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NYC Jewish Delicatessens: The Ultimate Guide

Here's everything you need to know about New York's Jewish delicatessens, and the people that make them tick

Table Of Contents (all h2's added automatically)

A Thumbnail History of Jewish Delicatessens in New York City

by Robert Sietsema

Jewish delicatessens as we know them arose in the 1880s when groups of observant Jews began to arrive from Eastern Europe, mainly Poland and Russia. (Less-observant German Jews had preceded them.) Their religious practices entailed keeping kosher by using biblical precepts to ritually slaughter animals, eschewing pork and shellfish, and carefully keeping a double set of kitchenware to prepare dairy and meat dishes separately. These rules necessitated a double set of restaurants, too. One class of establishment specialized in milk-based dishes (B & H Dairy is one of the few remaining), while another featured meat (look no further than Katz’s for an example). Some of these meat delis obtained kosher certification; others didn’t. Katz’s didn’t, which is how it can serve a meat and cheese sandwich like the Reuben.

[Top: 2nd Avenue Deli by Solares. Bottom: Liebman's by Adam Lerner and Gottlieb's by Greg Morabito]

The word "delicatessen" was originally German, meaning something like "delicious things to eat." It was first used in 1889 in America to identify a place that served a menu of cured meats and sausages — often prepared as sandwiches on rye bread — as well as other types of food, including soups and pickled vegetables like cabbage, cucumbers, and green tomatoes. As the delicatessen evolved, it added further dishes to its repertoire, some that were considered Jewish, some not. In that way, the delicatessen expanded its menu to the unique set of offerings that we have today, which can include such diverse things as pastrami-stuffed egg rolls (borrowed from the Chinese), Austrian chicken and veal schnitzels, and French fries. The designation "delicatessen" has been more broadly applied, too, so that now "deli" can be used to identify any combination grocery store and sandwich shop, no matter what ethnicity.

The earliest delis were run by Germans and Alsatians, not all of them Jewish. The Alsatians were responsible for the charcuterie aspects of the menu, including pickled tongue and the sauerkraut that was heaped on such sausages as knoblewurst, garlicwurst, and the iconic frankfurter, whose name suggests an origin in Frankfurt, Germany. The grainy mustard was another Teutonic borrowing. The salami probably came from Italy — at least that’s what the name suggests — although salami-type sausages were popular in Hungary, too. Though the bagel originated in Poland, with its boiling as well as baking, it may represent an improvement over a circular and sesame-seeded Turkish bread popular throughout the Middle East called a simit.

The centerpiece of any New York Jewish deli is pastrami.  This is usually a beef brisket that’s been soaked in brine for an extended period (like corned beef), rubbed with spices that include crushed black peppercorns and coriander seed, then smoked and allowed to sit before a final boiling/steaming prior to cutting. It’s said to come from Romania, where a type of cured beef called pastramă is really more like prosciutto. Cured with fenugreek, cumin, and hot paprika, pastramă gets sliced thin and served cold, very unlike our pastrami. As Claudia Rodin noted in The Book of Jewish Food, "One of the great inventions of the American deli was pastrami."

Russian Jews contributed their own food to the deli mix, too. The knish was a hand pie stuffed with mashed potatoes or kasha, a thick porridge of buckwheat groats. Kasha also appears on the deli menu in kasha varnishkes, along with some very Italian bow-tie pasta. While the original knishes were round (as served at Yonah Schimmel), the so-called Coney Island knish, invented in a Brighton Beach knishery, was pillow-shaped with a thicker crust. That newfangled form is now found in most delis and in every hot dog cart in town. The steamed freshwater fish quenelles called gefilte fish (a term combining Yiddish and English) and the beet soup known as borscht are also probably of Russian-Jewish origins.

[Photo: The now-shuttered Stage Delicatessen by Daniel Krieger]

Roast chickens, the poultry fat known as schmaltz, and the broth used in matzo ball and kreplach soups also have a special place in Jewish deli cuisine. Matzo ball soup is referred to as "Jewish penicillin" for its ability to cure, or at least mollify, the common cold. Stuffed derma, also known as kishka, is a cow intestine stuffed with cereal or matzo meal instead of meat, and usually served with gravy. It is an Eastern European food that shows just how impoverished many of the Jewish immigrants were when they came to New York. It is also delicious.

In the entire city and surrounding areas there are perhaps 40 Jewish delis still remaining (a separate map shows the 20 most important), where once there were literally hundreds. In fact, some historians claim that at one time on the Lower East Side and in other Jewish neighborhoods like South Williamsburg, there was one small-scale deli per block. How grand some contemporary representatives of the institution like Katz’s, Artie’s, and Ben’s have become in the interim. And how endangered!


Pastrami Secrets, Revealed

by Nick Solares

A butcher chops up pastrami on a wooden block at Katz’s Nick Solares/Eater

[The pastrami at Katz's by Nick Solares]

Pastrami is generically best described as a process, rather than a specific dish, since it can be applied to a variety of cuts of beef or even other meats. But for the purposes of discussing the Jewish delicatessen in NYC, pastrami is effectively one thing: beef plate that has been brined, dried, seasoned, smoked, boiled, and finally steamed. The technique originated as a way to preserve meat, but it ended up imbuing cheaper cuts with a tenderness and depth of flavor to rival the more expensive parts of the animal.

The first mention of the word pastrami in print dates back to 1831, but the term found wide currency with the immigration of a sizable population of Romanian Jews who settled on the Lower East Side in the latter half of he 19th century. The pastrami that made the trip from the old world was based on a popular Romanian dish called goose pastramă. There are historical records detailing goose pastramă hanging in NYC shops into the 20th century. But goose was soon eclipsed by beef, which was cheaper and more plentiful in America.

While the first place to sell pastrami is purported to be at Reb Sussel’s long ago-shuttered delicatessen at 88 Delancey Street, which opened in 1888, it is a claim disputed by Katz’s Delicatessen. The restaurant also opened that year, and it can at least lay claim to being the longest running restaurant to serve the dish.

And thus we can assume that Katz’s Delicatessen serves a dish that's as close to the prototypical specimen as there exists in New York. The style that Katz's and other NYC delicatessens sell is fabricated from the navel end of packer brisket, a cut that is not seen at retail. While some restaurants use the front of the brisket for pastrami, Katz’s reserves this strictly for corned beef.  The restaurant only uses the naval meat for its iconic sandwich.

The beef is first seasoned with pink curing salt. This flavors the meat, improves its texture, and also gives the pastrami its distinctive brick red color. Next the cured meat is rubbed with an aromatic spice blend that includes onions, garlic, pepper, and coriander. It's then smoked gently over wood, imparting a subtle flavor. The process also helps the meat develop a dark, dense crust — or "bark" — on the exterior. The pastrami is then boiled to finish cooking, and finally held in steam bins prior to being carved against the grain for service.

The process of making pastrami is more complex than that of corned beef — which is simply cured and cooked — or other deli meats, and this is evident in the way it tastes. The seasoning and smoking both impart distinctive elements that add layers of flavor — a flora of pungency from the coriander, a flicker of fieriness from the pepper, and a gentle tang from the smoke. The meat is tender, and yet it has a pleasing firmness. Stacked between two floppy slices of rye bread with a schmear of spicy mustard, there is nothing on earth like a pastrami sandwich served at a good NYC delicatessen.


Meet the Regulars

by Serena Dai

[Original owner of 2nd Avenue Deli, Abe Lebewohl, and one of his longtime regulars, Harvey Sigelbaum. Photo courtesy of Harvey Sigelbaum]

Any restaurant owner will tell you that it's the regulars that keep the business alive — and that's especially true for New York delicatessens. Many of these establishments have customers that tried their first bites of pastrami at the deli and now bring their own children — or grandchildren — back for their first bites, too. Eater went to some of the oldest delis in the city and talked to some of the regulars who have been visiting them for decades. Here are the people who have kept deli culture alive in New York City.


Harvey Sigelbaum

[Photo courtesy of Harvey Sigelbaum]

Restaurant2nd Avenue Deli, open for more than 60 years

Regular: Harvey Sigelbaum, 78; customer for more than 50 years

How he started going: "I ran a company that had its offices just a few blocks away. Not only did I go there regularly myself, for both lunch and dinner sometimes, I would have all my board meetings catered by the deli. We had a lot of board meetings."

How often he goes: Two to four times a week. Sometimes with his four children and eight grandchildren. "I prefer the downtown location. It’s more hamish," he says.

His order: "I order everything. I like the corned beef. But I like the pastrami too. I also like the corned beef hash and the pastrami hash," Sigelbaum says. He also says that he likes mushroom & barley soup, chicken soup with noodles, stuffed derma, poppy seed bagel, health salad, knishes, and egg white omelettes with veggies. "I think I've tried almost everything on the menu," he says.

An annual tradition: "I also go there every Friday after Thanksgiving. We have a Thanksgiving dinner at one of my kids' houses. On Friday, I invite everyone to meet me at the deli at noon. Then we have another feast. Usually the feast at the deli is better than the feast we have on Thanksgiving."

Why he keeps going back: "I love the food. I love the warm atmosphere. I would even go there for dinner sometimes, if I worked late. Abe [the original owner] lived in the neighborhood, and he'd keep me company. Where do you find a restaurant where the owner will keep you company during dinner?"


[The dining room at Katz's by Daniel Krieger]

Restaurant: Katz's Delicatessen, open for nearly 130 years

Regular: Theresa Schneider, 89; customer for more than 80 years

How she started going: "I must have been seven or eight. My father used to take me down here."

How often she goes: "I would say we came down twice a year. Those years, there was not enough money to go around. Whenever they had the cash, it was a special occasion....I always come in once a year [to order five pounds of salami for my son and son-in-law]. I'm 89 years old. I can't make it anymore. I'm lucky I can make it once a year. I came down with the bus [from the Upper East Side]. I'm going to get the bus to go home. Then I've done it for another year."

Her order: "I always wound up with the hot dog at that time. I don’t remember what my father ate. I really don’t know. I know I always wound up with the hot dog and French fries....I come at 11 o'clock in the morning. I place my salami order. I have a little French fry and a hot dog. After I finish, I leave."

Why she keeps coming back: "Let me say this. I come down to make my order. I sit here. And I watch all the tourists. I enjoy seeing the people. It gives me a lift to see how there are nice, good people in the world."


Michael Blit

Restaurant: Mill Basin Deli, open for more than 40 years

Regular: Michael Blit, 36; customer for close to 30 years

How he started going: "My family always went there. I just became very good friends with everybody there. When you walk in, it's the same old faces forever. It's the place in the neighborhood that everyone is comfortable going."

How often he goes: "When you're a kid, times were different. Everyone was going to delis. We would go definitely on Sunday, maybe one other day a week. Now, I'll stop in for lunch as soon as I go into the neighborhood, probably like three or four times a month."

His order: "Their knish is great. The stuffed cabbage is fantastic. The latka chips. And a lot of people don't know it, but they have a great salmon. It's phenomenal. Obviously the pastrami is amazing. It's different and unique to that deli. It's thin-sliced. You can put it on a sandwich, a PLT — pastrami, lettuce, tomato."

Childhood memory: "We used to go to camp and bring up hard salamis [from Mill Basin] because they would last forever. You keep them under your bed in a safe so nobody could take it. We would break it out at special times. Every time I eat a hot salami, I think of camp."

Hot tip: "Uncle Vinny makes the best PLT. He just knows how to layer and present it. It's perfection every time. Then you have this guy Morris who's been there forever. He's a deli man for life. He walks with a limp and always has something Yiddish to say. If you ever have a chance to talk to Morris, you should. He's an absolute relic, real quick-witted, real old school. He probably won't even talk to you."

Why he keeps going back: "The feeling you get when you go in there, it's a nostalgic feeling. The food is very consistent. There's never a problem with the food. The quality hasn't changed....They really nail it on the head. Whenever my family comes into town from Florida, we get a table in the back, stay there forever, shoot the shit. Just be Jewish. It’s tough to find a place to let loose and be yourself. All the other restaurants are pretty fancy. This allows you to be yourself."


Sarge’s Deli Photo via Sarge’s Deli

Restaurant: Sarge's Deli, open for more than 50 years

Regulars: Friends Anita Meyerhoff, 78, and Evelyn Dickert, who says she's "a senior citizen." They have been dining together for 25 to 30 years

How they started going: Meyerhoff: "I had a friend in the Murray Hill area. I used to meet her for dinner." Dickert: "Well, I've lived here for over 30 years. It was the location. It's a block and a half from my house."

How often they go: Meyerhoff: "The last five years, I eat there, I would say, at least four out of seven days the week....I’ve been going there more frequently in the last few years because I don’t cook at all." Dickert: "Oh, I honestly don't remember how often I used to go. There were different restaurants then. We tried to vary it a little bit. The choices are less and less these days. But Sarge's goes on."

Their orders: Dickert: "They have a deal: a cup of soup and half a sandwich [for about $15]. I don't get the same thing all the time. They have a chicken with matzo ball; they have a split pea, which is very good." Meyerhoff also gets the special, often ordering a matzo ball soup with turkey on rye. She explains: "If I eat dinner there, I usually share a dinner with [Evelyn]. It's really a lot to eat. We could have brisket and vegetables and soup. Generally I try to eat the lunch special. It's less food. Otherwise I'd be 400 pounds."

Why they keep coming back: Dickert: "The food is consistently good. The help is very accommodating." Location plays a role, too. Meyerhoff explains: "I live around the corner. It's very convenient. The food is consistently good. The help is great. They're all very good. Very good. It's clean, and it's like a home away from home."


Four Essential Pastrami Sandwiches (With Comprehensive Warnings)

by Ryan Sutton

Nick Solares

[Top: 2nd Avenue Deli pastrami by Solares. Bottom: Katz's pastrami by Krieger; Mile End's smoked meat by Solares]

The pastrami of my Long Island youth was not a luxury. It was lunch. It was a cheap deli commodity. It was wrapped in Boar's Head plastic, sliced on a machine, bagged in a Zip-Loc, refrigerated at home, assembled on white bread at 6 a.m., and consumed in a grade school cafeteria from a tin foil sarcophagus. Aside from the black pepper crust and neon-red interior, it tasted like any other industrially-produced luncheon meat. This is the pastrami that so many Americans know — an assembly line component on a $5 footlong at Subway.

And that's all too bad, because the best New York pastrami is a delicacy on par with French charcuterie. It jiggles in the mouth like warm head cheese. It ranks with barbecue brisket in its complexity of textures and flavors. And the product oozes with so much liquefied fat that no mayo or excess lubrication is necessary between the meat and the bread. Yet when out-of-towners come to New York to eat, I'm inclined to issue a few more warnings about pastrami than I would with pizza at Di Fara or Roberta's, or steak at Peter Luger or Minetta. The reason is simple: The classic pastrami sandwich has too much meat, too much fat, too many nitrites.

Like a salt bagel, the classic-pastrami sandwich is taxing on the taste buds. The meat is so intensely cured it can make a frankfurter taste like a low-sodium ration from a high-end spa. Even as a professional eater, I'd say a pastrami sandwich makes me feel the way I'd imagine a vegetarian feels after eating a steak. In fact I've walked away from four-hour tasting menus with a steadier stomach (and less palate fatigue) than following a 15 minute session with spiced meat on rye. So with those caveats in mind, here are a few notes about the city's four most distinctive (and kick-ass) pastrami sandwiches.

2nd Avenue Deli: Classic New York thin-cut and kosher certified. The machine-sliced beef is barely thicker than construction paper. It shines with fat. And the spicing, evocative of a Hebrew National hot dog, is aggressive. The peppering is light. Take a bite. The tenderness factor is so high that the layering of pastrami evokes a mille-feuille of meat. Gorgeous. Beer and chocolate soda are the best antidotes to the aggressive salting. Price: $19.95.

Mile End Deli: Okay, it's not pastrami. It's Montreal-esque smoked meat. But I'm including it here because it's such an awesomely vital addition to our city's nouveau-Jewish culinary scene. Creekstone brisket is dry-cured, smoked over white oak, and sliced. Sugary fat caps evoke good barbecue while a clove-laced bark recalls a night in the Adirondacks. Expect a hint more chew and sweetness than is typical. Price: $15.

Harry & Ida's: Texas brisket style. Sister and brother owners Julie and Will Horowitz only use fatty Creekstone deckles, which they smoke over oak and maple. They steam the meat, slice it by hand, and use it to build a herculean half-pound sandwich in a long Pain D'Avignon po boy roll. The toppings are fragrant pickled dill and cucumber kraut (the latter threatens to overpower the meat). The musky smell of beef, almost non-existent elsewhere, comes through clearest of all at this Alphabet City shop. The smoking is gentle, and the burnt ends are faintly chewy. The curing is super light — if you closed your eyes you might not even guess it's pastrami. Wash it down with raw chocolate almond milk. Price: $17.50 (1/4 lb version available for $11.50).

Katz's: Classic New York thick-cut on the Lower East Side. Ranks with 2nd Avenue as the moistest and saltiest. It is the sandwich equivalent of drinking seawater, and your palate will dry out quickly afterwards. Expect a gorgeous accordion-like texture to the meat, with a coriander-laced crust imparting a distinctly lemony flavor. Price: $19.95.

One Final Note: The pastrami sandwich, slathered with mustard, is not the apex of smoked meat any more than a bagel and lox sandwich is the apex of cured salmon. You wouldn't make a habit out of eating a Franklin Barbecue brisket on a hoagie would you? A sandwich is meant to be consumed quickly, with one hand, while standing up, but pastrami deserves to be savored slowly, while sitting down. So order it by the pound for take away. Serve it on a platter, in more restrained portions, with slices of rye, assortments of pickles, schmears of mustard, and chilled vodka shots.


Pastrami: The Next Generation

by Serena Dai

[The pastrami at Harry & Ida's by Nick Solares]

Sadly, the number of classic, old-school Jewish delicatessens in New York gets smaller every year. But the Jewish delicatessen tradition lives on in newer establishments like Mile End and Harry & Ida's, and several hot spots across the city have also created menu items inspired by the pastrami served at places like Katz's and 2nd Avenue Deli. Red Farm sells close to 1,000 pastrami egg rolls made with steamed pastrami from Katz's every week, according to owner Ed Schoenfeld. Mission Chinese's kung pao pastrami has become a signature dish. And the short-rib pastrami taco at Empellon Taqueria became so popular that the restaurant made it a permanent fixture. "It’s one of those perfect foods that’s difficult to improve upon," chef/owner Alex Stupak says.

Stupak says the idea for his pastrami taco popped up when discussing what iconic New York foods to absorb into his restaurant. Pastrami won. He heavily piles it on the tortilla, because Stupak says this is a way to mimic the experience of eating "an inordinate amount of meat" in sandwiches at Jewish delis. "We decided that the one iconic product that couldn't be ignored would be the pastrami at a place like Katz's Deli," he says. Schoenfeld, who is Jewish, says the Red Farm egg roll started as an offhand comment about how a pastrami egg roll would represent his background and chef Joe Ng's background. "When you think about an egg roll, you take roast pork, not fresh pork," Schoenfeld says. "In a sense, pastrami is a good equivalent to that."

At Shalom Japan, the restaurant from husband-wife team Aaron Israel and Sawako Okochi, pastrami is often used as the Jewish component of Japanese-Jewish dishes. The restaurant has served pastrami okonomayaki, pastrami-and-cabbage gyoza, and pastrami-and-rye stuffed chicken. Shalom Japan uses pastrami from A to Z Kosher in Williamsburg. Israel says he was convinced to use it because of his emotional response to the meat.

Mile End and Harry & Ida's — both born as tributes to personal experiences and heritage — are arguably keeping the Jewish deli tradition alive. But both places have gotten a fair share of people policing the way they are run, the owners say. The idea of "tradition" is contentious. "Everyone remembers the delis they grew up with," says Noah Bermanoff, owner of Mile End. "That's going to be the best. You're never going to make pastrami as good as that place."

[Clockwise, from the top left: Sawako Okochi & Aaron Israel, Will Horowitz, Noah Bernamoff, and Alex Stupak. Photos by Daniel Krieger]

Still, Will and Julie Horowitz, the brother-sister team behind Harry & Ida's, and Bermanoff see the core of the tradition — preserving food, taking time to cook a great product — as living on at their restaurants. Harry & Ida's cures and smokes its pastrami in house. Mile End chooses to dry-cure its smoked meat even though a wet brine takes less time and money, Bermanoff says. But Mile End also serves bacon on its breakfast sandwich and has used its smoked meat for a version of Sichuan dan dan noodles, things you'd never see on a menu at an older deli. Bermanoff sees these additions as touching hallmarks of Jewish culture and thus appropriate for the deli. "There's no objective opinion about what deli tradition is," he says. "Mile End is my subjective opinion."

Will Horowitz sees the modern changes as part of the tradition of economic adaptation. In Europe, pastrami was originally made with goose breast, but people who came to New York started using beef because it was more affordable at the time, he says. Similarly, Harry & Ida's has adapted to today's competitive restaurant market.  Will and Julie have hosted tasting menu nights at the restaurant, and right now they're thinking of ways to vacuum package pastrami to ship to a wider audience. It's traditional to adapt, the Horowitz siblings argue, and that's one of the messages they hope to pass along to others. "Our whole goal here is to open up a line of communication between us and the customers, between us and the neighborhood," Julie Horowitz notes. "The real tradition is the idea of transforming things and survival, using what we have," Will says. "That’s universal for every group of people and every food."

[A Katz's Deli spread by Nick Solares]

Edited by Greg Morabito

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