New York doesn't have a lot of truly authentic Jewish delis left. And not all of the ones that are left are good. This is the list of the delis that are -- the last remnants of a noble line.
Sometimes called the Mecca of deli, Katz's is more accurately the Dome of the Rock of Deli: the sanctum sanctorum, the source and shrine of all that deli means in America. Go for the mystique -- but stay for the pastami.
I love Katz's as much as the next man -- actually, much more than the next man. But Sarge's has a special place in my heart and, in a perverse way, is my favorite deli. It's skeevy and seedy, uncelebrated and often less than busy. The pastrami isn't as good as Katz's, or even the Carnegie, but it's good, and the place has an atmosphere that is entirely its own. And, lest we forget, it's the only deli in town that is open 24 hours a day.
Yes, the sandwiches are enormous -- more conceptual art than cooking. But they are superb, like everything served at this unfairly maligned New York landmark. While it's undeniably become primarily a tourist destination, the food is wonderful, even aside from the titanic portions. The corned beef and pastrami are hot and luciously soft and fatty, and a whole menu of old time yiddishe treats like flanken in a pot or chicken paprikash go largely ignored. It's not cheap, and seldom quiet, but there are those of us who love it.
What's that you say? You never heard of Mill Basin? Don't worry, hardly any New Yorkers have, even in Brooklyn. The neighborhood is very remote and quite insular, which is one reason this deli is such a throwback. There's no sense of history here, no framed reviews, no images of the owner with celebrities, unless you consider miracle rabbis to be celebrities. (I do.) The main thing they do have is yiddishe classics like chicken soup with kreplach (dumplings), latkes (potato pancakes) and derma kishka (untranslatable.) The pastrami is pretty damn good too, and the first thing you should go here for.
Katz's and The Carnegie Deli belong to the world, rightly considered classics of Jewish-American culture. But Ben's Best, a deli of the first-rank, still belongs to the citizens of Rego Park, a remote Queens neighborhood that never got the memo that delis were dead.
It may look like an old-time deli, but make no mistake, this restaurant is modern, thoughtful, and imaginative in its tribute to the quickly vanishing deli tradition. It's pastrami is better than most of its more celebrated rivals, and its take on classics like flanken in the pot are worth stopping by for.
People will tell you that the new Second Avenue Deli isn't as good as the old Second Avenue Deli, but that isn't true. The first one was mediocre too. But it had the distinction of being authentic and venerable and, along of all its rivals, actually kosher. Its successor may not have the best corned beef, kishka, or pastrami in town, but it has soul. And soul is enough. Soul, and what is still probably the best chopped liver around.
Where the original Mile End in Brooklyn is more than just a deli, this spinoff leaves the ambitious cooking aspect behind. It's a straight up deli / sandwich shop, selling "smoked meat" (i.e., pastrami) sandwiches of the Montreal type. There's also a fabulous hot dog, and the egg sandwich to cure all hangovers.