New York City is the undeniable cultural center of the Jewish Deli. It was here that such institutions of New York and American food first became popular, including pastrami, matzoh ball soup and bagels. Places like Carnegie Deli and Katz’s have become essential to any New York experience. While these places serve exceptional food and have earned their fame, Carnegie and Katz’s have also become a bit of a tourist trap, and there are plenty of other phenomenal Jewish delis across the city. Here are a list of some other names that you absolutely have to try:
Barney Greengrass: Dubbed the “Sturgeon King”, the focus at this 100+ year-old Upper West Side spot is on the fish: gefilte, whitefish, lox, sable and sturgeon, to name a few. While their pastrami and cold borscht are both well-known and respected, you come here for the bagel and lox, consistently voted among the top places in New York City. While it isn’t as much of a household name as Katz’s or Carnegie Deli, it’s nonetheless wildly popular, so if you’re going to get a bagel here you better get there early.
Mile End Deli: Montreal native Noah Bernamoff opened Mile End with his wife Rae Cohen after experimenting with Jewish deli food at home. Unlike the other names on this list, the focus here is on Montreal-style Jewish deli food, which while mostly the same does have some differences. Instead of pastrami, Mile End serves “smoked meat”, a variety of pastrami developed by Jewish immigrants to Montreal during the early 20th century. That might jade some New York deli purists, but the amazing tastes and flavors here more than make up for it. For a full experience, bring a friend and try the Mile End platter for two, but be sure to order a side of heart-cloggingly delicious smoked meat poutine.
Ben’s Best: Although its Rego Park location is fairly far out of the way, the food here is well worth the schlep. The pastrami and matzoh ball soup here are well-known, and for good reason. The pastrami is some of the best and juiciest you can get outside of Manhattan, and the soup is rich and made with plenty of love. Yet one of the unsung heroes here is the fried kreplach. Filled with tender and flavorful beef filling, the kreplach are fried, served on top of crispy onions and served with a side of duck sauce. And best of all, everything here is 100% kosher!
David’s Brisket House: Originally founded by Russian and Yemenite Jewish immigrants, during the 1980s David’s came under the ownership of a Yemenite Muslim employee, making David’s New York’s “Jewish deli run by Muslims”. Regardless of who runs it, the meat here is incredible: the brisket is tender and flavorful (an unfortunate rarity among Jewish delis) and the pastrami is juicy and succulent, easily some of the best in Brooklyn. The breakfast sandwiches here are legendary, attracting a steady line of patrons every morning. If there’s one fault here, it’s that the menu’s focus is solely on pastrami, brisket and corned beef, but they do it so well that you don’t even care.
Pastrami Queen: Located in a small storefront less than a block away from the 77th street station on the 6 line, Pastrami Queen is easy to miss if you aren’t looking for it. Yet once you enter, it’s clear that you’ve stumbled upon a gem. The pastrami here is one of the main draws, as well as their “world famous soups”. The knishes are another classic, including the hearty, gut-busting meat knish, a meal in of itself.
Second Avenue Deli: Second Avenue Deli has had its hardship in the past 20 years, most notably the murder of its founder Abe Lebewohl in 1996. Although its original location closed in 2006, it reopened in Murray Hill, to the delight of all, and there’s now a second location on the Upper East Side. The specialties here are varied: matzoh ball soup, corned beef, pastrami, knishes and gefilte fish, among others. The walls are decorated with photos of famous celebrities and actors in Yiddish theater, reminding patrons of this institution’s link with this ancient art form and giving you the feeling that you’re stepping into a piece of history.
Shelsky’s of Brooklyn: Like Mile End, this is a newer location, founded by restaurateur Peter Shelsky as a homage to the Lower East Side Jewish delis of New York’s past. Much like the old Jewish delis to which it pays respect, Shelsky’s doubles as a sort of bodega, serving dried fruit, candies and a variety of specialty groceries in addition to the main attractions. While the pastrami and corned beef here is excellent, much like Barney Greengrass, the main attraction here is the cured seafood. They make a variety of delicious fish sandwiches, most notably the “Shelsky’s”, made up of lox, sable and pickled herring. The classic bagel and lox shouldn’t be missed as well, giving many of the old contenders a run for their money.