Eight Delis, Two Days - In Search of the Best
by Richard Blackman
CBS recently aired a broadcast about three of New York City’s finest delis. I dare you to watch without your mouth watering! But my friends and I did CBS one better – actually five better. We did a taste test of 8 delis in 36 hours.
It’s Saturday 9 AM and three of my elementary school friends, Larry, Malcolm and Gary, and I (all in our 50s now) jam into Gary’s 1994 Corolla on the way to New York City in search of the best deli sandwiches, side orders, and pickles.
Gary, Richard, Larry and Malcolm depart for NY with two coolers
Five minutes into the trip we began an animated conversation – how will we rate the delis? How many total points would we use? How many points per sandwich, what about pickles, what about salads? We also discussed other criteria beside food. Do we add points for atmosphere, or cleanliness? And what about staff – do we add or subtract points for surliness? After an hour of lively discussion, we agreed that we would place the same order at each deli: three sandwiches (hot corned beef, brisket and pastrami), coleslaw, potato salad, and pickles. We also agreed that the taste of the food would be the only item evaluated, and that we would use 100 points total per person per deli -- a maximum of 24 points for each sandwich, 14 for pickles, and 14 for side orders. With 4 raters, each deli could score a maximum of 400 points. Even before we set out, I had already won the first argument: we knew that we could not eat everything we ordered, and we would need to take two coolers rather than one for leftovers.
We’d been planning this trip for a year, inspired by David Saks’ book, Save the Deli, which gets a mention in the CBS video above. We chose the eight delis based on internet reviews, a poll of “deli-savvy” friends, and my own personal experiences.
Our first stop was Hobby’s Delicatessen and Restaurant in Newark, NJ. Salivating with pent-up anticipation after 200 miles on the road, Hobby’s did not disappoint. Hobby’s is truly an original. After walking past the obligatory deli case, with all the tasty food morsels, the co-owner, Marc Brummer, seated us in the spacious dining room. Marc is a deli-owner who loves his work and has “deli” running through his veins. He and his brother started in the business when they were teenagers, and have now taken over the business from their dad, who, although he’s in his 80’s, still offers helpful advice. Marc schmoozed with us throughout the meal and it was a blast. We asked if he was a “Hobby.” It turns out the deli used to be called Hocky’s, but a previous owner had to change the name and could only afford to change two letters in the sign—hence Hobby’s. Marc is a Brandeis graduate, and Larry is too -- a high-five moment. This is a fun place to go, and you must spend time talking with the owner.
The onion rings, which we didn’t order at other delis, were excellent, as were the pickles (waiting for you in a bowl on the table). The best sandwich to order here is the pastrami or corned beef (depending on which of us you ask), which is excellent. Were Hobby’s sandwiches “take-home-to-the-wives” worthy? Absolutely, but it wouldn’t be appropriate to get take-out from the first entry, so we headed to our second lunch of the day. By the way, several years ago, Hobby’s started Salami for Our Soldiers. 100% of all donations goes to buying the salami and sending it to our troops. They’ve now donated over 25,000 salamis. We made a donation. Food rating at Hobby’s: 303 points. Cost for sandwich: $9.25 -- $.90 per oz.
After Hobby’s, we headed just 10 minutes down the road, to another Newark neighborhood -- Bragman’s Delicatessen and Restaurant. This turned out to be the tiniest of the delis with just two small tables. We squished our way to the counter to order our food. The counter guy passed out pastrami samples, but neglected to give us napkins. The food turned out to nothing special, although compared to any DC establishment, it would get top ratings. The sides of potato salad and coleslaw were, as with most of the places, average at best. But Bragman’s has done a great job of adapting to the changing demographics of its neighborhood, and the place was crowded mid-afternoon. Food: 270 points. Cost for sandwich: $6.45 --$.57 per oz.
Our visit here was somewhat rushed because I was in a hurry to get to David’s in Brooklyn before they ran out of meat. “Run out of meat?” Malcolm kept asking skeptically. “What kind of deli could run out of meat two hours before closing? We’re getting there by 3:40 and they’re open till 5:45!”
At 3:10 pm, we were on the road to Brooklyn headed to David’s Brisket House, which is not in the best area of Brooklyn, but we were evaluating taste, not location. (It has since moved.) We sauntered into the restaurant at 3:30 and they were out of brisket. Arrgggggh!!
Malcolm begged them, “We drove up from DC, just for the brisket.” The owner finally pulled out a container of brisket scraps. He wouldn’t charge us for the brisket because it wasn’t prime. Malcolm was relieved that we would at least get to taste a sample. Even if it was non-prime, David’s brisket was pretty special, receiving the 2nd highest rating for brisket of the 8 delis evaluated. David’s was a small place, only slightly larger than the size of Bragman’s, with two tables in back. All three meats were mouth-watering delicious – thick and juicy. But how could a deli serve packet mustard? Minus 10 points.
At this point Malcolm decided he was ready to order take-out – the corned beef was too good to pass up. His wife would love it. “A pound to go please” he said to the waiter. “I’m sorry we’re out”. How could a deli run out of corned beef and brisket???? Arghhh! A pity, too because David’s by far was the best bargain for the money. Larry had brought his scale, which we used to weigh each restaurant sandwich. David’s weighed in at 52 cents per ounce.
By the time we got to Davids, we discovered that, if you have more than one deli meal in a single day, the best drink to go with the sandwiches is seltzer water – the old two cents plain. Sure black cherry was tastier (Gary was moaning after finishing off a whole can), and Dr. Brown’s cream soda would have been a super treat, but we were into sustainability, given that we still had to eat at 5 more delis in 24 hours. David’s was a bit on the grungy side, but the meats were amazing. We decided this restaurant should best be experienced via carryout. Food: 325 points. Cost for sandwich: $8.00 -- $.52 per oz.
While we’re on the subject of sustainability, we were concerned about the potential health effects of eating eight straight meals of deli meats. Earlier in the year, I checked in with a friend who’s a big-shot cardiologist at John’s Hopkins. I asked him, “What can we do to alleviate the impact of eating all this meat in two days?” His response, “Nothing really, you’ll all be dead!”
5:54 pm and we arrive at Mile End in Brooklyn, “A Montreal Jewish Delicatessen” according to the Website. We had debated whether to include this deli because it doesn’t have pastrami or corned beef – just Montreal-style smoked meat. We were convinced to make an exception by the internet reviews and a food-channel segment. Mile End is a small place with about six newish wood bench tables. But when we got there, we felt like we had taken a wrong turn. This wasn’t a deli, but a Montreal-style yuppie bistro. Or as Malcolm suggested, “a yuppified foreign establishment masquerading as delicatessen.” Clearly, this place didn’t fit the mold. However, three of the four of us did like the smoked meat, which is thick-cut, and a cross between pastrami and corned beef. We weren’t crazy about the Mile End pickles. On the way out we spotted an array of pickle jars in the window. Larry aptly remarked, “They have pickles in a jar and that’s where theirs should stay!”
Food: Unrated, because they only offer one type of sandwich. Cost for sandwich: $9.00 -- $.90 per oz.
The plan had been to finish up in Brooklyn with a late dinner at deli #5 - Adelman’s, but we really needed a break from deli food. (Imagine that.) We decided instead to find a Broadway show. It was one of the best decisions of the day. We had reached our deli max for the night. We’d do Adelman’s tomorrow. But, alas, we became reinvigorated with the walking after the show, so we headed over to 2nd Avenue Deli in Manhattan for an 11pm after-show “snack” of 3 more sandwiches, sides and pickles.
One of the most difficult parts of the trip was keeping our deli thoughts to ourselves until we had all written down our ratings of a particular deli’s food. We had agreed not to discuss our views until all ratings were complete, and thus the rule became “no revealing until we had all scored,” so as not to bias any of us. At 2nd Avenue, it turned out that none of us could wait to discuss our findings after the first bite of the first sandwich. We simply had to break the rules for 2nd Avenue. As we took our first bites of the sandwiches it was all we could do to keep quiet. We looked at each other and knew we had found someplace special. We couldn’t wait to talk about how much we loved everything. 2nd Avenue received top scores all around. The deli used to be on 2nd Ave, but temporarily closed a couple years ago because of rent issues and moved to 33rd Street. The old deli had a classic deli atmosphere with that scrumptious deli odor of brine pickles. We missed that atmosphere with this reincarnation in a sparkling clean new environment. However, we couldn’t argue with the food. Larry and Malcolm took home giant packages of corned beef for their families. 2nd Avenue had the first truly enjoyable (if not exceptional) potato salad and coleslaw. The meat was Manhattan-pricey at $1.12 an ounce, and the $18 per hour parking added to the cost, but it was all well worth it. Our young Bulgarian-born waitress was delightful. Food: 363 points. Cost for sandwich: $14.50 --$1.25 per oz.
After a post-midnight traffic jam on the FDR highway, we finally arrived at our New Jersey hotel at 1:30am.
When we woke on Sunday morning we were faced with our next big decision. The hotel offered us the fancy breakfast buffet at no cost. How could we possibly eat a big breakfast with three more delis to go? But how could we pass up a free meal? Gary said he’d go for it if they had pastrami on the breakfast menu. They didn’t, but we went anyway. We ate the breakfast buffet, but downed only fruit. The floating pictures of strawberries during Saturday’s night’s Broadway show tribute to the Beatles, “Rain”, had us longing for fruit.
At 10am, we left for Harlem to visit my son’s apartment/office. He encouraged us to stop by and drop off the piles of leftovers. A starving, unemployed comedian – he’s now making a movie musical, Welcome to Harlem. We were all blown away by his movie trailer we had seen on YouTube and wanted to visit. Another trip highlight—he gave everybody movie T-shirts. The back of the shirt boldly advertises that the movie will be “Opening in the Fall 2011.”
On to lower Manhattan where at 11:30am we arrived at Katz’s Delicatessen. Many of the internet reviews said “the best pastrami anywhere”. We agreed. Thick cut and just amazing. The pickles were impressive as well. We took home $30 worth of the best pickles on the trip. As to the pastrami, 2nd Avenue was close in taste, but the meat was hand-cut at Katz’s, and that made the difference. Katz’s is a lively, traditional style deli with great atmosphere, friendly service, lots of tables in a cavernous room. It had the best “deli smell” of all the delis and was packed and crowded. But as one customer noted as she was negotiating her way out the door, “the crowds are why I don’t like to come here.” Food: 340 points. Cost for sandwich: $14.95 -- $1.36 per oz.
I need to mention that we purposely left midtown Manhattan’s Stage Deli and Carnegie Deli (Sadly, both of these delis have closed since our trip) off the list because I go there so often. Stage has always had my favorite corned beef and my neighbor swears by Carnegie Deli’s corned beef.
Next stop, Adelman’s Kosher Deli in Brooklyn, which is located in an interesting Russian Jewish suburban neighborhood. (This deli has also closed since our trip.) This is a clean family restaurant with a number of tables in a big room. Meats overall were excellent if not exceptional, although the pastrami got top marks. The deli had an authentic feel. The pickles and sides were average. Food: 302 points. Cost for sandwich: $9.95 -- $.90 per oz.
Finally, we headed out for our last stop in Edison New Jersey, Harold’s NY Delicatessen, which is connected to a Holiday Inn and is best known for “the largest sandwiches.” That indeed they were. Everything about the place seemed to echo “colossal.” Restaurant capacity, sandwiches, drinks, cakes, pickle bars, crowds. At 4pm on Sunday the place was packed. Another customer said it’s like this all weekend. Yes, the food was excellent, but we were all turned off by the “excess.” The portions were ridiculously large. While there were some substantial differences among the delis in sandwich net weight, at no deli were the portions inadequate. Harold’s seemed more like a tourist attraction and had an almost circus-like atmosphere. You can see an interesting interview with the owner. Be sure to unmute the site before you begin watching it. Food: 310 points. Cost for sandwich: $17.95 -- $.66 per oz.
If we had to go to one place for food -- our unanimous choice was 2nd Ave Deli. For the best deli experience, we agreed that Hobby’s was tops. The best bargain with amazing meats was David’s Brisket, but we’d go for carryout. Our other unanimous choices – best pickles and best pastrami went to Katz’s. The brisket and sides fell short at most of the places, although David’s and 2nd Avenue’s brisket were impressive. In my humble opinion, you get better brisket at Edmart in Baltimore or the melt-in-your mouth sandwiches at DC’s MGM Roast Beef. I also want to mention that nearby, Attman’s delicatessen in Baltimore can compete with the best of the New York delis.
Just in case you should find yourself in a deli of unknown reputation, we offer a few suggestions: (1) When in doubt, order pastrami or corned beef, good brisket is hard to find; (2) don’t order potato salad – let the bread be your carb; (3) be wary of sliced (vs whole) pickles; (4) wash it all down with seltzer; and (5) too much of a good thing is too much.
Footnote: None of us has been able to look at deli meat since the trip. I’m sure we’ll get over it shortly, and I look forward to eating my next delectable deli sandwich!
You can view our individual ratings of every sandwich, condiment and pickle at all 8 delis here.