by Josh Ozersky - 149 Reviews - 48 List
The traditional Jewish deli is to New York what the bistro is to Paris or the beer hall is to Munich. It belongs to the city in a way that no other type of restaurant does. A thick, high-piled pastrami sandwich, a plate of half-sour pickles and a can of Dr. Brown's black cherry soda remains the quintessential New York meal--even as the number of legitimate places that serve it has shrunk to a precious handful. So attend to them while you can, because when the last Jewish deli is gone, New York will be just another town. (Photo: Carnegie Deli)
Updated: July 17, 2009
No discussion of New York delicatessens could be complete without mentioning the legacy of the famous Second Avenue Deli, a bittersweet story of tragedy overcome. The original location in the East Village was beloved for its pastrami and chopped liver, and it flourished despite the neighborhood's many changes--even after the murder of its patriarch, Abe Lebewohl. But real estate prices proved an even greater foe, eventually forcing the deli to close in early 2006. In 2008 it reopened in a smaller space on Third Avenue. The food is pretty much as everyone remembers it, though the new space lacks the old-time feeling and Murray Hill isn't necessarily the obvious choice for a Jewish deli. But no one--no one!--in their right mind could ever leave this classic out of the deli pantheon.
Most delis are decades (if not generations) old; new ones are as rare as blue whale calves, and almost as precious. So it's strange that New Yorkers haven't fully embraced this Upper West Side spot as the new classic it truly is. The brainchild of Artie Cutler, one of the city's great restaurateurs (Ollie's, Carmine's, Virgil's and Gabriela's are among his creations), Artie's was conceived as a tribute to the delis of Cutler's youth, and it works on every level. With its long glass counter, big sandwiches and bow-tied waiters, Artie's looks like it's been here for 100 years, even though it only opened in 1999. Virtually everything on the menu is great: the huge hot dogs, the kasha (buckwheat groats), the sandwiches and even the meatloaf. Artie's is proof that new delis can make their own history.
Whereas most of the city's remaining delis are destination restaurants hastened to by deli pilgrims from across the Eastern seaboard, Ben's still belongs to its own small, remote neighborhood of Rego Park, Queens. Owner Jay Parker is slavishly dedicated to the quality of his food, especially since the deli's aging clientele is always watching it like a bunch of hawks on the lookout for the first sign of decay. The hot dog remains a standout and the pastrami is good, but where Ben's really excels is in its corned beef and tongue. The catering platters are especially impressive, with pink morsels neatly arranged like sashimi.
The Carnegie is like the Federal Reserve of delicatessens: You can take it to the bank. The immense, high-piled sandwiches that make this midtown institution so famous are a little embarrassing (meant as they are to overawe tourists) and the place is wildly expensive, with sandwiches approaching the $20 mark. But that doesn't matter, because the sandwiches are so good and so supremely reliable. No one sandwich is the final word on deli greatness, but all are nearly perfect. And there's more to the Carnegie than sandwiches: The enormous menu holds a vast cache of Jewish classics, including boiled chicken, flanken (short ribs), derma kishka (a kind of beef fat sausage) and some really, really great deli hash with eggs.
If The Deli were a religion (and it basically is), then Katz's would be its Jerusalem. No other deli has been around as long (since 1888!) or maintained as much influence; even more impressive is that it continues to attract crowds of people who come just because the food is so wonderful. Although a generation of New Yorkers worships at the place, it's not as a temple of deli tradition that Katz's matter's most; this cavernous Lower East Side sandwich shop is one of the last places where the classic deli model is truly alive and thriving. The salamis that hang in the back aren't museum pieces; they taste just as good as they did 50 years ago--or, for that matter, when the famous ?I'll have what she's having? scene was filmed for ?When Harry Met Sally.?