Eight More Delis, Two More Days - In Search of More of the Best
by Richard Blackman
It's Saturday, 8:45 am and I am headed to New York from Maryland along with three of my elementary school friends, Larry, Malcolm and Gary, for our second annual trip to uncover the world’s best delis.
We did this a year ago, (see last year's write-up) reviewing eight delis in 36 hours. But our readers wanted more, so we returned once again, to sample eight delis -- one deli that we visited last year, and seven that we did not. Included among the eight were both well-known classic delis, and a few lesser known establishments. This year’s scheduled lineup – David’s Brisket House, Ben’s Best in Queens, the new 2nd Ave Deli (uptown), Carnegie Deli, Stage Deli, Sarge’s Deli, the Kibitz Room in Cherry Hill, NJ and Attmans in Baltimore.
As we hit the road, the BIG DEBATE began: What to review and whether or not to tweak our carefully designed ratings system. Corned beef and pastrami sandwiches were definitely in, and so were pickles, but should we try brisket again this year? Last year’s experience with brisket sandwiches was a disappointment: good brisket was hard to come by. What about potato salad and cole slaw? These, too, were a disappointment last year. How about something new? Finally, we decided: (1) brisket was in; (2) knishes were in, potato salad and cole slaw were out; and (3) our scoring system would remain intact.
Ultimately, we felt that the integrity of our reviews made it critical that we maintain a sampling and scoring system similar to last year. The “knish switch” aside, we were reminded of Humphrey Bogart’s timeless observation about the Oscars: “If you want to judge them fairly, everybody should play Hamlet.”
Like last year, the scoring system worked as follows: each of us could award a maximum of 100 points per deli: up to 24 points for each of the 3 sandwiches, 14 points for the pickles, and 14 points for the knishes. A perfect deli would score 400 points. We also agreed that, just like last year, we would keep our opinions to ourselves until we had all finished the meal. That way we avoided biasing one another.
Navigating the New York streets was a challenge and required all of our skills and attention -- Malcolm drove his Highlander equipped with an in-dash GPS. Gary brought his portable GPS system, Larry took the retro approach and studied paper maps, and I read the MapQuest directions.
Our first stop at 12:30 pm was David’s Brisket House in Brooklyn. This was our repeat deli – we all felt that we had not given David’s a fair chance last year because we arrived there late in the afternoon, and David’s had already run out of meats, leaving us only scraps to taste. This time, I called David’s the day before to ensure they would still be well-stocked when we arrived. At their request, we called them again at 10 am Saturday to confirm our arrival. David’s is small, with only one tiny table in back and a few seats at the counter. As a result, this deli is mostly for take-out. But we squished into the table, just like we did last year. As the sandwiches arrived at our table, Larry pulled out his brand new Taylor glass digital scale for us so that we could weigh each sandwich to the nearest tenth ounce and determine cost-per-ounce. Whenever Larry brought out the scale, patrons (and sometimes restaurant employees) stared. We began by weighing a plate with the sandwich on it. Then we weighed an empty plate, and simple math gave us the weight of the sandwich. We made a surprising discovery this year. Seemingly identical empty plates don’t necessarily weigh the same. Therefore, we had to weigh each empty plate.
Once we weighed the sandwiches, we split them into quarters. One plus for David’s -- it offers three sizes of sandwiches—the small, which cost only $6, the medium, and the large. For most people, the small would be enough, and it certainly was enough for us because David’s was just our first stop. David’s had another outstanding attribute—on a cost–per-ounce basis, its sandwiches were the least expensive of any of the delis we visited.
But best of all, David’s sandwiches were melt-in-your-mouth delicious. I ordered corned beef to take home and Malcolm took home both corned beef and brisket. Although David’s was our first stop, it had our favorite brisket by a mile. But David’s pickles were mediocre, and it was the only restaurant that didn’t have knishes. To keep our scoring equal among all the restaurants, we averaged the scores for knishes at the other seven delis and awarded David’s the average score. In this way, we scored David’s on a 100 point basis, just like all the other delis we visited.
One hour and ten minutes after arriving at David’s, we sat down at Ben’s Best in Queens for our second lunch of the day. Ben’s has a nice atmosphere, but the food doesn’t compare to the best. Malcolm wrote, “The pastrami was its best offering, with excellent spice and good tenderness but was a little dry. Brisket was dry and tasteless. Corned beef had good flavor but was dry. Pickles – half sours were ok, full sour was mush. Knish was flavorful, nicely herbed with a light crust.” Larry also liked the knish but was less charitable regarding the meats. He thought the brisket was “dry” and “flavorless>,” and that the corned beef was “dry” and chewy. He rated the pastrami somewhat higher, but in his view, it tasted too much like a hot dog. I thought the knish tasted like a potato latke. Ingrid from Queens, a customer who sat behind us and overheard our animated conversation, asked what we were doing. When we told her we were reviewing eight delis in 2 days, she injected that we should give Ben’s hell for not having fresh rye bread. Gary pointed out a sign that touted Ben’s bread as “homemade.” Ingrid’s reply, “It may be homemade, but I don’t know whose home.” The rye bread tasted fine to us. As for the brisket, we came, we saw, we went.
A word here about hot dogs. At my urging, we decided to beta-test hot dogs, just to see how good they were, though we wouldn’t score them. Ben’s, as well as the next two delis we visited, all had fine dogs, but none of them came close to my favorite, Nathan’s. We ended our beta-test after those three delis.
After Ben’s, we headed to the newly-opened Second Avenue Deli on 75th and 1st Avenue where we arrived at 3:50 pm. My son Mark, a starving comedian and budding moviemaker, met us there. He recently finished writing, producing, and directing a new movie musical comedy, “Welcome to Harlem” http://www.welcometoharlemthemovie.com. It opens at the Apollo Theater in November. He and his editor took a break from editing for a free lunch and tons of leftovers. It’s probably the best lunch he’s had in months.
Last year, we visited the 2nd Avenue Deli on 33rd Street, and we rated it #1. We were excited about the “second 2nd Ave”, but after the meal, all of us agreed that the new version did not come close to the original. This gave us serious concerns. Had the 33rd Street shop gone downhill, or did the new one use a different source for its food? The manager of the new 2nd Ave, who saw Larry’s scale, came over to talk to us. We asked her about the two locations. She told us that both had identical menus, and both had food that was prepared but not cooked, at a central kitchen. The food was then delivered to each restaurant, where it was cooked and “finished.” After learning this, we were puzzled as to how there could be such a huge discrepancy between our ratings of the old and new 2nd Avenues. We decided to investigate further by adding a visit to the old 2nd Avenue to our next day’s schedule. When we made that stop, we only ordered one sandwich. After just one bite, all four of us agreed that the 33rd Street shop was every bit as good as it had been last year. So we remained puzzled. How could there be such a huge difference between the new and old delis? The new deli had been open for only 4 weeks. Restaurant reviewers typically do not eat at a restaurant until it has been open for several months, to give management time to work out the kinks. Perhaps the 75th Street location is experiencing those kinks, but for now, we would urge discerning foodies to choose the 33rd Street location.
The new new 2nd Avenue is clean and has a comfortable atmosphere, though it’s missing the old-fashioned deli aroma. The pastrami, while flavorful, was dry. Corned beef likewise was dry. The brisket was moist and tender but too fatty. We were divided on the knish -- Larry thought it tasted as if it had been made with instant potatoes. The half-sour pickles were average and the sour pickles were fine -- if you are a cow in search of a salt lick.
Which brings us to water. At least three of the restaurants sold small bottles of sparkling water that tasted excellent. This bottled sparkling water is a perfect complement to the sandwiches. If you are going to do a trip like this, stay away from sugary drinks. You won’t make it.
We next drove to midtown and found a great parking space on 55th Street for our visit to Carnegie Deli. As we walked into Carnegie and passed the deli counter, we inhaled wonderful deli aromas. But Carnegie has a way of packing ‘em in, seating customers at long tables where space is shared, almost family style, with others. When we initially sat next to unsuspecting tourists from California, I received a slightly suspicious (“why are sitting so close to me”) look? However, we became friends with our tablemates, Theresa and Debbie, before the meal was over.
Carnegie offers giant sandwiches and only accepts cash. At one time, this deli had been famous for its surly New York waitresses. These appear to have been replaced by waiters from other countries, who are attentive and friendly. Malcolm wrote, “A very solid deli. Corned beef was moist with subtle flavor. The pastrami was well spiced and tender. Brisket was relatively moist, somewhat bland but decent. Half-sour pickles were excellent, sours were again too salty. The knish was tasty, tangy, and well seasoned.” Larry, who is a fan of half sours, gave the Carnegie half sour a perfect score of 14.
Next stop: the TKTS ticket booth for half-price tickets to a show. We debated for 15 minutes whether to see Follies, Rock of Ages or Cirque du Soleil. We decided that since we were on Broadway, we had to see either Follies or Rock of Ages. We kept discussing our choices as we inched forward in line closer to the TKTS booth (where they yell at you if you haven’t already made up your mind before you get to the window -- perhaps this is where the traditional Carnegie waitresses are now employed), but finally agreed we’d go with the show that had the better seats. Alas, by 7 pm, both shows were sold out. We “settled” for Cirque du Soleil at Radio City. It was a great choice and a fabulous show.
The show ended at 10 pm. As we walked back to our car, we saw various food carts, with one or two people (at most) waiting for an order. Suddenly we spotted a line of over 100 people at a Halal Food Cart at 53rd and 6th Avenue. There was no line at what appeared to be an identical cart around the corner. One of the people who was eating said it was the best cart in the city. He told us, “The line will be even longer at 2 am.” We might have waited if we weren’t on our way to Stage Deli for our final meal of the day.
It’s half a block from Carnegie in case you want to do your own comparison. Stage has a pleasant and comfortable atmosphere, a wonderful deli aroma, and there was a good crowd when we arrived. Another advantage that Stage has over Carnegie—it takes credit cards and offers half-sandwiches, which are essential if you are eating solo, or if you’re dining at five delis in one day, as the regular size could feed three.
The manager was especially friendly and candid with us. We all agreed that the pastrami was excellent. Corned beef was also very good. Brisket was the same-old same-old. The knish had an odd sweet flavor. The pickles were outstanding, on a par with the pickles we took home from Katz’s last year and the best of the trip. I took home a container. The mustard was also superb, so I bought five jars. At 11:25 pm, we headed for our hotel at Newark Airport, arriving shortly after midnight.
Sunday began with an 8:30 am wake up call, and a stop at the hotel’s free breakfast buffet. Larry, “the smart one”, got a modest bowl of heart-healthy oatmeal, a wise decision considering the 15 sandwiches that we shared the day before. The rest of us made pigs of ourselves on the buffet of fruit and more. The bagels were inedible.
We were on the road at 9:58 am and headed for the High Line Park (off 14th Street and 10th Avenue) for some much needed exercise. It’s a unique elevated walk. On a nice day, we’d highly recommend it. It was full of other walkers, but not overwhelmingly crowded.
After the High Line, we proceeded to Sarge’s Deli at 36th and 3rd Avenue. We arrived at 12:20 pm to a clean environment—on a par with 2nd Avenue. The restaurant had a lively, traditional atmosphere, very friendly service, and an owner who filled us in on some of the ins and outs of deli life. Sarge’s rye bread was outstanding. Soft and seeded, it was the perfect complement to the outstanding sandwiches. Kenny, the owner, said that the secret is that Sarge’s buys the bread whole and slices it as sandwiches are made. The mustard also was outstanding (Baker’s Pride). The corned beef was excellent – moist, tasty, and not chewy or fatty. Pastrami was the melt-in-your mouth variety. The brisket was subtle and moist. The knish was mild with good flavor. Pickles were very good – sours crunchy and not too salty, half sours good. Sarge’s was clearly our favorite of the restaurants we visited this year.
On the way out of town, at Malcolm’s insistence, we stopped at Katz’s Deli for take-out pickles and pastrami. There was a 5-minute wait to get into the crowded restaurant (just for take-out). Gary and Malcolm each ordered a pound of pastrami to go. As you wait for your pastrami order to be hand cut, the staff at Katz’s gives out small samples to taste. As Malcolm and Gary each tasted the piece of pastrami, they looked at each other and uttered the same word simultaneously-- “twenty-four.” If you want the best hot pastrami sandwich in New York, which, when you think about it, probably means the best in the world, go to Katz’s.
We learned an interesting fact from one of the counter guys at Katz’s who told us we should get our take-out from the “hot” sandwich area. Katz’s uses a different cut of meat for hot sandwiches than it uses for platters or cold plates. The hot pastrami, which melts in your mouth, is not as lean as the pastrami that Katz’s sells in packages or uses for catering. I wonder if other restaurants do this. So, it’s always the “hot” pastrami line for us when we’re ordering take-out at Katz’s.
At 2:50 pm, we left Katz’s and headed for Cherry Hill, New Jersey and the Kibitz Room. We arrived at 4:55 pm to a mostly empty restaurant. The Kibitz Room is tucked away in a strip shopping center, about 15 minutes from the NJ Turnpike. Three of us thought that the brisket stood out and was a pleasant surprise, with rich flavor and moistness without the fat, but Larry though it was “boring.” Nothing else was particularly great. The pastrami had an odd spicy flavor and was too salty. Corned beef had good flavor but was a bit dry and little rubbery. The knish was ho-hum. They had a pickle bar, but it was uneven - the half sours were crunchy and delicate but the sours were mush.
Malcolm ordered a carrot cake slice for $7 that was gigantic. According to internet reviews, the establishment has a reputation for friendly service and lively staff (see the name) but we saw neither friendliness nor liveliness at 5 pm on a Sunday.
We headed home. We just didn’t have the energy or the appetite for Attman’s in Baltimore. Maybe on the next trip.
To sum up, you can’t really go wrong at any of these delis. Remember that we are rating, with a critical pen, what we believe are among the BEST deli sandwiches in the world. Compared to deli sandwiches at all but a few places, even our low-rated sandwiches are far and above what you can get outside of the New York area. Sarge’s in NY was our favorite overall. David’s in Brooklyn would be tough to beat for carryout and is bargain-priced. Stage Deli has great atmosphere and food on par with the rest. The new Second Avenue is a work in progress. We weren’t crazy about the Carnegie atmosphere, but the food was very good. As for pickles, we suggest that some of the delis we visited need to have a lighter hand with the salt. We ordered takeout pickles from Katz’s and Stage. Katz’s remains #1 for pastrami.
I’m going to my doctor for a cholesterol test on Monday.
You can see all of our individual ratings of each item at each deli.
Since this trip, we've visited 50+ delis in DC, MD, VA, Baltimore, Philadelphia, NJ and NY. You can read those reviews here.