Soft blues music greeted me as I entered this remarkable hidden gem on West 10th Street. I found the current New York Times hanging on a rack and a case filled with bags and tins of tea. Before settling into a cozy corner with Tom, the photographer from Manhattan Sideways, I met the extraordinary couple who own the store, ready to guide me through a tea adventure. I immediately thought to myself, this might be the best kept secret in the Village, but I am sure it will not be for long.
Federico Ribeiro and Elena Liao met at Highlands, just a short distance away, in 2009 while both were having a drink at the bar. Elena already had a deep passion for Taiwanese tea and wanted to bring the product, along with her knowledge, to Manhattan. Elena moved to the States from Taiwan when she was thirteen but she loves returning "home," and has a good connection with the farmers. "I drank tea all my life; it is the national beverage in Taiwan." Whenever her parents had company, tea was served. Federico enjoyed cooking; he had worked in several top restaurants, including Per Se, but was eager to learn about the history of oolong tea. Thus, the two began traveling together, visiting Elena's parents in Taiwan and spending time with tea farmers. With their strong education and sense of aesthetics, the two decided to open their own charming space.
Elena had a tea company for four years prior to opening Te. She had been selling to restaurants, attempting to offer a more intensive program, but she recognized that she was not reaching enough of an audience. She had increasingly felt that in the States, there was a great awareness and appreciation for coffee and wine, but not so much for tea. She became determined to change this by giving people a more "sensitive experience." The city lacked places to find oolong tea. "There was a real void, and in a city where you can find just about anything, I felt that one should also be able to find my tea." In 2016, the couple opened their magical shop with a focus on Taiwanese tea.
Te has about twenty different types of Taiwanese tea. They all come from the same plant, but differences in processing result in distinct categories: oolong, black, green, macha or white tea. The level of oxidation determines the tea's color and how strong it will be. Elena told me that she chose to focus solely on the tea from her homeland - "otherwise it would become overwhelming." She went on to share that she "read and read and read - I educated myself." By meeting with the farmers, however, and returning every year in May (the harvest season), she is able to taste the leaves as they are first picked and can control what they are receiving back in Manhattan. "I am always learning so that I can be certain that I am providing my customers with the best possible product."
Everything about Te is well thought out and Elena and Federico work quietly and professionally to be sure that each patron has the exact experience that fits his or her needs. When we sat down and ordered a pot of tea, we were told that whenever we needed more hot water, we simply had to tilt the cover to the side, and that would signal that we needed our pot filled. There was no need to disrupt our conversation. For the customer who wants to settle in at one of the few small tables and work undisturbed on their computer, they are welcome, as is the person who would like to sit and have an elaborate tasting with Elena.
For Tom and me, we were eager to hear the couple's stories and to become a bit more educated about tea. Elena sat down and happily described every aspect of the world of tea, clearly demonstrating her passion and knowledge. Presenting us with a small soft leather book that contained the tea menu, Elena flipped through the pages, describing some of her favorites. When I spoke with them, Federico and Elena had only been open for a couple months, and they were very pleased to be able to say that they already had regulars. "People love to come in and sit down and chat about tea." I do not think that Elena could ask for anything better than that.
Although they feel that they are constantly trying to "reinvent" themselves, depending on the needs and desires of their audience, I believe that Elena and Federico have already found a fantastic formula. Oh, but I did not mention the food! The menu is tiny, as Federico prepares each dish by hand, but the few items could not be any more perfect. I had a simple red leaf salad with a light olive oil dressing, toasted almonds and freshly grated parmesan. I savored every bite. Tom had never tasted anything quite like what he ordered - Tortilla de Patata. Federico said that it was just potatoes, onions and egg. I chimed in, saying, "kind of like a quiche without the crust," but Tom insisted that it was nothing of the sort. All he could mutter was "out of this world." Even the sourdough Portuguese bread served alongside my salad was outstanding, but that, we learned, is because Federico makes it himself.
This bright and colorful West Village thrift shop is just one of the many businesses run by Housing Works, one of New York's highly regarded non-profits. Housing Works was founded in 1990 by members of ACT UP, an AIDS activist group that is dedicated to fighting the joint issues of homelessness and the AIDS epidemic. Their first thrift shop opened in Chelsea in 1992 and thirteen more have opened throughout the city since then, as well as a bookstore café in SoHo.At the height of the AIDS epidemic, the social stigma associated with those living with the virus or simply being LGBTQ+ resulted in thousands of individuals being denied the foundation of a stable living: housing. Whether it was from familial rejection or housing discrimination, more and more HIV positive people found themselves on the streets, and poverty, queerness, and AIDS soon became intrinsically linked. Recognizing this often neglected connection, the founders of Housing Works sought to create an organization that addressed this crisis. The non-profit is committed to ending the dual crises of homelessness and AIDS through relentless advocacy, the provision of lifesaving services, and entrepreneurial businesses that sustain their efforts.Luke, a member of the Manhattan Sideways team, sat down with the 10th Street store manager, Lauren Guttenplan, to discuss the community atmosphere forged in their shop. She mentioned, “Community feels very central to the mission. We’re not too far from Christopher Street and Stonewall, so many of our customers and volunteers have lost someone or have a personal connection to the cause. They like to know that the money they’re spending is going to help towards something good.” Guttenplan also noted that many of their regular customers come in as frequently as once or twice a day, and that the staff, the majority of whom are volunteers, often know customers’ names. Some patrons will even make a point to shop on a day where they know when a particular volunteer is working. Guttenplan credits much of the success of the operation to the devotion of the volunteers, whom she describes as “the face of the store.” The shopping experience is truly unlike many other in that there are opportunities for customers to become volunteers or get involved in local activism and protests.With a retail background and a degree in social work, Lauren finds Housing Works to be a perfect blend of her passions. The organization provides the unique opportunity to run a business and actually make a difference. She appreciates that with programs like job training, it is particularly satisfying to witness the impact of her work first hand.Because all of the merchandise sold in the stores is donated, each of the Housing Works shops also serves as a reflection of the surrounding neighborhood. The West Village shop, with plenty of natural lighting and exposed brick, features not only fun and unique clothing selections, but also many household items, including kitchen items, home décor, and even furniture. The store hosts a number of events, the biggest of which are the Best of Fall and Best of Spring sales.
What started out as a couple of ice cream trucks in 2008, has since become a beloved collection of shops throughout Brooklyn and New York City. Van Leeuwen offers delicious fresh milk ice cream and vegan options made with only “coconut and cashew milk, raw cocoa butter, extra virgin olive oil, and organic sugar cane.” These artisanal ice cream makers are extremely concerned with the quality of their product and the source of their ingredients - their vanilla flavor comes from organic bourban and Tahitian vanilla orchids, and their chocolate from a family-run French company concerned with quality and free trade practices, Michele Cluizel Chocolate. Van Leeuwen also offers sophisticated flavors like ginger, sweet sticky black rice, earl grey tea, Ceylon cinnamon, and salted caramel with buffalo trace bourbon. This is a must try ice cream spot for vegans, dairy-lovers, and everyone else.
When I walked into Clash City Tattoos, Baz was hunched over his station, completing a tattoo sketch. The space popped with bold red walls, brightly colored ink bottles, and large tattoo designs. One could not miss the almost human-sized bass in the corner if they tried – “some friends just like to come in and play the bass,” Baz told me as he shrugged his shoulders. Music influences much more of this tattoo shop’s ideology than I could have anticipated. Named after Baz’s favorite band, the space encapsulates the idea that just as The Clash could play such a range of genres, so too could Baz’s tattoos encompass all kinds of people. “Lawyers and rockstars alike listen to The Clash,” he elaborated, “and I want my tattoos to unite my customers, just as a single beat can unite different listeners.”Baz first visited the United States in 1991 while working on a cruise ship and was immediately drawn to everything American – particularly the music, cars, and TV shows. Working in a comic bookstore, he was captivated by posters for Iron Man, Planet of the Apes, and an assortment of cartoon superheroes. He claimed it was the “solid black lines, bold colors, and clear forms” of comic art that lent it a unique and sophisticated artistic quality. Moreover, his mother’s admiration for surrealist painter Salvador Dali offered him an early penchant for the freedom of abstract art anchored in bold lines – the ideal forms for tattoo art.Clients coming into Clash City Tattoos have usually heard about the store and like to visit with an idea of what they want inked. While Baz and his team are exceptionally friendly, asserting that their store “is a place that you won’t have to be afraid to walk into,” they are also honest with clients about which designs work and which simply do not. Equipped with a creative bent, the team mostly designs custom tattoos using clients’ ideas. However, when someone comes in asking for a "full bible verse on their little finger" or an arrangement of “a heart with four names in it, two wings on either side, and a crown on top in the size of a fist,” the team knows when to say “this isn’t working; let’s fine-tune.” What is more, they pay exceptionally close attention to each client’s pain tolerance. While some can manage three hours of inking in a go, others (like Baz’s wife, he laughs) only last ten minutes.I asked Baz about the most challenging tattoo he was tasked with designing. When the bass player of globally-renowned British band Muse, Chris, asked for a tattoo of his son’s name, Buster, in Disney font, Baz started thinking of ways to make the design more complex and unique. A few days later, Chris and Baz were hanging out with a group of friends, when Chris recounted a story about Buster. The young boy was playing with his toys at home when he ran straight into the corner of an table and cut his forehead. But he continued with his play as usual until Chris’ wife noticed a large gash on his head and rushed him to the hospital. Buster was unfazed. The story inspired Baz to draw up the tattoo that now decorates Chris’ right forearm – a smirking cartoon kid with boxing gloves over the name “Buster” in striking black font. Chris loved it.Looking at Baz’s journey thus far, it is easy to see how he has settled into a characteristic set of themes and motifs. Through space backgrounds, gypsy girls, cartoon superheroes, and more, Baz eventually reached a signature design – “pin-up girls with stuff in their hair,” as he amusedly called it. I was thrilled to see his gorgeous side profiles of girls with complex forms – ships, octopuses, and more – wrapped in the locks of their hair. Baz’s artistic genius spans a wide range of imagery, fixed into his defining black lines and bold forms.
I had heard about these baths for years, believe it or not, from my grandmother who lived nearby on Avenue A as a child. Needless to say, I was eager to have a look inside this spa that has been around since 1892. Upon entering, clients are given a key to the locker room, then told to take some towels and select a sauna...be it a Russian one that has a rock filled oven or an electrically heated redwood sauna. In addition, there is an aromatherapy room, a steam room and a Turkish room complete with cold showers. Other amenities include an ice-cold pool, a Swedish shower with cold-water jets, a sun deck, and a small cafe that serves an authentic Russian menu. Some on the list of treatments include a Swedish/Russian massage, Thai/Sports massage, the Platza Oak Leaf Treatment that involves being whacked with a bundle of soapy oak leaves and oil, or a Dead Sea Salt Scrub. Although I did not chose to venture past my guided tour of the baths, I did experience an old world, warm community with many foreign speaking clients.
Pinto Garden began on Christopher Street in 2006 and moved to its current location on 10th Street a decade later. Stepping inside the fairly new, intimate space, the Manhattan Sideways team was greeted by chef and owner, Yo Teerawong. After a few minutes of conversation with Chef Yo in the covered backyard secret oasis, we quickly learned that his goal with Pinto was specifically not to create a typical Thai restaurant, but rather to design an environment that looks and feels more like one is in one's own home.Sitting in the garden, Luke, a summer intern, began to notice a particular decorative pattern: rabbits. From tiny porcelain statues along the shelves to the wallpaper in the restrooms and the illustrations on the menus, an eclectic collection of rabbit-themed artwork permeated the space. Chef Yo explained that this is a subtle reference to his personal background, as his mother was born in the Thai Year of the Rabbit, as was the current King of Thailand. Chef Yo, himself, immigrated to the U.S. twenty years ago from Bangkok. When he became interested in learning to cook, his good friend, who trained in the kitchens of Jean Georges, taught him the craft. Yo told us that he had the pleasure of befriending another well known chef, Thomas Keller, many years ago. As a matter of fact, Chef Yo admitted that it was Mr. Keller who suggested that he try to create a "home" when designing Pinto. Yo then laughed, saying, "I now refer to Pinto Garden as my vacation home."Subversion of presumptions plays into Chef Yo’s menu as well. “I want to take out any expectation for a specific type of cuisine - there’s more to ethnic food in New York City than that.” He notes that while many will anticipate typical spicy pad dishes with plenty of fish sauce, he prefers to develop his menu based on what is available at the farmer's market in Union Square, all the while imagining the smells and flavors of his mother’s cooking from growing up in Thailand. "What I enjoy best is recreating these tastes of traditional Thai cuisine while adding my own flare." One example that he cited was replacing strawberry with rhubarb. The result is wholly original. He remarked, “Even some of my Thai friends come in and say ‘Oh, I’ve never heard of that.’”In the middle of our chat, Chef Yo stood up and announced that he was now going into the kitchen to cook for us. It did not take long for him to present several interesting and beautifully plated dishes. Included was crab fried rice served inside of a coconut topped with egg, a salad of lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, mint, chili jam, and roasted peanut artfully arranged inside a banana blossom and wild mushroom salad with a spicy lime dressing. Each plate combined flavors, perhaps reminiscent of Thai food, but certainly set far apart from what any of us were used to eating.Before leaving, Chef Yo added that he was looking forward to mixing traditional and trendy in his new brunch menu, which will include typical American items with a Thai twist, such as chicken and lemongrass waffles.