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In the pantheon of iconic New York foods, not much outranks the proud cheesecake. Whether after dinner at Luger's, by the round at Eileen's, or shipped across the country by Junior's, New York cheesecakes are a force to be reckoned with. The cheesecake is a dessert that's perfect in its simplicity. A silky, creamy base, an optional thin crust—and that's it.
What makes a first-class cheesecake? It's smooth and creamy, just sweet enough, with a hint of tartness. If there's a crust, it adds something extra without overwhelming the taste of the cheesecake itself. And it's rich enough to seem a bit decadent, without going down like a cement pour. You should want to keep eating—at least, for more than one bite.
So we canvassed the boroughs for New York's best cheesecake, arrived at our finalists, and assembled our panel of crack tasters. All cakes were tasted blind, brought to the same temperature, in similar-size slices. We even scuffed up the edges of the more cosmetically privileged. And we had our tasters start with different samples, to cancel out the effects of palate fatigue—a real concern, after 14 cheesecakes. As it turns out, the first bite wasn't always the best bite.
(For the purposes of fair comparison, we went only with bakery cheesecakes, rather than restaurant ones. We also excluded all flavored and ricotta-based cheesecakes—stay tuned for later taste-tests.)
So after countless miles traveled, bites considered, and calories consumed, we've arrived at our winners. Our favorites, our surprise showings, and the best cheesecake in New York—after the jump.
Out of the Box
Every experiment needs a few good controls, right? The thawed-from-frozen Sara Lee was the only cheesecake that didn't get a single thumbs-up from our dozen tasters. No love for the texture: "Super crumbly; it collapses when you cut it." Or the taste: "Way too sweet." "This tastes processed. Actually, it tastes like packaging."
In The Top 5! It arrived in a box with Cheesecake Factory emblazoned on the side. We put on heavy gloves and pawed through the dry ice. Out came the cheesecake—frozen so solid, our enormous chef's knife couldn't even puncture the surface. (Pictured above: the cheesecake brick.)
But to everyone's surprise, once warmed up a bit, it fared very well in the blind test. "Great graham cracker crust"; "perfect balance between crust and cheesecake." Even the suspicious came around: "I think this is Cheesecake Factory. But somehow, it doesn't taste too sweet." No, it can't really hide. "Hello, Cheesecake Factory. We meet again."
Others did find it a bit too dense or a bit too sweet. But the happy customers far outnumbered the skeptics.
The Best Cheesecake In N.Y.! —New York Magazine, every Junior's box reads. (What they neglect to mention: The article declaring them so dates to 1973.) The world knows Junior's cheesecake in two ways: from the store, and out of the box. And surprisingly, our tasters preferred the boxed version by a vote of 7 to 3.
The fresh-from-Brooklyn Junior's was called "thick as cement," "chalky and unpleasant," and "sickly sweet," but was also declared to be "the cream-cheesiest of all"—great, if you like cheesecake that sticks on the way down. Those who liked Junior's tended to be those who grew up eating it. (We won't argue with nostalgia.)
Boxed Juniors? A bit less heavy, and "nicely creamy," with a less overwhelmingly sweet, "classic New York cheesecake" taste.
The Grocery Stores
In The Top 5! Fairway's store brand cheesecake was the most polarizing of the bunch, with three absolute raves and three huge thumbs down. Everyone could agree on its "perfect cream-cheesey flavor" and "lovely, silky creaminess." The hint of vanilla helped, too. But some found the cake too dense, and others were confused by its cornflake (!) crust. "I don't know what this is. But I don't like it," said Kathy, our Sugar Rush correspondent.
Zabar's house brand didn't fare quite as well, probably because so many people found it "custardy" or "eggy." "I guess I like it..." said one taster, "but it doesn't taste like a cheesecake." But the texture? Right on.
Zabar's: 2245 Broadway (at 81st Street; map); 212-787-2000; zabars.com
The Far-Flung Favorites
In The Top 5! In Bensonhurst, Mona Lisa Pastry Shoppe & Cafe has been in business for almost 100 years, baking its goods, even those cheesecakes, in a coal-fired brick oven. It made Ed's original Best Cheesecake list. No complaints from the testers five years later, unanimous in their praise of its "light, airy texture," "perfectly cheesy" taste, and slight citrusy tang. The one complaint? "The crust is a little crumbly."
We really, really wanted to like Andre's Hungarian Bakery, on the Upper East Side and in Queens. And while it didn't have any real haters, it didn't have many enthusiastic fans, either. The good news? "Pleasantly tart, which keeps it from being too heavy." "Sweet in a good way." "Classic." But more than one taster picked up on a "grainy texture." Conclusion: A solid bet if you're in the neighborhood, but not worth a trip.
Andre's Hungarian Bakery: 10028 Queens Boulevard, Flushing (map); 718-830-0266
So far up into Queens that there's ample and unmetered street parking! Cascon Cheesecakes had all the makings of an outer-borough treasure: more than three decades of history, die-hard fans, a vocal online following. But although there were no major complaints, the general consensus was "mild," "airy," and "just not memorable."
The Old Guard
An honorable mention for the fluffiest cheesecake goes to Eileen's, a solid contender for its "impossibly light" texture ("It fluffs apart into floofs!") and its "homemade," "almost caramelized" crust. If your friend made this cheesecake, you'd love her for life. As a gift, it'd be a sure winner, too. But put up against the others, it didn't quite crack the Top 5.
Recommended by Ed, many of our commenters, and virtually every Best Cheesecake roundup in existence, we had to try S & S Cheesecake. Although plenty of people liked its creamy, silky cheesecake base ("I've never tasted anything this smooth"), others couldn't get past the sweetness ("This tastes like a Twinkie").
Around the corner from Serious Eats World Headquarters, D'Aiuto's Pastry Corporation has so many "Best Cheesecake in New York!" signs, it's hard to see through the windows. Our tasters found it tasty, but unmemorable. The flavor? "Clean" and "milky." The texture? "So dense it's almost chewy." It cracked very few Top 3s, but didn't sink to many Bottom 3s, either.
D'Aiuto's Pastry Corporation: 873 8th Avenue (near 30th Street; map); 212-564-7136
The Pretentious But Awesome
In The Top 5! We'll admit it: we weren't favorably disposed toward Lady M's cheesecake. It costs $7 a slice, whereas other full cakes cost as little as $12. The shop is a bit... precious. And when Ed went to pick it up... well, he can tell that story himself.
But when taken out of the box, and stripped of its pretensions, it was a damn good cheesecake. "Silky and light in a way that none of the others are." "Perfect cake-to-topping-to-crust ratio." "I love this flavor—just the right balance of cheesy, sweet, and tart." The only real complaint? "A little wet."
While no clear consensus emerged on the others—there was a four-way tie for second place, and about a six-way tie for third—the Two Little Red Hens cheesecake was the runaway favorite. It ranked as more than half of our taster's favorite cheesecake, and scored in the Top 3 of all but one.
The rave reviews? "I love the dark graham cracker crust." "This is the cheesecake I want after dinner." "This is the Goldilocks of cheesecake: not too thick, not too light, but just right." Even the cosmetics won people over: "I love the browned top." "Wow, this is an absolutely perfect slice."
Ed was convinced he could recognize the Top 5 by taste alone.
Correctly identified: 1 out of 5. But props for trying.