Finding the perfect egg custard | Food
“New York’s quintessential drink for a soda fountain or a luncheonette is custard,” says John Philis, co-owner of Lexington Candy Shop on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
John, a graduate of New York University, is the third-generation owner of the business, which dates back to 1925. His grandfather, Soterios Philis, started it four years after he left his native Greece to make his way to America.
“He came to the land of hopes and dreams, to quote one of our clients, Bruce Springsteen,” John tells us.
The Lexington Candy Shop is a lunch classic with a soda fountain, probably the last of its kind in New York. The company no longer makes candy, but the name has never changed. During the first decades of its existence, chocolate bunnies, Santa Clauses and jelly eggs were made in the basement.
John’s father, Peter Philis, came to America in 1930 and oversaw the shop for many years. In 1948 it began to take on its current character as a canteen and soda fountain.
Sir Paul McCartney has been eating at the Lexington Candy Shop since around 1968. The owners held fashion shoots at Brooks Brothers. And several movies, including “Three Days of the Condor” with Robert Redford, feature scenes from Lexington.
But cheeseburgers topped with melting butter, tuna salad sandwiches, and small trays of bacon and eggs still attract diners looking for the simple, authentic food of the past.
We first heard about the Lexington Candy Shop about 12 years ago, the day before we left New York and returned home. I noticed an article in USA Today that ranked the best American milkshakes. Lexington’s was on the list, made with Bassett’s Philadelphia ice cream, 16% fat, and blended with a blender made in 1940. Now a stop at the Lexington Candy Shop is a must for us every time we visit New York. When people ask us for restaurant recommendations, this is the first place we mention, for a taste of old New York.
My quest for good egg custard began in 1993, with a visit to Yonah Schimmel’s (sign says Shimmel) Knish Bakery on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Its current location opened in 1910, probably only 10 or 15 years after custard was created. On another trip, I tried the egg custard at Eisenberg’s Sandwich Shop in the Flatiron District, which opened in 1929 and served its last hot pastrami sandwich in March 2021, amid the coronavirus pandemic. COVID.
To understand what an egg custard is, it is best to start with the name. And there are several theories. The one I’ve heard most often is that “egg” is a corruption of the Yiddish and German word “echt,” which means true or real. Thus, it would have been a drink made with real cream. This little etymology makes sense, considering the drink likely originated with Jewish immigrants from New York’s Lower East Side.
That’s why my quest for custard began with Jewish restaurants. But there’s also a Greek angle to the story, and that’s where the Lexington Candy Shop comes in. By the time Lexington opened in 1925, egg custards were quite common in New York.
“Before the 20th century, egg custards were pretty inexpensive,” says John Philis of Lexington. “Back then, people would put a raw egg in it and beat it, and it created this foam. When my ancestors, my ethnicity the Greeks, entered the business, these wonderful entrepreneurs realized that they could make such a good drink, and have all this foam, without putting an egg in it. So, at the turn of the 20th century, the egg disappeared.
What is an egg custard today? John describes it as ice cream soda without ice cream.
“A lot of places use milk, but we use half and half. It gives it a richer, creamier taste. And we put syrup on, and then we add seltzer water. -half, a few ounces of syrup and the rest is seltzer water. And then we stir.”
Attempts have been made to bottle egg creams commercially, but they never work. Egg custards should be eaten immediately after being mixed.
The traditional chocolate syrup used in egg custards is a brand called Fox’s U-Bet. But Lexington takes the time and trouble to make its own chocolate syrup from cocoa, sugar and water, with no emulsifiers or preservatives. Extra touches like this catapulted Lexington to the top of the custard world.
“You can find it everywhere, but we’re known for our egg custards,” says John. “We’re famous for them, and people come from all over just to have the custard. They will stop at the bus stop and risk taking a ticket to have an egg custard.
Although chocolate is the flavor of about 80% of the custards that Lexington serves, it’s not the only option. John prefers vanilla.
“And a gentleman in his late 70s comes twice a day for a coffee egg custard. He has to find excuses to get out of the house because his wife is getting angry. We make our own coffee syrup, which is very hard to find.
John Philis is clearly and understandably proud of his egg creams and the three generations of dedication that have made this historic beverage a favorite in his family business.
“It’s a nice dark chocolate drink with a white frothy head,” he says. “It’s definitely worthy of a picture.”
Fred Sauceman is the author of “The Proffitts of Ridgewood: An Appalachian Family’s Life in Barbecue.”