We’ve enjoyed meals at 50 delis in cities between Washington, DC and New York City. We ordered the identical meal at each deli: pastrami, corned beef and brisket sandwiches, coleslaw, potato salad, half sour and full sour pickles. We used a 100-point scale to rate each meal. A deli could earn a maximum of 24 points for each of the 3 sandwiches, 7 points each for the coleslaw and potato salad, and 7 points each for the two types of pickles. We rated only the food and did not consider any other factors such as ambiance, cleanliness (which varied enormously), etc. We made multiple trips to several delis that were our favorites. Other than learning that deli sandwiches cause your cholesterol score to rise, what else did we discover?
We concluded the best deli food can only be found in the New York City area. Although we visited 23 delis in and around Washington, Baltimore and Philadelphia, hoping to find at least one that equaled the best of what New York had to offer, we were generally disappointed. For example, we enjoyed Corned Beef King in Olney, Maryland, and Parkway Deli in Silver Spring is a good authentic deli, but neither one matched up to our six favorites in the New York City area (Katz’s, Second Avenue, David’s Brisket House, Goodman’s, Hobby's and Sarge’s).
We would urge you to avoid ordering brisket sandwiches at virtually all delis. We found brisket to be consistently dry and/or tasteless. The three exceptions to this rule were David’s Brisket House in NYC, Goodman’s in NJ and MGM Roast Beef in Washington.
Similarly, we suggest you skip the potato salad and coleslaw at most delis. Almost none of our samples were homemade, many were tasteless, and some were drowning in mayonnaise. However, we were pleasantly surprised by the outstanding homemade redskin potato salad at Goodman’s, and another homemade potato salad at Edmart in Baltimore.
While we’re on the subject of Goodman’s we should mention a quality that we didn’t rate, but we definitely noticed at several delis. Although it’s somewhat intangible, what we named the “deli-experience,” is something that Goodman’s has in abundance. This is mostly due to Don Parkin, the hard-working owner, who lives and breathes deli. Goodman’s not only was one of our top-rated delis, it was also one of our favorite delis to visit. In addition, the Goodman’s wait staff were superb.
Although it didn’t achieve top ratings for food on our first trip, it absolutely did on our second trip (after they changed suppliers), and we now consider Hobby's among our top 6 delis. Hobby’s also personifies the true deli-experience. Hobby’s Delicatessen and Restaurant was the first of our 48 deli visits. In retrospect, we shouldn’t have eaten there first, because Hobby’s spoiled us. By starting with Hobby’s, we expected other delis to be as authentic as it was, and we were often disappointed. We were seated by Marc Brummer, the co-owner, together with his brother. Both of them started in the business when they were teenagers, and their father owned the deli. Both Marc and Hobby’s ooze “deli.” That’s a rare quality, which makes Hobby’s worth visiting, not only for their outstanding food, but also for their "deli atmosphere."
Last but not least, when it comes to the true deli-experience, we can’t fail to mention the champion in this category, Katz’s Delicatessen, which has been in the same location (except for a move across the street in 1917) for 128 years. When you walk into Katz’s you walk back in time. It’s worth visiting Katz’s just for the experience, but their food is also excellent. Katz’s specialty is its pastrami, which is superior to any of the 47 other delis we visited. We had other outstanding pastrami sandwiches in NY, but none of them equaled what we enjoyed at Katz’s. (Here's an interesting video about the history of pastrami.) While we were there, we learned that Katz’s sells two different versions of its pastrami. You can order a sandwich to eat in the restaurant by going to the counter near the front of the store. If you ask for takeout, you are directed to the counter toward the back of the store, which sells a pastrami that is lower in fat content. While it may be somewhat healthier, the taste is not comparable to what’s at the front counter. Our advice is to get your takeout from the front counter, which they are happy to prepare for you. Here's a fascinating interview with the owner of Katz's. As outstanding as the pastrami was at Katz’s, after several trips we did notice small differences from one visit to the next. We’ve learned that pastrami and corned beef are notoriously difficult to prepare consistently. The owner of Corned Beef King, which is one of the very few delis that makes its own corned beef and pastrami said this about cooking them. “If I had picked something simple, I could have had a much easier life. But I picked corned beef, the hardest “bleeping” thing on earth – along with pastrami – to prepare. It’s a monster.” This interesting article about delis discusses some of the complexity of preparing corned beef and pastrami, as does a 2003 article from the New York Times. Perhaps the difficulty of making these two dishes is why most pastrami and corned beef sold is not made by the store, but instead by Hebrew National or A to Z Kosher Meat Products, as reported here. Katz’s, which makes its meats in its basement, is an exception to the rule.
While we’re on the subject of the inconsistency of some deli sandwiches, we have another recommendation. During our first trip to NYC we rated Second Avenue Deli on 33rd Street our favorite deli among the eight we visited that weekend. The following year we visited a new branch deli that Second Avenue opened, which somewhat ironically is on First Avenue in New York. All of us found the food far inferior compared to what we had during our visit to the 33rd St location. We discussed our conclusions with the manager at the First Ave. shop. She told us that food at both delis was prepared but not cooked at a central location. It is then delivered to the restaurant where it is cooked and “finished.” Her explanation left us bewildered by the big difference between the two Second Avenue establishments. At the time, the store on First Avenue had only been open for 4 weeks, and perhaps they were still working out the kinks. We haven’t returned to this branch, but until we do, we recommend you patronize the 33rd Street restaurant.
You can view a map of 21 delis in the NY/NJ here, together with a paragraph about each one. We have visited many, but not all of the 21. Since the map was published, several of the delis listed on it have closed.
We conclude with ratings of all the delis we visited, excluding those in the Washington D.C. area. We intended to give numerical ratings to the Washington delis, but we were unable to do so. Our D.C. trips did not include any delis outside this area, and therefore we didn’t have a way to compare D.C. quality with NYC quality, which is the gold standard. We all agreed that the D.C. delis were inferior to those in NYC, but how much inferior was hard to determine. For example, we all agreed that the pastrami at Corned Beef King in Olney, which we enjoyed, was inferior to the Katz’s pastrami, but we felt it was hard to say whether Corned Beef King deserved a 20 or an 18 or a 16, compared to the 23.5 that Katz’s received, because it had been many months since we had visited Katz’s.