4th Annual Eight Deli Trip: Baltimore, Philly and New Jersey

by Richard Blackman

Katz’s pastrami is the best. Period. But Goodman’s Deli in NJ is outstanding. Those were our two conclusions after completing our 4th annual trip to evaluate 8 delis in 36 hours.

It’s a Saturday morning in November, and for the fourth time in four years, I’m heading out with 3 elementary school friends, Malcolm, Larry and Gary, for a visit to eight delis in thirty six hours to find the best corned beef, pastrami, brisket and sides. On this trip, it’s Baltimore, Philadelphia, one New Jersey stop, where we found a rare gem of a deli, and the obligatory stop at Katz’s for pickles and pastrami. (50+ Deli reviews from our previous trips are available.

I picked this year’s list of 7 delis by Googling “best pastrami” or “best corned beef”, and then followed up by looking at internet reviews, talking to fellow deli fans, and soliciting feedback on the “Save the Deli” Facebook page. The owner of Goodman’s in Jersey, and the catering manager at Attman's also found our post on Facebook and suggested we introduce ourselves. I don’t understand why every self-respecting deli owner isn’t a regular on that Facebook Page.

Soon after getting into the car, Larry confessed that this year, he was not enticed by the scrumptious picture of a Katz’s pastrami sandwich I emailed everyone earlier in the week. Gary on the other hand, was salivating in anticipation. Larry also had a new Blackberry with a touch screen. Do you like it? “I hate it!” he said when asked. As far as Larry is concerned, anything invented after he turned 35 is the work of the devil. We’re all over 60 years old (gag), and new technology is not our friend. On the other hand, Larry is a genius with a map, and he beat the GPS and MapQuest every time.

As was the case for our 3 previous trips, we agreed that the taste of the food would be the only item evaluated, and we ordered the same items we ordered on our previous trips – three sandwiches (pastrami, corned beef, and brisket) cut in quarters, and three sides (potato salad, cole slaw, and pickles (both half and full sour)). Again, as in the past, each of us rated each deli on a 100-point scale -- a maximum of 24 points for each of three sandwiches, 14 for pickles, and 7 each for the other two side orders. With 4 raters, each deli could score a maximum of 400 points

To be clear at the outset, we compared each deli to the best we can buy, which generally means deli food from the New York area. Thus, sandwiches we rated as “average” are still a delight compared to what is available in the Washington, DC area.

At 9:10 am we reach the first of three delis on Lombard Street in Baltimore. This block of Lombard Street was once called “Corned Beef Row.” It may still have that name, but it just isn’t the same as in years past. There’s a big deserted parking lot and an empty Lenny’s Delicatessen when we arrive. Lenny’s had a large sign offering breakfast, but evidently no takers on this Saturday morning, perhaps because the sign was so old and rusted that the picture of pancakes could turn even the most cast iron of stomachs. My guess is the two Lenny’s in the suburbs do a brisker business. The downstairs is closed, and we’re the only ones sitting at the upstairs tables that seat 100. Years ago when it was “Jack’s deli,” it was always a challenge to find a seat.

At the counter we placed our regular order. Ordering was a bit of a challenge at Lenny’s. After Malcolm asked for the 3 sandwiches from the veteran employee of 27 years, she gruffly stated that since pastrami was put on the grill, we would have to order at the next station. That would be from the cook standing right next to her.

Malcolm said the food and whole experience at Lenny’s was, “inoffensive,” which is probably a good thing because the first deli always gets some slack inasmuch as the reviewers are hungry and have nothing to compare it to. Lenny’s noticeably lacked the enticing deli smell of brine pickles or deli meat. The corned beef was okay, pastrami chewy and salty, brisket fatty with little flavor. At my insistence we decided to try a knish (my cholesterol was up and potato salad is notoriously high in fat) to see if we could add/substitute the knish for our usual potato salad. Larry described the knish as tasting like potato buds instant potatoes. I thought it was OK. We’ve learned on previous trips that the coleslaw and potato salad we get at most delis we’ve visited is mediocre. No one makes the salads in-house any more. Instead, they order these items from the same three or four distributors, none of whom has a particularly good recipe. That was certainly true at Lenny’s. Lenny’s worst offense, however, was to serve us pickles in plastic bags. Gary loved the pickle. But it tasted no better than average to the rest of us. Lenny’s also had neither seltzer nor Dr. Brown’s sodas. Lenny’s just didn’t seem like a deli. See our numerical ratings of Lenny’s selections as well as the other deli scores in the attached spreadsheet.

Pickles in a plastic bag at Lenny's

Our next stop was Weiss’ Deli, which, according to Mapquest, was only 269 feet down the road. As we walked into the empty cavernous deli, Larry described it as reminding him of a VFW Hall. There was a little bit of deli smell, but no paper menus. The big board menus listed potato salad and knishes, but, that morning, neither of those items was available. The 42-year veteran, Joe, sliced the meat for our sandwiches. I asked Joe when he was going to retire. He responded, “When somebody buys me out.”

To each of us it felt like this deli was on its last legs. The corned beef Joe sliced in front us, while the brisket he pulled from the deli case. Larry suggested that it appeared the place hadn’t changed since it opened in 1951. Like Lenny’s, there was no seltzer nor Dr. Brown’s. Weiss’ shouldn’t call itself a deli without these products. The corned beef and pastrami were okay. The brisket had an off-taste; almost medicinal. We weren’t comfortable eating it. On the other hand, Weiss’ did have the second least expensive sandwiches on our trip. Unfortunately, the adage, “You get what you pay for,” applied all too well.

About half the tables had indentations for cafeteria trays; they looked like something you’d find in an elementary school. Bottom line, we characterized Weiss’ as depressing. On the wall we spotted an upbeat review of the deli -- from 1989!. We wonder how much longer Weiss’ will be around.

Our next stop was Attman’s Delicatessen next door to Weiss’. When we posted on the “Save the Deli” Facebook page that we would be visiting these three delis in Baltimore, one person commented that we should skip Lennys and Weiss’ and just visit Attman’s three times. At least two of us agreed. The food was comparable, but Attman’s is a “hoppin” real-deal deli. Upon entering, you can barely squeeze by the store-length deli counter, where you stand in line (almost always a line) to order. Prices were reasonable, but I was thoroughly annoyed when they charged us 40 cents for two extra slices of rye bread. We’re paying $50 for a meal and they’re squabbling over a slice of bread. (It’s the principle!) No other deli in our 4 years of trips charged for extra bread.

After ordering sandwiches (they did have Dr. Brown’s and seltzer), we found a table in “The Kibbutz Room” in the back, where we sat at one of about a dozen tables. We were joined by Attman’s catering “concierge” (why don’t they call them catering managers?), the enthusiastic Elaine Gershberg. She suggested their deli environment should be called “Attmansphere” rather than atmosphere. Not sure ‘bout that.

I thought that Attman’s best sandwich was its corned beef, and that its pastrami was next. The brisket, as at most delis, was fair at best. The pickles, slaw and potato salad were average as well. Among the 3 Baltimore delis, Attman’s meats took first place in each case. However, because their sides were so weak, we gave Lenny’s a slightly higher rating overall. The potato knish was okay on the inside, but the crust was too crusty and hard to eat. It was at this point I gave up on knishes for this trip. Attman’s carries the Boylan brand of seltzer water in a bottle, and it was excellent. On previous trips we decided that seltzer was our best beverage option. Gary learned this the hard way our first year when he indulged in some Dr. Brown’s Black Cherry. Dr. Brown’s is great for a one-time deal, but way too much on an 8-deli trip. Related to this, one of my work associates asked if I was taking a big bottle of Rolaids on this trip. Yes I was, but surprisingly, for the fourth year, I had no digestion issues, despite the fact that for all of us, eating beef is a rare occurrence, except for Larry, who eats a hamburger once a week.

Onwards to Jersey. After pulling off the turnpike and driving awhile in what appeared to be farmland, at 3:30 pm we found Goodman’s in a strip shopping center, sandwiched between a Tae Kwan Do studio and a Massage Envy parlor. Hmmmm. Goodmans layout/atmosphere reminded us of a restaurant more than a deli. I nodded to owner Don Parkin as we walked in, and he asked, “Richard?” He recognized my picture from my Facebook post. Although the restaurant wasn’t crowded, we got the feeling that at peak times they had peak business. There was seating for about 40. After talking a bit with Don, it was clear that he was hardworking (7 days a week) and very honest; he freely admitted that Katz’s in NY is the gold standard for pastrami. Smart man.

We all loved everything about Goodman’s. It was by far our favorite deli of the trip. Among the 7 delis we visited, Goodman’s earned a first place for every single item we tasted, except for coleslaw, where it took second place. The restaurant was spotless and things started well when our wonderful young waitress, Jen, brought our seltzer waters. We had previously concluded that seltzer tastes best from either a small glass bottle (as at Katz’s), or from a dispenser, such as those used by Walter the Seltzer Man (we had his seltzer in the Bronx the previous year). Goodman’s seltzer water, for whatever reason, was outstanding. It was as good as any we’ve had on any of our trips. They just use regular filtered water with a carbonator. Jen noted how much she loved working at Goodman’s, and particularly loved working with Don and the cooks. She comes from a family of waitresses and this was like another family to her. The atmosphere of Goodman’s was homey, small-town, and much different than most of our delis. See this wonderful video interview with Don Parkin talking about Goodman's.

When the sandwiches came, I took my first bite of brisket and couldn’t help myself from saying “wow.” Malcolm immediately glared at me. We have a strict rule (which I had just broken) not to say anything about the food or reveal our ratings until we’ve finished the meal at each deli. But I couldn’t help myself, because the brisket was so surprisingly good. After four years we have concluded that it’s tough to find good brisket (David’s Brisket House in Brooklyn is an exception to this rule.) Goodman’s brisket was awesome – moist, tender and tasty, rivaling the brisket from David’s. Surprisingly, in our conversation with Don, he said he was a little disappointed with that batch of brisket, which proved yet again how honest he was. Nevertheless, we all loved it. Goodman’s pastrami was also outstanding. If we hadn’t followed this visit with a late-night snack at Katz’s – the gold standard – Goodman’s would have been at the top of the list for pastrami. The corned beef had a distinctive taste, a hint of clove – perhaps not for everyone, but interesting nonetheless. We were also pleasantly surprised by the homemade redskin potato salad, which earned a near perfect score of 6.75 points out of a possible 7– subtle flavor, excellent texture and not too creamy – easily the best potato salad we’d had on any of our deli trips. It’s unclear whether any other deli we’ve been to had home-made potato salad. Maybe some other folks should. Goodman’s pickles were above average but not special. The slaw was okay.

As we were wrapping up, Barbara Rybolt, a reporter from the local newspaper who was dining at Goodman’s that day, came to our table to see what we were doing. She asked about our trip, took pictures, and later wrote an article about our venture http://www.nj.com/independentpress/index.ssf/2013/11/foodies_on_a_quest_for_the_bes.html

Goodman’s is a rare gem of a deli in the NJ suburbs, and it will probably make our “best-of” trip for next year. It is definitely worth a visit.

Our next stop was Times Square. For the second straight year, we had no trouble finding parking between 5th and 6th Avenue, this year on 44th. It only took Malcolm and Gary 10 minutes to figure out how to put the $18 in the parking machine, which is still cheaper than the $38 for garage parking. After our yearly debate while waiting in the TKTS line over what Broadway show to see, we agreed on a new show, Big Fish. It was fun. Before the show, we spent 30 minutes on top of the TKTS stairs in Times Square – one of my all-time favorite places.

After the show, it was off to Katz’s, not for a deli rating, but just to have their pastrami sandwich, and to buy take-out pastrami, pickles, and seltzer bottles. At midnight, we expected the once dilapidated area around Katz’s in the lower east side to be deserted. Not! It was packed with hordes of twenty-somethings, walking, carousing, waiting in lines for clubs or inside bars with deafening chatter. After much driving, we found a parking space a couple blocks from Katz’s. However, it took four of us, all with advanced degrees, more than 5 minutes to interpret the parking sign and decide whether we would get a ticket. Three of us concluded that “No Parking Tues, Thurs & Saturday, midnight to 3:30 am” meant trouble if we parked. However, Larry pointed out that it was officially early Sunday morning – so we were okay.

Katz’s had a good crowd, but it wasn’t as mobbed as it often is. Katz’s pastrami did not disappoint. Unbelievable! The best. Their pastrami is referenced in this video that appeared on the TV show Sunday Morning. Three of us ordered takeout to bring home to our families. From Katz’s, it was an easy drive to our hotel in Secaucus, NJ, where we arrived just after 1am.

At 8.10 am the next morning we headed to Philly. Our first stop was Herschel’s Deli, inside the Reading Market. Reading Market is a huge and fascinating indoor market with all types of food and vendors. Herschel’s has a big sign by its counter, and a half-dozen counter seats around the corner. We found seats at a dirty table with wobbly chairs in a large community seating area. The whole area seemed a bit hectic, but remember, this is a marketplace rather than a stand-alone deli. You can certainly get a decent, if not exactly memorable, sandwich here while you shop. The corned beef, hand cut and thick, was tender, but somewhat bland. I had been to Herschel’s two years ago and at that time the corned beef was quite tasty. Recent internet reviews agreed. I’m not sure why it was different this time. The pastrami was good but not special. The brisket was better than average, and wasn’t as dry as at most delis – Herschel’s meat cutter repeatedly doused the meat with gravy before and after every cut. We watched in awe as the meat cutters tediously and carefully cut the slices. Unfortunately it didn’t help the taste. On the plus side, none of the sandwiches was too salty. The potato salad and pickles were mediocre. But Hershel’s slaw was the best we had on our trip, and the sandwiches were the least expensive of the 7 delis we rated.

From Herschel’s, we drove the short distance to the packed Famous Fourth Street Deli—the 18th Street Branch. The hostess squeezed us into the one open small table. At 11:30 am, this was a popular place. After 6 delis in 27 hours, Larry and Malcolm marveled at how good the pancakes looked. Larry had trouble even looking at the corned beef sandwich at the next table, a sandwich that weighed in at 1.5 pounds. (Larry brings a food scale and weighs each sandwich.) Famous Fourth offers each sandwich in two sizes – regular (which is, in fact, quite big), or zaftig (which is excessively big). When our order came, we assumed that, because the sandwiches were so big, we had been given zaftigs by mistake. We were surprised when we learned ours were the regular size sandwiches. At an average net weight of 21.8 ounces, these were the second biggest sandwiches we’ve had on our 4 trips. Famous Fourth’s sandwiches were much larger than Carnegie Deli’s 15.9 oz. sandwiches, a deli that is known for its enormous portions. Famous Fourth’s corned beef was also comparable to Carnegie in taste and it tied Goodman’s for best corned beef among the 7 delis we rated. The pastrami was good, though perhaps a tad salty, but the brisket was only average. The pickles were small but good enough to take home – crunchy and neither too salty nor too vinegary. Cole Slaw and potato salad were predictably mediocre – by turns limp, soft, and too sweet. Overall, Famous Fourth was our second favorite restaurant of the trip, although it was far behind our winner, Goodman’s.

A 21.8 oz. sandwich at Famous Fourth

We walked to our last stop, Schlesinger’s Deli, which was good for us but maybe not so good for Schlesinger’s. We were seated at a big table. The restaurant was packed and crowded, but more spacious than Famous Fourth. They had a great-looking free pickle & salad bar in the back, but we were disappointed with its quality. Gary took one bite of a full-sour pickle, then gagged and immediately washed it down with water. He dared me to try the full sour. Not understanding the dare, I nonetheless chose to wait until I had my seltzer. The pickle had an ammonia-like taste and was basically inedible. Thank heavens I had my seltzer. The rest of the pickle/salad bar foods were fine if not distinctive. They included cucumber salad, potato salad, sauerkraut, and pickled tomatoes. By this time (our 8th deli), eating deli food (particularly our standard order) had become more chore than joy but we had a mission, and we still believed that we could judge fairly. The brisket was our favorite sandwich here, although just a little better than average. The pastrami was tasty but too salty, the corned beef was decent but not great. Cole slaw was better than average – crunchy, nicely shredded with fine flavor, though too creamy. The potato salad was sickenly sweet. At 1 pm we headed for home in Burtonsville. At trip’s end our conclusion is that you must go north for good deli. Baltimore is a significant step up in quality from DC, but keep driving. You get more and better choices in Philadelphia. The best is still in the New York/New Jersey area. We loved a new find, Goodman’s Deli in New Jersey, and it will make our planned “best-of” trip next year, which we expect will also include, at a minimum, Katz’s, Second Avenue Deli (33rd Street branch), and Sarge’s Deli. That is, if we don’t decide to take a year off and rate pancakes instead.