At Rainbo's Fish stand, located at the far end of city-subsidized Essex Market, a girl in a vintage coat and beret seeks mahi suitable for sesame-crusted tuna. In the same hour, a Spanish-speaking woman goes straight for the fish heads.
"Si, si, si, okay," replies Ira Stolzenberg, who has run Rainbo's with partner Ron Budinas for the last 30 years. Splitting the chubby heads with a mallet and blade, Ira's eyes widen as he shakes his head. "I hope this is how she wants it. I have no idea what she's saying!"
The typical post-gentrification scenario plays itself out again and again at this market, a food bazaar in a space reminiscent of a high school gym. Here food stamps and other government-issued vouchers are still accepted, even as neighborhood tastes have changed from porgies and whiting to halibut and sea bass.
Fish used to be the sole trade at Rainbo's, but maintaining the business that Ron and Ira established decades ago proved impossible. "By the late 90s, it was all over," recalls Ira, an animated speaker whose father owned Heschy's Kosher Fish Market on Ave. C and 6th St. for 50 years. "Our base was across Delancey, and a lot of old Jewish people wouldn't cross Delancey to get to us."
Though they still answer the phone "Rainbo's Fish," this enterprise has morphed into something different altogether.
Four years ago, when their original Jewish clientele had all but disappeared, Ron replaced the tank that once held live carp?used prominently in gefilte fish?with a juice bar. He then plugged in a convection oven and started to bake muffins practically every moment of the day.
"He's making muffins 12 hours a day!" insists Ira, as Ron, a well-built grandpa in a muscle tee with salt and pepper hair, vigorously mashes fresh bananas. In an even less likely coup, Ron makes some of the best muffins you can get in the city, cramming them full of fantastic ingredients, like the shredded carrot, pistachios and walnuts that fill his best seller.
Ron shrugs. "I said if we're making muffins, why not make cakes? I make really good cake, and he makes really good decorations."
Thus Rainbo's took another sliver of what seemed to be the incredible shrinking fish stand for the artistically inclined Ira, an art and design grad, to sculpt his perversely detailed cake decorations in fondant.
"This is the second one I made," he says, holding up a model of a stripper with heavy black eye makeup, a garish red mouth and a purple feather boa, commissioned for a birthday. "The first one I made Ron said looked like a drag queen."
Ira's range swings from an innocent racecar cake for a four-year-old boy to a gimp in vinyl holding a tube of KY Jelly. His pièce de résistance?a picnic table set with plates, cutlery, salt- and peppershakers, napkins, even platters of sandwiches with the crusts cut off?is on display. Visibly outgrowing its space, the stand will expand across the hall in about a month.
Still, the responsibilities of the original Rainbo's remain. At any given moment, Ira can be seen scaling fish, and he and Ron still wake up at 3:30 every morning to go to the Fulton Fish Market.
The motto that Ira uses for his cake-decorating business seems to apply just as well to the overall ethos of Rainbo's. "We'll make anything your imagination can afford. Gosh we get some weird calls!"