Can You Still Get A Great Egg Cream In NYC?
Ask a New Yorker where to get the best egg cream, and you’ll either get a very strong opinion or a blank stare. At the height of their popularity in the early 1900s, thousands of egg creams were sold every day. Now, the iconic combination of seltzer, milk, and Fox’s U-Bet chocolate syrup has mostly been relegated to nostalgia.
“They’re very popular with a very small population of customers,” says Josh Russ Tupper, the fourth-generation owner of smoked fish purveyor Russ & Daughters.
Even if relatively few people know about egg creams, that hasn’t stopped devotees from keeping this New York City tradition alive. I grew up drinking egg creams in my grandparents’ apartment in Midwood, Brooklyn, which boasted (according to my grandfather) the best egg cream in the borough. Now as an adult with a more developed sense of taste and no living grandparents, I decided to find out where—if anywhere—you can still get a great egg cream.
“A crappy egg cream is not something you want to try again,” says Gia Giasulo, who co-owns Brooklyn Farmacy in Carroll Gardens with her brother, Peter Freeman. “I think that’s part of the reason why people stopped knowing about them, because people don’t know how to make them, and then they’re tasting them and it’s like, nothing to write home about.”
Giasulo and Freeman’s vintage revival soda fountain housed in a former apothecary is a veritable museum to the egg cream. Recipes and signs advertising their signature drink are all over the walls, big band classics play through the sound system, and the egg cream is front and center on the menu.
“Peter and I had no background in soda fountains—no background in ice cream, really—but one of the things that we had is a passion for egg creams,” Giasulo says. Educating the next generation is just as important to the Brooklyn Farmacy team as getting the drink’s signature frothy head exactly right. Their version is almost scholarly in its purity—light, refreshing, and not very sweet, which is how you might imagine it would have tasted in the early 1900s. I drank three in a row and didn’t feel terrible afterwards, which says something about their milk-to-syrup-to-seltzer ratio.
There’s no definitive origin story for the egg cream, or how it got its name. Most people agree that it emerged from the Lower East Side’s Jewish community and was likely either invented—or at least popularized—by the confectioner Louis Auster. Some believe that the term “egg cream” is actually Brooklynese for grade A cream, while others think that there may, at one point, have been actual whipped egg whites involved. Another theory is that it’s a transliteration of the Yiddish “echt keem,” which translates roughly to “pure sweetness.”
It takes three ingredients and less than a minute to make an egg cream, but people have a tendency to resort to magical thinking around the process. They’ll tell you it has to be made with Fox’s U-Bet chocolate syrup, that the seltzer must come from a siphon bottle, or that it can only be served in a chilled pint glass. Some say that whole milk is the only acceptable base, others that half-and-half or straight heavy cream are preferable. But it’s the seltzer that purists tend to get precious about.
Juliana’s Pizza, an offshoot of the Grimaldi’s empire, exclusively uses siphon seltzer sourced from Brooklyn Seltzer Boys. “One thing everyone agrees on is seltzer, right?” Juliana’s co-owner Matthew Grogan insists when it comes to a great egg cream. “That’s the one, there’s no dispute about ingredients. It’s seltzer.”
Seltzer is the unquestionable star of the Juliana’s egg cream, which uses heavy cream instead of the more common whole milk as a base. The bubbles are huge, towering almost two inches above the rim of the glass at their peak, and the drink is dense and sweet beneath the foam topping.
At Russ & Daughters, which has been selling egg creams since the turn of the century, they make a hyper-traditional version at all of their locations. However, only the storefront on Houston Street uses seltzer from a siphon bottle, which they get from “a guy named Walter.” At their three cafes, they have a seltzer tap designed to closely mimic the pressure and bubble structure of siphon seltzer.
“We hope that there’s nothing that makes ours different,” he said before making me an egg cream that tasted very much like it could have come out of my grandfather’s kitchen. It was chocolate syrup-forward without being cloying, less milky than an iced latte, and had fine-textured bubbles that were spread throughout the drink rather than concentrated at the top.
The highly pressurized carbonated water that comes out of a siphon bottle or a carefully calibrated tap not only gets you closest to what might have been served at Louis Auster’s candy shop - it also adds to the experience. Giasulo tells me that the most important element of an exceptional egg cream is the attitude of the person who makes it—a bold claim that I’ve come to believe is true.
As I wandered the city over the course of a week drinking multiple egg creams every day, I started to notice that you could tell whether or not a person was emotionally ready to make an egg cream. It’s part mixology, part performance. To get it right, you have to be confident (and quick) about the process. Some people seem almost born to make egg creams, and Ray Alvarez is one of them.
At Ray’s Candy Store, the legendary East Village deli that famously stayed open during the 1988 Tompkins Square Park riot, there’s a handwritten sign taped to the door that reads “Best Egg Creams In Town.” If you’re lucky, Ray himself will be manning the counter. The 88-year-old has swagger in spades, and when you order an egg cream, you’re certain he knows what he’s doing.
Ray’s face lights up a little when making an egg cream, and he moves with the assurance of someone who’s been doing this for decades. People travel from all over to see if Ray is still performing alchemy with syrup, milk, and seltzer. On a recent visit, a customer had come all the way from California just to report back to her husband that Ray was, in fact, still making soda fountain magic.
“I buy the best,” he says when I ask what kind of syrup he uses for his egg creams—Seabreeze for vanilla, Bosco’s for chocolate. Already there’s a departure from tradition, but the result is as close to old-school New York as you can still get. It’s served in a waxy paper cup, no lid, no straw. He waits to watch you take the first sip, not wondering whether or not he did his job right, but anticipating the positive reaction.
“My boys that work here, they want to put a cover on,” Ray laments, proudly showing off the foam atop a black and white egg cream he made for me on a recent visit. “I say no! Leave the bubbles.”
Nearly everyone I spoke to for this story agreed that the way an egg cream is served impacts both the egg cream itself and the drinking experience. On a recent visit to Yonah Schimmel’s Knishery, where they’ve been slinging Ashkenazi Jewish food since the late 1800s, they wouldn’t even make me an egg cream because they didn’t have the right cups.
And then, there’s the Shopsin’s egg cream, which defies tradition in all the best ways. Luke, who waits tables, preps food, mans the counter, and makes the egg creams, is like a modern-day soda jerk with a prog-rock aesthetic. He starts our conversation by telling me that he doesn’t personally like egg creams, but he knows what makes them good. What makes the Shopsin’s egg cream exceptional, I’m pretty sure, is Luke.
He uses seltzer from a SodaStream Fizzi (the exact same model I have sitting out on my kitchen counter), half-and-half, and either the classic Fox’s U-Bet or an unnamed neon orange syrup to make some of the best egg creams I’ve ever had. The half-and-half lends a richness that most other versions lack, bringing it squarely into the dessert-adjacent category. The preparation is quick and dirty—blink and you’ll miss the process—and the fact that the bubbles come tumbling over the sides of the glass are the first indication that this drink is something special.
“It’s a real technique thing when you make it,” Luke says. “It’s kind of a perfect storm of everything. But if you know what you’re doing, the seltzer brand really doesn’t truly matter.”
And he’s right. The egg creams at Shopsin’s have a foam that lingers all the way to the bottom of the cup, which flies in the face of the conventional understanding that an egg cream looks beautiful for “about 62 seconds,” as Russ Tupper says.
If you’ve never had or heard of an egg cream, or if you’ve only ever tasted a mediocre example, these are five of the best places in New York City to try one.
New York’s Best Egg Creams
Ray’s is known for many things: fried Oreos, Ray’s annual burlesque birthday party, and egg creams. The black-and-white is Ray’s personal favorite, combining Seabreeze vanilla and Bosco’s chocolate syrup. There are around 10 different flavors to choose from, down from the 30 or so that Ray used to serve “before the health department said no no no,” forcing him to downsize his collection of gallon syrup jugs that lined the floor. The seltzer comes from a modern soda fountain next to the cash register, which is added a little at a time while the drink is stirred. It has a head reminiscent of soap bubbles that turns velvety after a minute or so before it disappears.
The chocolate egg cream at Shopsin’s is rich and flavorful, akin to a sparkling chocolate milkshake, but the orange egg cream is better. Made with a syrup that tastes like a condensed bottle of Fanta and a generous glug of half-and-half, this drink is the ultimate iteration of the creamsicle. Due to some kind of magic (or the chemical interactions of the fatty cream and slightly acidic orange syrup), the bubbles stay intact, no matter how slowly you sip your drink. It’s worth the trip to their new location in the Essex Market just to have an orange egg cream, but the slightly tangy, creamy beverage pairs particularly well with the sweet-and-piquant “Jewboy” barbecue brisket sandwich.
The Best Restaurants & Bars At Essex Market
The head on this egg cream is exuberantly frothy for about a minute, but it leaves a dense microfoam in its wake — and the drink has an effervescence that lasts through the last sip. Brave the line at the Houston Street storefront and you’ll get to see their siphon seltzer in action, but the tap seltzer at their cafes gets the job done too. They use whole milk and Fox’s U-Bet to make a very classic egg cream at all of their locations, but you can sometimes get carob and vanilla variations at their Lower East Side cafe.
By far the most delicate egg cream on this list, Brooklyn Farmacy uses seltzer from a vintage Bastian Blessing carburetor, which creates a light foam that settles in a thick layer. They don’t use a ton of syrup, so the drink isn’t cloying. It’s meant to be finished quickly, chugged without a straw so you get a foam mustache. Brooklyn Farmacy has a few different flavors, like vanilla (also a classic) and the fairly unique maple egg cream. For those who want something a bit more rich, order the “Flatbush Float,” an egg cream topped with a scoop of ice cream.
The egg cream at Juliana’s has the most exuberant foam of any that I’ve tried. The head comes up almost a full two inches over the rim of the pint glass it’s served in, though it doesn’t last as long as some others. Here, they use heavy cream as the base, resulting in the richest, most milkshake-like beverage of the bunch. It’s a perfect accompaniment to a coal fired margherita pizza. If you close your eyes and ignore the hordes of tourists that come to this spot (Juliana’s is housed in the OG Grimaldi’s location), you’ll get a taste of what it might have been like to eat at a New York pizza shop around the turn of the century.