This is the latest edition of Who Goes There? a regular feature in which Lost City's Brooks of Sheffield cracks the doors on mysteriously enduring Gotham restaurants—unsung, curious neighborhood mainstays with the dusty, forgotten, determined look—to learn secrets of longevity and find out, who goes there.
A year or so ago, I profiled Liebman's Deli in this space. At that time, the Riverdale section of The Bronx hosted a relative bonanza of pastrami and pickles. There were three, count 'em, three kosher delis. Since then, one of them, Skyview, has succumbed. That leave only a duece: Liebman's and this 51-year-old specimen.
Of the Riverdale kosher delis, Loeser's is the most modest, the most humble. It's barely a restaurant at all, though there are a few no-frills tables in back. It's also the only one where you're guaranteed to find the joint's namesake on hand. Freddy Loeser, a wiry, careworn character with the face of a Catskill tummler, is usually there to take your order, as well as extol the virtues of his wares should there be any question about it. "Best in the city!" he proclaims, pointing to a New York Daily News article that named Loeser's Pastrami the city's ultimate expression. In case you miss the article, the news is trumpeted on banners inside and outside the narrow, 231st Street storefront.
Who comes here, we asked. Mainly Riverdale folk? "People come from everywhere," said Loeser. "We've got a VERY GOOD reputation." This is probably very true. Though, when we were there, the visitors were all local, and Freddy knew each one of their names. "How was yesterday?" said one. "Very busy," said Freddy. "All day." The yesterday mentioned was Thanksgiving, and Loeser's was open for business.
At one point, a large Latino family entered. They clearly didn't know what they had stumbled upon and, after the kids groused a bit about the unfamiliar surroundings and menu, they departed. But the mother wandered back in and started asking questions. She knew something good when she saw it.
Loeser's was founded in 1960, when Freddy was just 17. (He used his bar mitzvah money to start the place.) Back then, Freddy's father Ernest handled the meat, later tutoring his son. The shop still has the feel of that era. There's wood paneling on the wall. The fridge is filled with every amiable flavor of Dr. Brown's. Specials are announced by cardboard signs, some of them handmade. "Hot Soup." "Hot Coffee." "Ice Cold Drinks." The one bit of out-of-sync weirdness is the large, Anglophilic, fox and hounds mural along the side of the wall.
The menu, by deli standards, is refreshingly succinct, with a limited number of choices. And the sandwiches, while advertised as "overstuffed," do not venture into Carnegie-Deli levels of excess. A single mouth can devour one handily. I had the pastrami. It was delicious—on the lean, as opposed to fatty side. Cole slaw was fresh. But the overdone fries needed work. The prices are not Carnegie level either. I had all over the above, plus a soda, and got change back on my $20.