugar and water, then sends it through the fine grating blade of her Robot Coupe R2N so that a light almond-flavored snow gathers in heaps."
But outside of the icy hubbub, beyond the gee-whiz factor, in an alternate universe where "artisanal" isn't even mentioned, you can still find the real thing. And, yes, it's still the best.