Eight More Delis (Again)

by Richard Blackman

It’s 8 a.m. Saturday morning, and I’m sitting in the back of Malcolm’s Highlander with Larry and Gary. We are in the car on the way to New York City from the DC area for our 3rd (now annual) deli trip. Once again we are searching for the best corned beef, pastrami, brisket, and more in the NY area. This year the agonizing choices began well before today.

In 2010 and 2011, we visited 8 delis in NY and New Jersey in search of the best. After visiting all these delis, perhaps we were “deli’d out,” so I suggested other “tasting” options. We tossed around three new options: Pizza, Mediterranean (kabobs, hummus & such), or Vegetarian. We’re all relatively healthy eaters (outside of our deli trips), so the Mediterranean and Veggie options had promise.

Pizza – ooooh, wouldn’t we all love that option. However, there’s just too much fat & cheese. (Please don’t send me any comments about the amount of fat in deli sandwiches.) Another downside to pizza—it would be hard to take the leftovers home.

Mediterranean, my initial favorite, didn’t get much support from the rest of the pack. How about vegetarian? I found what appeared to be eight highly rated vegetarian restaurants in the City. As I poured over the menus and pictures, they did nothing for me. Nothing. I just couldn’t get excited about vegetarian. But show me a picture of a pastrami sandwich from Katz’s or 2nd Ave Deli and I’m salivating with desire. I dutifully posed the options to the group.

The group scoffed at the idea of any of the three alternatives. “We’re deli people” they said. “What do we know about pizza anyway?”

So here we are in the car for our 3rd round of 8 delis in 36 hours. On the list this year were two repeats – last year’s winner, Sarge’s Delicatessen and Restaurant, and Katz’s (because, as Malcolm put it, “If I were on death row, I would order a hand-cut pastrami sandwich from Katz’s”). Other stops included two Brooklyn delis – the new branch of David’s Brisket, and Mill Basin Deli; two Bronx delis – Loeser’s and Liebman’s; and two other Manhattan delis – Pastrami Queen and Schatzi the Butcher. They all had raves, at least on the Web, but, as we found out, who knows who posts those raves? We also were planning to stop for fun at the original Coney Island Nathan’s, but it was closed as a result of damage from Hurricane Sandy.

Before we left my driveway, we hit our first setback – Larry forgot his digital scale to weigh the sandwiches. We had to have a scale to determine the best sandwich value for the money. But we also had a tight schedule and I was concerned about how this would impact our timing. So I suggested we skip the scale. I was quickly overruled and we headed to the local hardware store. They had two choices – one scale that could hold no more than 16 ounces (in the past, we have had sandwiches that would break that scale), and a second that could hold a big sandwich but didn’t have precise digital measurements. We reluctantly compromised and chose the big scale.

We were back on the road at 8:30 a.m. Malcolm expressed strong resistance to knishes this year. We tried them last year because, at most delis, the potato salad and cole slaw were no better than mediocre. Based on Malcolm’s pleas, we agreed to return to the potato salad/cole slaw side orders from our 2010 trip. As in past years, we each used a 100 point scale to rate each deli – a maximum 24 points for each deli meat, (brisket, corned beef and pastrami,) 14 points for pickles (half and full sour), and 7 each for cole slaw and potato salad. See our final ratings of all dishes at all the delis.

Traffic was light, the Highlander purred and we reached our first stop at 12:20 p.m., a little ahead of our schedule – Loeser’s Kosher Deli in the Bronx. Before entering the restaurant we decided to see whether a hardware store around the corner from the deli had a better scale. Our lucky day—this tiny hardware store, on its last legs, had the perfect digital scale.

As we walked into Loeser’s we were initially encouraged by the giant sign in the window that read, “Hebrew National” and “voted Best Pastrami.” A promising start, but as we walked into the skinny establishment (past the requisite counter with deli meats & other assortments), we realized we were in trouble. Lunchtime on Saturday, and we were the only people in the “restaurant”. There were 12 tables and two people working behind the counter. Clearly, this establishment and its proprietor had seen better days. He was very nice, but it seemed like he was just counting the hours until retirement. The place was dreary, and the tiny bathroom lacked a real door. In the past, we have found that we give a higher score to the first place we visit, because that is when we are hungriest. But this did not give any boost to Loeser’s. The food was…. mediocre at best. (On the other hand, just to keep things in perspective, a mediocre deli sandwich in NY is way better than anything we can get in DC). See Malcolm’s comments in the appendix for more detail. The big discussion here was about the cole slaw. Larry thought it was superb with a crisp, cabbage taste and light dressing, and Malcolm agreed. Gary and I thought it was tasteless. Larry gave it a score of 7, while I gave it a 2. On the whole, we all agreed that the deli was disappointing.

Five minutes after our first meal ended, we were at our next stop about a mile down the road, Liebman’s(Kosher) Delicatessen Restaurant. It was very different from Loeser’s. Liebman’s had a wonderful family atmosphere, a fine deli aroma of brine pickles and cooked beef, and was spotless and hopping. The contrast between these restaurants reminded us of the contrast between two delis from our first trip, Bragman’s and Hobbies in Newark. Bragman’s was in a neighborhood that was in flux, a neighborhood that no longer seemed to have the traditional “Jewish deli” clientele, while Hobby’s, not too far away, gave us the true Jewish deli experience. Where Loesher’s was grungy, Liebman’s was spotless, as was their bathroom. (For the record, bathrooms are more important to some of us.)

Shortly after we sat down, we were joined by my starving artist son from Harlem, Mark. He recently completed producing, directing and acting in a comedy movie musical, “Welcome to Harlem”, which opened at the Apollo Theater, and has won numerous awards, but has yet to find a distributor. Mark is always glad to receive a free deli sandwich. During the meal, Larry asked Mark whether he thought we’d still be alive in 10 years if we do this every year. Mark’s response, “I’m an artist, not a doctor.”

The big treat at Liebman's was seltzer from Walter the Seltzer Man. Because we visit so many delis in such a short time, and because we focus on deli sandwiches and salads, we drink only seltzer (except for Gary who likes plain water). Having sampled seltzer at virtually every one of the delis we’ve visited, we all agreed that Walter’s seltzer was by far the best we’ve had. The seltzer was delivered to the table in a large green glass bottle with a spritzer on top. We had to shake it and spritz it into our glasses. You’d think all seltzer would be the same, but this was really good stuff. Not to be missed! The rest of the food was a cut or two above Loeser's and pretty good. Larry for some reason said the pickles tasted like the smell of the elephant house at the zoo. I have no idea what he was talking about. They tasted pretty good to me.

After the meal, we were off to Schatzi the Butcher at 86th and Amsterdam. Schatzi’s is a true butcher shop rather than a restaurant, but some of the internet reviews on their pastrami and their “dirty brisket” sandwich made it sound too good to pass up. While I was planning the trip, I talked on the phone to Schatzi. When I told him that we would be sampling a bunch of delis, he suggested it would be a waste of time. Once we tried his sandwiches, we wouldn’t want to go anywhere else. This was a challenge and we were only too glad to accept it.

As we were walking into Schatzi’s, we passed Barney Greengrass, another famous deli, and we wondered if it shouldn’t have been on our list. I had been there, and it was good, but it didn’t make this year’s cut. Gary also pointed out the giant sign on the front that said “Sturgeon Specials.” Gary said, “What kind of deli advertises sturgeon?”

Schatzi’s is a small shop without tables, just a counter with little standing room. We ordered the dirty brisket and pastrami along with the pickles, potato salad, and cole slaw. They were out of corned beef, and therefore we haven’t included them in our final numerical ratings.

We walked for 10 minutes to Central Park, where we found a bench to sit on while we ate. The pastrami was flavorful but almost impossible to eat because it was marbled with gristle – very unpleasant. The pickles were, as Malcolm noted “inedible, with an overwhelming taste of industrial cleaner and salt,” or as Larry noted, “horrible.” We each had one bite and tossed the remains into the Park for the squirrels, although I suspect most squirrels wouldn’t touch such a poor representation of a pickle. The potato salad and cole slaw weren’t much better, but at least, they ended up in the trash, not in the park. The dirty brisket wasn’t really brisket, but pot roast with a barbeque sauce. It was okay, but nothing special. On the whole, Schatzi’s was very disappointing. I suppose they may sell good meats to take home and cook, but this was our most disappointing experience. Larry aptly noted, “Schatzi is a character, but his food, for the most part, lacks character.” Schatzi should put the pickle jars out back and leave them there.

For our fourth stop, and dinner, we drove across town, through the Park to Pastrami Queen at Lexington and 81st and arrived at 4:30 p.m. Pastrami Queen is a tiny place – with one table for two, two tables for four, and of course a tiny bathroom. We managed to squeeze in at our table. Their Seagrams Sparkling water in a can was dreadful. Much better was the Canada Dry in a can. Of course nothing compares to Walter the Seltzer Man’s product. The restaurant was cramped and lacked karma and we were disappointed again. I assume it gets a big lunch crowd. The food was decent, but certainly not special.

About this time, we had a discussion about how to rate pickles. Pickles get a maximum total of 14 points. Some of us like the half-sours best (Larry, Gary and Malcolm), and I go for the full sours. I had been scoring based on how much I liked the full sours, while the 3 others had been scoring the two types of pickles individually. We decided the best option was to award 7 points for each type of pickle. So a maximum 7 for the half-sour plus 7 for the full sour, total max of 14 points.

Next stop, Times Square for our visit to the TKTS booth for Broadway show tickets. At the TKTS booth we debated what to see. Off Broadway offered Old Jews Telling Jokes or The Fantastics, while Broadway had War Horse, or Bring It On. Since we wanted something upbeat, we agreed to buy tickets for Bring it On, which we anticipated would be a mildly entertaining if mindless musical about cheerleaders.

We had time before the show, so we walked a few blocks and spent 60 minutes at the top of the bleachers by TKTS, one of my all-time favorite places. Next, we walked 10 blocks to Stage Deli, so I could replenish my supply of Stage Deli Mustard—my choice for the best mustard anywhere. I picked up five jars. I would have had them send it to me, but the delivery cost is around $30.

We then headed to the theater. Again this year, as in past years, we hit paydirt. We all loved the show. A little slow and full of clichés to start, it picked up in the second half and surprised us all, far exceeding our expectations.

After the show we headed over to Sarge’s Delicatessen/Restaurant between 34th and 35th on 2nd Ave. Sarge’s got our top rating last year and we wanted to give it a repeat try. We arrived in the area around 10:30 p.m. and spent close to a half hour looking for a parking spot. But Sarge’s didn’t disappoint. It was far better than any of our 4 previous delis from that day, and again a first class experience. As Malcolm wrote, “Up against the first four, it was no contest: Sarge’s in a landslide. High quality meats across the board. The corned beef was delicate with subtle flavor, pastrami excellent, brisket also good – moist with nice texture, no excess fat. The pickles (especially the half sours) were excellent, the potato salad was the best so far, without that cloying sweetness that seems so common these days. Cole slaw was also good.” He summed it up for all of us, and again, for the second year in a row, Sarge’s, although pricey, was our favorite deli of the trip.

Three weeks after our trip, we read about a massive fire at Sarge’s that will result in it being closed for quite some time while they rebuild. All of us were saddened by this terrible news.

We headed off to the Marriott Courtyard in Secaucus NJ, where we arrived at 1 a.m. In the morning at the hotel, we met a bunch of drum majors from Virginia on their way to the National Marching Band Championships at Met-Life Stadium. I would have loved to have watched for a bit, but we had to stick to the schedule.

At 8:20 a.m. we were back on the road headed to Katz’s Delicatessen for a hearty breakfast of pastrami, corned beef, brisket, etc. There, we encountered a surprisingly empty restaurant. Then again, it was at 8:45 a.m. on a Sunday — that’s evidently the time to go if you want a table. Every other time we’ve been to Katz’s, the place was packed. We recently read articles about how Katz’s stayed open during the Hurricane Sandy power outage by using lots of generators and dry ice. They lost money, but felt it was important to take care of their customers.

As in the past, the pastrami was amazing. As we’ve said before, we’d guess it’s the best in the world. The samples were mouthwatering. I’m primarily a corned beef lover, but I have to admit, their pastrami is special. Interestingly enough, we discovered something unique about Katz’s this trip, and something that helped us understand why their pastrami is always so good. While Gary was watching the meat-cutter hand-slice a one-pound take-out portion of pastrami (Gary bought it to take to his envious wife), the meat-cutter handed Gary a hot sample (as they always do). Gary noticed that as good as it was, it just seemed a bit off. The meat cutter kept slicing and slicing and kept looking at the meat carefully. Then he picked it all up and threw it in the trash. Evidently this cut was not up to the high quality Katz’s demands. After disposing of the meat he went over to the area where they store the meat, retrieved a fresh pastrami that must have weighed 10-15 lbs, and started slicing new meat for Gary to take home. He gave Gary another sample, which was mouthwatering and amazing, and much better than the earlier sample. Maybe Katz’s quality control explains why their meats are so much better. They only serve the best of the best. The brisket and corned beef were good, but it’s the pastrami that truly excels. The pickles were also excellent. Malcolm and Gary took home carryout pastrami and a couple of us bought pickles for home. Larry bought four bottles of Katz’s seltzer. Not quite as good as the seltzer from Walter the Seltzer Man, but still very good. And, just like Walter’s, this seltzer was bottled in glass, not in a can or a plastic bottle.

After Katz’s we headed over to the 9/11 Memorial for our 11 a.m. reservation. After 30 minutes of searching for a parking space, we gave up and plunked down $34 (gag!!!!) for two hours of parking. We should have taken a cab from our free spot at Katz’s. After 30 minutes of winding through the line, we finally got our view of the spectacular memorial. If you’re in NYC, this is a must-see, very moving.

Our next stop at 12:30 pm was Mill Basin Kosher Deli in Brooklyn. It’s an average, plain, kosher deli. Our waitress was an impatient, young, attractive Russian-born woman. She took our order but was unable or unwilling to answer any of my questions. Gary and I looked at each other and said together, “No 20% tip for her!” The waitress and I sort of eyed each other throughout our time with semi-dirty looks. She softened up a bit after seeing Larry’s scale and asked, “Are you doing some kind of research?” We told her what we were doing and then my bad side was tempted to loudly add, “We’re also reviewing waitresses,” but my deli partners kept me at bay. As for the food, the pastrami was our least favorite of the trio. While the taste was not bad, it had gristle like Schatzi’s. As Larry noted, “They are surely not putting on a show for the reviewers.”

We headed to our last deli, the newly opened second branch of David’s Brisket House in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. (2017 update--The Brooklyn branch of this deli closed this year, although the Nostrand Ave. branch remains open.) We had been to David’s on Nostrand Avenue the last two years, but wanted to try this new branch. Unique for a “jewish-food” type deli, this is run by Muslims. The food was first-rate again, and the restaurant was a dramatic improvement over the Nostrand Ave. David’s. The Nostrand Avenue version was grungy, small and didn’t seem particularly clean. This new place was spacious, spotless, and had lots of tables. The counter folks were super friendly and accommodating. Larry asked for ice for his drink, but when Mohammed, the manager, realized he didn’t have any, he walked next door to borrow some from the neighboring restaurant. That’s customer service. The meat was some of the best on our trip. David’s had my favorite corned beef of all the restaurants, cut thick. Across the board the meats got the best combined score. They were the best bargain to boot. Larry thought the sour pickles were the best. They didn’t have cole slaw or potato salad. For that reason, we assigned David’s the average potato salad and cole slaw rating that the 7 other restaurants received, so that David’s could compete in our numerical evaluations. I’m not sure whether they were out of these sides that day, or just didn’t carry them. I purchased my take-out corned beef from there.

After another exciting two days, we headed for home around 4:00 p.m. We debated whether to stop in downtown Philadelphia to try Schlesinger’s Restaurant and Delicatessen or Herschel’s deli. I had eaten at both last month on a Philly trip and found them to be on a par with some of the best NY delis. I thought Schlesinger’s pastrami was superb, comparable to Katz’s. But eight delis in one trip was our max. Next time, we’ll have to make the Philly stop.

Conclusions? Once again Sarge’s was our favorite. Superb in every aspect, food and atmosphere. It’s worth the extra money. For overall quality, ambience, and price, it compares with its neighbor, 2nd Ave Deli, which we visited on previous trips. Katz’s? Hands down the best pastrami anywhere. David’s? After our last trip, we recommended David’s for great meat and the best value, but only for takeout. We loved the new David’s in Bay Ridge, where you could take your kids. Their meats also got our top overall rating and are significantly less expensive than the other top-quality places. See Malcolm’s comments below along with Gary’s compilation of our ratings.

We’re already starting to plan next year’s trip. And, once again, we will be visiting delis!

N.B. It is with great sadness that we have to report that Stage Deli, a NYC landmark for 75 years, closed its doors for good. Delis are an endangered species these days. You can read more here http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/01/dining/stage-delis-closing-ends-a-restaurant-war.html

Malcolm’s Comments:

Loeser’s – Classic case of a deli in decline with a dark, rundown interior and owner to match (though he was friendly). Brisket (BR) was moist but too fatty and rather bland. Corned beef (CB) was also dry with ordinary flavor and texture. The Pastrami (PA), while a little dry, was quite flavorful. Pickles (PI) very average. Potato salad (PS) was dry, mealy and sweet. Cole slaw (CS) had a distinctive flavor, was fairly crunchy and not too sweet.

Liebman’s – This deli in contrast to Loeser’s looked to be fairly successful, w/clean and apparently updated interior. BR was moist with good flavor, a little fatty. CB likewise was moist, tender and tasty. PA also moist with subtle flavor. PI average overall but the half sours were excellent. PS had good texture but too sweet and creamy. CS was quite good, much like Loeser’s in terms of flavor and texture.

Schatzie’s – Probably not worth rating. BR was not in fact BR but was really a pot roast; it would not be useful to compare Schatzie’s “dirty BR” to the other delis. PA had decent flavor but was inedible due to extensive gristling and dry to boot. PS was a sickeningly sweet offering of the German style. CS was likewise poor. PI (a full sour) was inedible, with overwhelming taste of industrial cleaner and salt.

Pastrami Queen – This deli was uncomfortably tight and lacked karma. However, all was not lost. PA was quite tasty and moist. CB was very moist and tender but had a metallic flavor. BR was very tasty, a little dry but lean. Bread was lousy. PI average, PS too sweet and creamy, CS limp and bland.

Sarge’s – Up against the first four, it was no contest: Sarge’s in a landslide. High quality meats across the board. The corned beef was delicate with subtle flavor, pastrami excellent, brisket also good – moist with nice texture, no excess fat. The pickles (especially the half sours) were excellent, the potato salad was the best so far, without that cloying sweetness that seems so common these days. Cole slaw was also good.

Katz’ – ok, I admit that I am biased, but the PA is simply the best in every way – NO CONTEST HERE! Bought 1.5 pounds to take home and finished it within a few days. If you feed this to someone who is originally from New York as I did in the case of my wife, the reaction confirms the fact that DC delis can’t touch NY. On the other hand, the CB was off, with some flavor that is alien to the meat – seemed like an anomaly. BR had excellent flavor but was dry - I am coming around to the view that the best tasting BR tends to be dry (I am not a big fan of fatty brisket), so you might as well take the gravy when offered and pour it on, hoping that it’s good. PI are also the best and I bought mine (half sours) here (though you could also buy at Sarge’s). PS and CS ordinary – the slaw had nice crunch but was too creamy and sweet, which points out that CS may well be a matter of personal taste – one man’s gold may be another’s lead (or something).

Mill Basin Deli – fair to middling overall. PA had a Schatziesque toughness and was rubbery as well. CB was innocuous. BR had a light flavor, was moist and not too fatty. PI solid. PS sickeningly sweet. CS bland but crunchy. By now, you realize that there are basically two versions of CS – one that’s basically sweet with a lot of mayo and one that has a little more snap and is dressed more like a salad – personal preference dictates which one the reader will like, but none of them were particularly great.

David’s – the new (second) location was a marked contrast to the original David’s that must be on a health inspection watchlist – clean and roomy. PA was excellent – provocative flavor, on the edge fatwise (and perhaps a tad salty?) but very good. CB was most and tender with good flavor, perhaps a tad fatty? BR had fine flavor, not fatty, but a little dry – it was not up to the original David’s version. Tried to moisturize it with the gravy but the gravy was lousy. PI offered full sour only (good), PS and CS unavailable