How To Order A Sandwich From A Bodega Like A True New Yorker

pastrami on rye before bodega
pastrami on rye before bodega - Static Media / Shutterstock / Getty

To non-New Yorkers, the illustrious reputation of bodegas may seem like a whole lot of hoopla over nothing. For the rest of the nation, a bodega is just a convenience store in New York City — but here in New York, bodegas are as celebrated as our flimsy scaffolding is despised. A New York City bodega is a small store that sells snacks, basic toiletries, beer, soda, and — most importantly — deli sandwiches.

When Puerto Rican immigrants began opening shops in the city in the early 1900s, these establishments became emblematic of their community, adopting a name derived from the Spanish term for a grocery store. These shops added to the city's melting pot alongside esteemed NYC Jewish delis, Italian markets, and Middle Eastern street food vendors.

The allure of bodegas is brought to wider attention when public figures attempt to claim authenticity by visiting or referring to them. Recently the online pot was stirred by a viral video of Jennifer Lopez, apparently depicting her Bronx bodega lunch order. Her vaguely worded order inspired widespread backlash among Bronx locals — ordering a sandwich at a New York City bodega is a sacred ritual that requires methodical skills.

For visitors planning a trip, stopping for a quick lunch at one of these storied establishments is essential. Drawing from my extensive firsthand experience, I've curated this collection of tips and tricks to help you fully embrace what could arguably be deemed the most quintessential New York experience of all.

Read more: Restaurant Foods That Always Taste Better Than What You Make At Home

Know What You Want Ahead Of Time

woman points into deli case
woman points into deli case - Martin-dm/Getty Images

A bodega's menu may seem daunting at first, but once you've grown accustomed to the city, you'll find that almost every bodega specializes in the exact same fare. Usually, you'll find minor differences based on the culinary traditions of the owners and employees, but you can always expect the New York staples. The esteemed bacon, egg, and cheese is an obvious choice for breakfast, and for lunch, choose from an array of deli meats, condiments, and veggies to craft any sandwich. Or, pick something from the menu. Bodegas offer some of the best sandwiches in New York, so you really can't go wrong with any pre-established option.

Unfortunately, most bodegas keep their one and only menu above the deli counter on a massive display, meaning that you won't get the chance to browse the offerings for long before facing an employee ready to take your order. Before queuing up, make sure you've got your order down pat, complete with all desired toppings and condiments, to minimize the need for answering any time-consuming follow-up questions during the ordering process. Any New Yorker will tell you that an impatient bodega employee is a force to be reckoned with, so always come prepared.

Order At The Deli Counter, Not At The Register

deli counter in bodega
deli counter in bodega - Andrew Lichtenstein/Getty Images

When you first walk into a bodega, you'll likely spot the register area where you'll find candy, gum, and lottery tickets. The counter doesn't look like it has anything to do with fresh sandwiches, but you might shrug that off and attempt to place your lunch order with the employee at the register, while the other bodega customers look on in horror. It's an honest mistake, but it's also a dead giveaway that you're a tourist.

It may seem odd at first, but in order to get your hands on a delectable New York-style deli sandwich, you'll have to bypass the register and walk deeper into the bodega's depths. Here, you'll find a case stocked with the best deli meats, cheeses, and oftentimes a selection of cold salads, like macaroni salad and coleslaw.

Behind the meat case, you'll notice the aforementioned menu board, and standing before that board will be an employee, patiently waiting to take your order and craft your sandwich. After you receive it, you'll either pay at the deli counter or at the register, depending on the bodega. If you're unsure of any steps in the process, try to spot what the seasoned regulars are doing.

Always Be Specific

lox bagel with fixings
lox bagel with fixings - Cabeca de Marmore/Shutterstock

One of the reasons why New Yorkers were so appalled at J.Lo's bodega order was that it wasn't specific enough. She claims that her go-to order is a ham and cheese on a roll, but such a general order would result in a slew of follow-up questions. Getting stuck at the deli counter trying to answer questions from a frustrated and very busy employee is an embarrassing headache, so make sure you get specific, down to every nitty-gritty detail.

Certain orders, like breakfast sandwiches, are self-explanatory enough. They're usually always served with American cheese, unless otherwise specified, and come on a hard roll or Kaiser roll, unless you ask for a wrap or bagel (just don't forget to determine whether or not you want salt, pepper, and ketchup). But for most lunch sandwiches, you'll need to know what kind of veggies you want, your condiment choices, whether you want your sandwich hot or cold, and what kind of bread you'd like it on. Simply asking for a turkey sandwich — or in J.Lo's case, a ham and cheese sandwich — isn't enough to satisfy those tasked with making sure that you get the lunch you've been dreaming about all afternoon.

Don't Be Afraid To Ask Questions

bodega clerk helps two customers
bodega clerk helps two customers - Lechatnoir/Getty Images

New York City bodega employees are famously intimidating. Like most New Yorkers, they always seem to be in a rush and take their jobs very seriously. But beyond their daunting exterior, ultimately, they want to ensure that your experience in their establishment goes as smoothly as possible. They also want you to love your sandwich. That's why, if you're new to the New York sandwich scene, it's important to ask questions if you're unsure about an ingredient or what the best toppings for your handheld meal might be.

While many bodegas offer similar fare, some boast unique menu items or ingredients tailored to their cultural roots or the needs of their community. For example, some bodegas are Indian-owned and offer flavorful Indian ingredients, spices, or sauces. If you're looking to expand your palate by trying delicious Indian dishes, but you're not sure what to choose, always ask before you make a commitment to a meal. You'll find that, despite a possibly tough persona, those crafting your meal are more than happy to answer any questions. Just be mindful not to dawdle too much during the lunch rush — New Yorkers aren't known for their patience.

Customize To Your Heart's Content

overflowing deli sandwich
overflowing deli sandwich - Jon Osumi/Shutterstock

One key difference between ordering a sandwich at a bodega and grabbing lunch at a restaurant is the ability to customize. New Yorkers love having the option to craft a sandwich precisely how they want it without having to stock their kitchen at home with a wide assortment of sandwich fixings. Do you like a slurry of every single available condiment on your sandwich? Maybe three different types of meat? Double-extra onions? The bodega can make it happen for you, and you don't have to worry about being judged — deli employees have assuredly seen it all.

Although customization allows for near-endless possibilities, don't forget to keep your demands reasonable. If you'd love a sandwich with egg salad, tuna salad, coleslaw, and extra mayo, maybe hold off on all the wet ingredients so the employee behind the counter doesn't feel bad about handing you a sopping wet sandwich. Most bodegas generously provide a variety of vegetable toppings and condiments at no additional cost, but it's wise to exercise restraint with the extras. After all, you don't want to elicit groans from the staff every time you step through the door, and you want your meal to remain as intact as possible.

Be Patient

man walking out of bodega
man walking out of bodega - Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

Although bodegas are famous for getting your order to you as quickly as possible, a New York City lunch rush can quickly turn a quick stop into a lengthy debacle. Often there will be a lone employee behind the deli counter at a bodega, making every sandwich for every single customer who steps through the door. Patience and understanding are necessary in this situation. Be prepared to wait even longer if you're at one of New York's top bodegas, well-known for exceptional sandwiches. Word spreads fast, and the better bodegas are usually packed, but it's almost always worth the wait.

If you have a busy day ahead of you, try to prepare ahead of time and grab your lunch before the rush arrives. While it might not initially seem ideal to let your lunch sit, grabbing a sandwich a couple of hours ahead of time allows the flavors to meld together. This also gives the condiments ample opportunity to soak into the bread and meat, yielding an exceptionally juicy and delicious sandwich.

You can also frequent smaller stores in quieter neighborhoods for a quicker lunch stop. You might even find your new favorite spot using this method.

Cash Is King

ATM in bodega
ATM in bodega - Lechatnoir/Getty Images

These days, it's rare to encounter an establishment that refuses to take credit cards, but this doesn't mean that businesses don't prefer cash transactions. Most bodegas — like other small stores and restaurants all over the country — require minimum purchases for customers to use a credit card. This can be frustrating, especially when all you want is a soda and you don't have any cash on you, but it's done for good reason. Most credit card companies charge businesses a processing fee. For small transactions of only a few dollars, this fee can hurt a business, making the sale not worth it for them.

These days, most people aren't paid in cash, and need to withdraw cash specifically for purchases that require it. Fortunately, you can usually find an ATM inside a bodega, making purchases convenient for customers and more lucrative for the business. If you frequent bodegas, try to always keep a few dollars on you or make sure there's an ATM in the store so you can snag a soda or enjoy an ice cream without having to meet any minimums.

Always Leave A Tip

tip cup on deli counter
tip cup on deli counter - Alena Veasey/Shutterstock

Another reason to always carry cash is for tipping. We all know to tip our servers or cab drivers, but it's also a good idea to tip when paying for your deli sandwich.

Although these employees don't rely on tips the way servers do, leaving a little extra when someone is preparing food specifically for you is always appreciated. You may see a tip jar on the deli counter, prompting you to throw a dollar or two in, or you can pay for your sandwich with a little extra cash and tell the employee who rang you up to keep the change.

Tipping for freshly prepared meals is the right thing to do, and it also works in your favor. When you gift a little cash to the person making your sandwich, they'll likely remember your generosity and be sure to craft your meal with extra care during your next visit. You might get a little extra sauce, or maybe the employee at the deli counter will choose the best cuts of roast beef for sandwiches and the freshest veggies. Tipping is also the best way to establish a good reputation at a bodega, which comes in handy if you ever need to start a tab or ask for a favor.

Learn The Lingo

chopped cheese sandwich
chopped cheese sandwich - Brent Hofacker/Shutterstock

Every major American city has its own slang and lingo for food. In New York, you'll find sandwiches specific to bodegas, with unique names that you won't find anywhere else in the country. If you're visiting New York for the first time, don't go with a standard ham and cheese (looking at you, J.Lo) or bland turkey; expand your sandwich horizons and opt for something that screams New York. These sandwiches are iconic for good reason.

Before you visit NYC, you'll need to understand the terminology surrounding the most popular breakfast sandwich. In New York, bacon, egg, and cheese is essentially one word. If you ask for an egg sandwich with bacon and cheese, the deli employee might look at you sideways. If you wander into a bodega during lunchtime, order a New York-style chopped cheese sandwich for your first visit — a city staple made with cheesy chopped hamburger meat and your choice of toppings. Try this fan favorite on a bagel for the ultimate, albeit messy, NYC specialty. Once you learn all of the unique New York City foods and how to order them, a culinary haven opens up before your eyes.

Know The Specialties Of The Shop

New York bodega storefront
New York bodega storefront - Sx70/Getty Images

Although most bodegas serve nearly identical cuisine, there are always subtle differences that make each one stand out among what's believed to be about 13,000 of them operating throughout the city. Identifying these differences can result in the discovery of your next favorite spot, or even your new preferred lunch.

Depending on the neighborhood the bodega is located in and the cultural identity of the establishment, you'll always find something special in each store. For example, if a bodega is Pakistani-owned, they might specialize in Pakistani club sandwiches or kebabs. Maybe your local bodega makes particularly good gyros, but the one next to your office makes some of the best Cuban sandwiches in New York.

Sometimes, the shop's specialty is displayed loud and proud on a banner or sign in front of the bodega. Other times, it feels like a secret that only those in the know can savor. Either way, it always pays to ask. Bodega specialties are typically prepared with added care, crafted from time-honored recipes, and made with culturally specific ingredients. The deli offerings of a bodega can draw inspiration from a diverse range of international cuisines, spanning East Asian to Middle Eastern to South American, all while incorporating a distinct touch of New York City flair and expertise.

Choose Your Favorite Bodega And Become A Regular

smiling employee in store
smiling employee in store - Fg Trade/Getty Images

The bodega is the heart and soul of a New York City neighborhood. If you've recently moved to New York, you'll quickly discover that establishing rapport at your local bodega is among the greatest joys of being a resident.

There's nothing like being greeted by name when you walk into your favorite shop. You can grab a legendary lunch, chat it up with the bodega's employees, and learn all the juicy neighborhood gossip. Some bodega employees deem themselves as therapists for their customers, and once you become a regular, you'll discover just how true that is.

Not only is it a refreshing treat to have a place to go where everybody knows your name (cue the "Cheers" theme song), but you'll also be surprised at how different the experience will be once you've become a regular customer with a regular order. Pick any sandwich and stick with it — after awhile, as soon as you walk through the door, your lunch will be in the works. You'll receive it in a flash and can be out the door with 57 minutes left in your lunch break, but the irony is that you won't want to go so soon and abandon the great conversation you're having with your wonderful neighbors.

Find And Pet The Bodega Cat

cat in store doorway
cat in store doorway - Chris Mcgrath/Getty Images

In addition to hosting convenient necessities, canned goods, snacks, and delicious deli sandwiches, New York City bodegas are also known for their feline residents. There's nothing like being greeted by an adorable little furry friend on a lunch break, or when stopping by the store for a late-night treat.

Bodega cats hold a place of prominence akin to the sandwiches the deli serves. They not only forge bonds with customers, encouraging their return, but they also fulfill a practical role within the store. There's one thing in New York City that's as infamous as the culinary scene is famous: rodents. Bodega cats serve as vigilant guardians, keeping pesky pests at bay and bringing smiles to the faces of all who enter. For an authentic taste of New York City life, we challenge you to seek out the (sometimes elusive) bodega cat, and offer a friendly pat on the head.

Static Media owns and operates Tasting Table, Chowhound, and Mashed.

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