Five Delis and More in Two Days - Best of the Best
by Richard Blackman
It’s 8:30 am Saturday morning and I’m on the road again. For the fifth year in a row, 3 of my elementary school buddies and I are on our way to New York, this time to visit 5 of what we consider the best delis on the east coast. For the past four years, Malcolm, Larry, Gary, and I, all DC area residents, have taken annual eight-delis-in-two-days trips to find the best corned beef, pastrami, brisket, and pickles. Over the years, we’ve visited 50+ delis, and this year, we decided to go back to our 5 favorites. See our previous reviews. To add excitement to the trip, we made a change to our normal routine – rather than go to eight delis, we cut back to five delis, in order to make three non-deli stops. Those stops are a famous pizza parlor in Brooklyn, the original Nathans in Coney Island (where we also got some much-needed exercise with a boardwalk stroll), and a BBQ place with highly rated brisket.
It’s an ambitious schedule. We’re loaded up with an ice-filled cooler, lots of maps, an outdated GPS in Malcolm’s Highlander, Larry’s paper road maps (he doesn’t trust new-fangled devices), and his super-sensitive scale for weighing the sandwiches. We are on a precise schedule, but a 40-minute traffic tie-up on the New Jersey Turnpike put us behind for our first stop—Goodman’s Restaurant and Deli in Berkeley Heights, New Jersey—where we arrive at close to 1 pm.
We have several spirited discussions on the way there. At each deli we visit, we place the exact same order – a pastrami sandwich, a corned beef sandwich, a brisket sandwich, potato salad, coleslaw, and pickles (both half and full sour). On each of our previous trips we had agreed that the sides— potato salad and coleslaw—were almost always mediocre. But there was one exception – the outstanding homemade potato salad at Goodmans. I wanted to substitute potato knishes for our standard side orders, but was outvoted. The group felt that this trip should be consistent with other trips, and we should not break routine. I don’t quite understand the obsession with continuing to order mediocre food, but on our trips, it’s majority rule.
Another topic of discussion during the car ride – our waistlines. How are we going to control the amount of food we eat? We don’t want the senior (60 plus years) bulge. We need to push ourselves to keep from eating too much.
While we discussed the quantity of food we were about to consume, we failed to discuss the fat content of the food. However, I did take an extra Zetia pill (used to prevent cholesterol) the morning of our departure.
At our first stop, Goodman’s, we were greeted by Jennifer (our fabulous waitress from last year), our waitress this year, Rabia who has worked at Goodman’s for 13 years and is from Montenegro (part of the former Yugoslavia), and the extremely hard-working owner, Don Parkin. (See photo to the left and below.) They were expecting us since I had sent Don a note on Facebook. Barbara Rybolt, a reporter for the local newspaper, also greeted us. See Barbara's story about our trip this year and her article about our visit last year. This year, she interrupted her vacation to talk with us and take pictures.
Goodman’s is an average-size family restaurant, 40 minutes outside NYC. There are about 20 sparkling clean tables, and lots of good-looking, reasonably priced items on the menu. Don told us that about 60% of his customers are regulars. After visiting twice, we can see why. The food is terrific, and everyone on the staff seems to love working there. Customers are treated like family. But it’s the food that once again particularly impressed us. Corned beef, pastrami and brisket compare favorably with the best in New York City. The seltzer was excellent again this year, and I couldn’t stop eating the sour pickles. They were so good, I felt like I was addicted to them. I took a big container home and would have taken more had I known that the pickles at some of the other delis we visited would fall short. We ordered the redskin potato salad. But to be politically correct, Larry said to Rabia, "We're ordering the potato salad with the name of the NFL football team from Washington.” Goodman’s appears to be the only restaurant that makes its own potato salad. It shows. It was the only truly outstanding potato salad we’ve sampled on any of our five trips. We expect there are lots of other good choices on the menu which we’d most certainly try if we lived nearby.
We talked to Don on both trips, and each time we learned how seriously he takes his work and his deli. His long work hours and involvement in every facet of the restaurant are dedicated to making sure his customers get the very best. This kind of dedication wasn’t nearly as obvious at any of our other stops. Before we left, we said goodbye to Rabia, who was wonderful. Jennifer came by and mentioned that she had recently made a trip to Katz’s in New York to try their pastrami. She knew we were coming and remembered that as much as we liked Goodman’s pastrami, we all considered Katz’s to be the gold standard. She needed to see for herself. Katz’s may have great pastrami, but it can’t compare with the warm, relaxing and inviting atmosphere at Goodman’s. See this wonderful video interview with Don Parkin talking about Goodman's.
Our next stop was Katz’s Delicatessen in lower Manhattan. Larry had complained that in our previous trips, Katz’s was one of the last delis we visited, and that by the time we got there, he was completely sick of deli. So we made Katz’s stop number two this trip. The traffic into New York was heavy, so we were hungry by the time we got there. We found a metered parking space around the corner, and again this year it took us at least five minutes to interpret the parking sign. $3.50 per hour as best as we could tell—and legal.
It was 3:30 pm and Katz’s was crowded and frenetic. At Katz’s, you get a blue ticket when you enter, and a guy at the front door explains to frustrated customers that they’d better not lose the ticket because they would be charged $50 if they did. If you’ve never been to Katz’s before, you will find it to be very confusing. The not-particularly friendly Katz “host” told us that there would be a 15-minute wait if we wanted a table with waiter-service, or we could stand in the big lines at the counter to order our own food and find our own table. We chose the second option. Malcolm and I grabbed a table among the crowds while Gary ordered the sandwiches and sides, and Larry went for the drinks. As with all the other delis, we ordered and split, one pastrami, one corned beef, and one brisket sandwich (cut into fourths), along with potato salad, coleslaw, pickles and seltzer.
The pastrami—the reason we go to Katz’s—was again outstanding. I had visited New York over the summer at a less crowded time and had treated myself to a Katz’s pastrami sandwich. I’d been dreaming about a repeat visit ever since. I considered that sandwich to be one of the top five I’ve ever eaten. This fall’s sandwich was just as good. Everyone agreed. However…. with crowds and noise and hustle-bustle, some of us just did not enjoy our visit. Gary felt that the enormous room and crowds were part of the experience at Katz’s, and he wasn’t bothered by any of it. The brisket sandwich was similar to previous years, though some of us thought it was surprisingly good; over the years we’ve discovered that excellent brisket is exceedingly hard to find. The corned beef was not a winner – chewy, a bit dry and oddly flavored. On previous visits, the pickles were outstanding and worth taking home. This year, not so much, though the half sours were still high quality. Goodman’s were better overall. Our standard drink is seltzer. It’s the only drink that can go along with 5 deli visits (let alone 8) in two days, without causing significant digestive issues. Katz’s seltzer, bottled in glass bottles, was among our favorites. Larry bought a case of 24 for $36 which is a bargain, vs. the $2.75 we pay for individual bottles at the restaurant. Our advice, confirmed by multiple visits: If you go to Katz’s, go for the pastrami. Not for peace and quiet. Katz’s may be where Harry met Sally, but if they went there when we did, any witty conversation would have been lost in the din.
Another issue we had at Katz’s, and all the delis, was plate weight. At each deli, Larry pulled out his super-duper scale and weighed the sandwiches so that we could determine the cost per ounce. Ideally, we’d just weigh each sandwich on the plate. Again this year, we discovered that identical-looking plates can have significantly different weights. That meant that we had to transfer each sandwich (cut in quarters and piled high) to the same plate. It became a messy affair and bothersome as we all eagerly waited for our first bite. However, it is necessary for us to accurately weigh the sandwiches. See this spreadsheet for sandwich weights and prices.
Unfortunately, on this trip, we were unable to join up with my creative and oft deli-deprived son Mark—who usually meets us for a much-appreciated free deli lunch and leftovers. He was busy planning his new venture – a Harlem independent theater and coffee house, “the HIT.” He had previously received fame (if not fortune), when he produced and starred in the independent comedy movie musical, “Welcome to Harlem” now available on Comcast On-Demand and Amazon.
After leaving Katz’s we took a short drive to 2nd Ave Deli on 33rd and Lexington Ave. (It used to be on 2nd Ave until the rent became too high.) We found a parking space nearby. (Malcolm, who was driving, has parking karma, and we always find parking spaces nearby.) But this left us with a big decision. The parking space had a two-hour limit. We could leave the car there, eat at 2nd Ave and Sarge’s (our fourth deli), and then walk to our Broadway show. All for the $7 total parking fee, which is an extreme bargain in NYC. However, it was 4:50 pm and parking did not become free until 7 pm. If we put money in the parking meter at 4:50, it would expire at 6:50. What was the chance of a ticket? Or we could go for a 10 minute walk, risking a ticket, and come back at 5 pm to fill the meter. Malcolm wanted to go for the walk, but cheaper heads prevailed and we waited with the car until the clock on the meter showed 5pm. Then, we put money in the meter.
On our first trip years ago, we had our first “wow” moment at 2nd Ave. As each of us bit into our brisket, corned beef, and pastrami sandwiches, we couldn’t help but say “wow,” they were all so good. This visit didn’t disappoint. The pickles were a bit salty (surprisingly, since I had always counted on them for take-home). But in general you can’t go wrong here. As an extra treat, they gave us a shot-glass size chocolate soda to finish the meal. All good stuff.
At 6 pm we headed up Broadway and on to the bleachers behind the TKTS booth—a standard visiting place for us. On the way, we passed an excessive amount of costumed characters, along with two nude models—both having their bodies painted. New York! On the bleachers, we climbed to the top of the stairs and enjoyed the view. It’s among my favorite places anywhere. You have to go to the top; you can’t go just halfway up and sit down. At 7:30 we headed down for the theater on 42nd to see “On the Town.” We barely made it on time due to the excessive crowds jam-packed to get around the construction. I thought On The Town was entertaining, fun, and had great dancing, but not particularly memorable, although Gary loved it. This year we purchased tickets before the trip rather than risking whether the TKTS booth would have tickets that day. I expect that this will also be our plan in future years.
The show ended close to 11 pm and we made the no-longer crowded walk back to Sarge’s for our final deli stop of the day. On two previous trips, Sarge’s came out on top of our rating scale. (See our previous trip descriptions and numerical ratings.) Then Sarge’s burned down. Two years later, after Sarge’s was completely rebuilt, it’s as good as ever. Corned beef and pastrami were outstanding and the brisket is on a par with the other four delis. However, we noticed this time the bread didn’t seem as fresh as on previous visits. Their outstanding bread was one of the things that made them stand out. I mentioned this to the waitress as we were leaving. She lamented that we should have told her earlier. I’m not sure what that would have done. Like 2nd Ave, the sour pickles were surprisingly too salty. Still, Sarge’s is a top choice.
There was no traffic getting to our hotel in Secaucus, NJ where we bedded down at the ridiculously late hour (for us geezers) of 1:30 am.
On Sunday morning we were in the car again at 8:30 am on the way to Coney Island. Our first stop, for breakfast, was the original Nathans. Nathan’s was deserted at that early-morning hour. As Gary and I stood at the counter , both salivating, I asked him what he considered to be the stupidest question of the trip. “Do you want fries with your hot dog?” “Of course,” he answered. “You have to have Nathan’s fries with the dog.” We each “restrained” ourselves though by only having only one hot dog. Larry also indulged, but Malcolm abstained. Hot dogs for breakfast? Having consumed our hot dog and fries, Gary and I decided one wasn’t enough. We did restrain ourselves somewhat by splitting another dog rather than each ordering one. Gary wondered whether our wives would consider this a sign of restraint. The hot dogs were outstanding.
After all that food we wanted to get some exercise that would help us lose weight. However, Larry pointed out, “The only exercise that will help you lose weight is pushing away from the table.”
After walking the boardwalk for 30 minutes, we headed over to Bay Ridge in Brooklyn to visit David’s Brisket House. We ordered at the counter where there appeared to be only one person working. We sat at one of 8 tables in the small, but clean space. David’s is unique in that you can get three sizes of sandwich.
Their “small” $8 sandwich is still a big sandwich, and a great option for those who don’t want monster amounts of meat. For me, their corned beef is the best. It’s thick cut and my favorite. David’s was my corned beef take out place. The pastrami was also excellent, thick cut and tasty. Their brisket had been our favorite in past years, but it was disappointing this year. It was good, but not up to the standard of previous years. A high school friend, Paul Freedman, had asked Gary to bring back 5 (five) pounds of the “jewish” style brisket from David’s as he had a yearning for the best. We had previously told Paul how amazing David’s brisket was. After eating our meal we had to answer the big question of the day. Do we bring Paul five pounds of average brisket? Back and forth Gary and I went. We finally decided not to buy any. $100 is a lot of money for “average.” Fortunately, Paul agreed with our decision, though he was disappointed.
Our next stop was Di Fara Pizza in Brooklyn’s Midwood area– a mostly orthodox community. According to the internet it was the “#1 rated Zagat’s pizza eight years in a row.” I saw a food channel show where they seemed to agree. We had to taste for ourselves. We arrived 10 minutes before the noon opening time posted on their website, because we had heard they have long lines. There was no line, but alas, the sign on the door listed the opening time at 1 pm. Aaargh. What should we do? We had one more stop to make, the highly-rated Hometown BBQ, which was close to the bridge out of Brooklyn we use to go home. But we didn’t want to wait an hour for Di Fara’s to open. Should we go for the Hometown BBQ, and then come back for pizza? It was a tough decision. Honestly, we were all kind of tired of brisket, so we decided to skip the last food stop and wait for Di Fara’s to open. Malcolm didn’t want to take any chances, so at 12:15 we got behind the only person in the Di Fara line. By 1 pm there were 30 people in line behind us. Fifteen minutes later, an employee opened the window to take orders from the first three customers in line. We ordered a half plain and half “special” – with all kinds of meats and stuff. $38. They still hadn’t opened the doors. Finally, at 1:30 they let us in and we grabbed one of three tables for six in the cramped space. At 1:45 the pizza arrived. The verdict? Larry said it was one of his best pizzas ever. Malcolm also thought it was first-rate. Gary thought it was very good, but his favorite part of the 2½ hour pizza experience was talking to the other people in line. I thought that, despite the excellent crust, the pizza was too salty and just mediocre. Would we return again, given the wait? Only Larry, who thought he might bring his wife back said yes. For the rest of us? Definitely no return trips.
At 2:30 we headed home after another tasty deli trip. With only 5 delis, one pizza visit and the hot dogs, it was different from our other trips – we weren’t totally sick of deli food at the end. Skipping the extra brisket stop was a blessing. Our conclusions? These were our favorite five delis and our visit to each didn’t disappoint. We’d highly recommend all of them. Sarge’s is back and in fine form. 2nd Avenue likewise has kept up its standards. Goodman’s was right up there with them. Don and the wait-staff are superb. Go to Katz’s for the pastrami, and David’s – well, I just love their corned beef. Unlike previous trips, we decided not to numerically rate each restaurant. You can’t go wrong with any one of these 5 choices. As for next year, we’re still debating options. Pizza? Kabobs and Hummus? Cheeseburgers, fries, onion rings and milkshakes? Still TBD. Probably not deli again, but perhaps the year after. We are however, planning a second DC-area deli trip in the spring.
2019 Update--Since we published this article, we have revisited a deli that we first visited in 2010: Hobby's in Newark, NJ. During our first visit, we loved the "deli" atmosphere at Hobby's, which we felt was authentic "deli," and we greatly enjoyed talking with the two owners, Marc and Michael. However, we found the food average at best. In 2019 we paid a second visit. Neither the owners nor the atmosphere had changed, but the food was dramatically better, and we now rate Hobby's among our top 6 delis. While we were there, we sampled Hobby's corned beef sandwich, pastrami, hot dogs, latkes, onion rings, pickles, and oatmeal walnut raisin cookies. Everything was outstanding. We asked Marc and Michael whether there was an obvious explanation for the dramatically improved food that we enjoyed on our second visit. They explained that they changed suppliers soon after our 2010 visit, because their supplier had changed ownership several times prior to our first visit, and their quality and consistency had gone down hill.