The Best Jewish Delis: What's Your Favorite?
Writing about the late, great Abe Lebewohl, a man's stomach turns its attention to delis—Jewish-style delis of course. Some of my earliest food memories are of eating at Wilshire's Deli on Central Avenue in Lawrence, New York. I remember my typical lunch there being a pastrami sandwich and two hot dogs, but I couldn't have eaten that much, could I?
One of the first dates I went on with my wife was at the dear departed Gitlitz's on Manhattan's Upper West Side. But when it comes to delis in New York, I don't need to wax nostalgic. Though there are far fewer delis here than there once were, there are still enough excellent examples in Gotham that we maintain our status as America's preeminent Jewish-deli city. Some Los Angelenos insist that L.A. is a better deli city, but I believe they have simply spent too much time in the sun.
How do you judge a deli? To me there are clearly established yardsticks, pastrami or corned beef, soup (matzo ball or mushroom barley), and french fries. The quality of the cole slaw and the pickles matter as well.
Using those yardsticks, here is a list of my favorite delis in New York. Are there great Jewish delis outside New York? I love Langer's pastrami in Los Angeles, I've enjoyed many smoked-meat sandwich and french fry lunches at Schwartz's in Montreal, and my Baltimore friends swear by Attman's, but, Serious Eaters, I long to know of others around the country. Do tell.
In alphabetical order:
After Gitlitz's went out of business, the Upper West Side was in desperate need of a high-quality deli (Fine & Shapiro has been no better than decent for years now), and Artie's filled the void. The pastrami is excellent (ask for it well-steamed), the hot dogs are just about as good, the chicken soup has gotten better over the years, and the skin-on french fries are solid if not spectacular. 2315 Broadway, New York NY 10023 (at 83rd Street); 212-579-5959; arties.com; shipping available
Ben's Best owner Jay Parker is an old-fashioned deli man, a chip off Abe Lebewohl's block. His pastrami is from an excellent kosher smokehouse Empire, his french fries are excellent, and his soups are at least good if not spectacular. Deli Masters in Flushing is an OK alternative. 9640 Queens Boulevard, Rego Park NY 11374; 718-897-1700; bensbest.com; shipping available
Yes, the Carnegie Deli's portions are obscene, and it is indeed a haven for tourists in search of the deli experience they can't get at home, but the Carnegie still makes a terrific if gargantuan pastrami sandwich, fine matzo ball soup, the best corned beef hash I've ever had (ask for it extra crispy), and an overly large, extremely greasy, but utterly delicious potato knish. 854 Seventh Avenue, New York NY 10019 (55th Street); 800-334-5606; carnegiedeli.com; ships only cheesecake
The soups are ordinary, the french fries a pale, frozen shadow of their former selves, but a hand-cut pastrami sandwich from Katz's is a gift from the deli gods. You can tip your sandwich maker if you want, and you might get a slightly bigger sandwich out of it, but a Katz's sandwich is not made any better from a couple of slices of extra meat. 205 East Houston Street, New York NY 10002; 212-254-2246; katzdeli.com; shipping available
The Bronx has a long, proud tradition of Jewish delis, but in the last 20 years their numbers have dwindled precipitously. Liebman's in Riverdale is doing its best to maintain the Bronx deli tradition. The pastrami, chicken soup, and the french fries are all very solid and represent the boro very well. My grandma Ida would be very happy eating at Liebman's, and believe me, she knew from delis. 552 West 235th Street
Bronx, NY 10463; 718-548-4534; liebmansdeli.com; shipping not available
Sarge's has everything a deli should have, bad florescent lighting, a wisecracking waitstaff, fine house-smoked pastrami, and terrific french fries. I don't think I've ever had soup at Sarge's. Bonus: Sarge's is open 24 hours a day seven days a week, so you can get your deli fixes at three in the morning if you so choose (all night heartburn guaranteed). 548 Third Avenue, New York, NY 10016 (b/n 36th and 37th); 212-679-0442; sarges.com; shipping available
Shockingly, no Brooklyn delis I've been to are as good as the delis I've written about here. Mill Basin and Edelman's are decent but nothing more. David's House of Brisket has fine brisket, but brisket alone does not a great deli make.
Rest in Peace: Gitlitz's on 77th Street and Broadway and Pastrami King on Queens Boulevard in Rego Park.