Nine More Foods to Try Before You Die

by Richard Blackman

Highlights of our 9-food-stop in 2 days trip to NYC: DeLorenzo’s pizza, Hamilton NJ, was top-notch; Katz’s again served up a pastrami sandwich not to be missed; the newer JG Melon downtown served a moist and tasty cheeseburger and Rutt’s Hutt Ripper hot dogs and onion rings continue to satisfy. Lowlights: Brooklyn’s Dekalb market disappointed -- Fletchers BBQ brisket was fine, but the pastrami at a Taste of Katz’s was not up to par; Arepa Lady wasn’t close to the quality of the Queen’s restaurant; and Gus’s pickles were unremarkable. At Café Mogador in lower Manhattan, we had lamb and chicken stews (Tagine), hummus and pita bread that disappointed. Details below.

It’s 8:30 am Saturday morning. Elementary school friends of mine from the 60s, Gary in his trusty Mazda 3, with Malcolm and Larry, picked me up at my house for our annual weekend trip to NYC for deli and other food treats. We’ve visited more than 50 delis over the years, but recently branched out to try some of the “50 foods to eat in NYC before you die” and other highly rated food items. This time it was 9 stops including the “mandatory” visit to Katz’s for pastrami sandwiches. On this trip, we were guided by Waze and Larry’s superb navigation skills, which navigated Gary through the NYC maze of traffic. Larry did note, however, “with Waze, you don’t know where you are, just where you’re going.”

First stop at 11:25 am, DeLorenzo’s Pizza in Hamilton, NJ for pizza. Delorenzo's was founded in 1936, and has been run by the same family ever since. Today, it’s owned by Rick DeLorenzo, the grandson of the founder. It’s a large, clean, pizza restaurant which used to be a Bob Evans. (Side note: the bathrooms were spotless). Larry called in advance to order a large pizza since we were on a tight time schedule. He discussed with Melissa, one of Rick’s daughters, which pizza she’d recommend. She emphatically suggested we get the “Trenton” pizza, which is their basic plain cheese pizza. Reading good things about the fresh toppings, we ordered half plain and half mushroom. As we arrived we were greeted by a charming young waitress, Maria, Melissa’s sister, and another member of the DeLorenzo family. Maria cheerily told us she had been there 13 years and hoped to continue working there with her sister and brother long after her father retires.

The pizza came promptly and we loved the plain. The mushroom was fine, but we all preferred the plain. The large pizza ($15) had a crispy thin and perfectly done crust and came with 10 slices. We all rated the pizza a 9 out of 10. (See all our ratings.) The crust is really nice. As a bonus, they offer “Mexican Coke,” with real sugar instead of the standard Coke with corn syrup.

As we were finishing up, the delightful owner, Americo "Rick" DeLorenzo came over to chat with us. Rick started in the business at age 12, when he began work in the restaurant at his father’s side. He has made almost all the dough at the restaurant for the last 40 years! We asked Rick what accounts for the delicious crust, but he refused to divulge the secret, and explained that only he and one other person know the answer. Rick works a 5-day, 60-hour work week. We loved the place and the people, and would highly recommend it. Note: they close the restaurant for a few weeks in the summer so they can enjoy a break.

Click on any photo to enlarge it

Next stop, the Dekalb Market Hall in Brooklyn for four tastes – Fletchers BBQ for Brisket, A Taste of Katz’s for pastrami, Arepa Lady for Arepa de Choclo (griddled sweet corn cakes), and Gus’s Pickles. As we stood on the escalator heading down to the food court, we couldn’t help but notice the giant sign advertising Katz’s. The court is a large maze of options with close to 40 alternatives. It was loud, full of millennials (we didn’t see anyone our age), and hectic, with almost no seating. Fortunately, Malcolm and Larry were able to grab one of the tiny tables, as a French family was just leaving. This was probably the first time that Malcolm and Larry’s knowledge of French served our group well. While I stood in the Fletcher’s line for BBQ brisket, Gary waited at the Katz’s line for a pastrami sandwich. We split one of each. The brisket was lean and tasty, but their medicine-cup size order of cole slaw for $1.85 was way overpriced (even for NYC) and the BBQ sauce was overly sweet; we suggest you ask for the sauce on the side so you can decide. The Katz’s pastrami was disappointing when compared to the original Katz’s restaurant on Houston Street in the City. It was too salty and fatty, although it had the same excellent flavor and tenderness as Houston St.

We then tried a half-sour and a full sour pickle from Gus’s. I liked their full-sour pickles, and preferred these to Taste of Katz’s pickles, although Gus’s were a bit salty. The others preferred the half-sours – crisp but bitter and also a bit too salty. Neither of the pickles were take-home worthy.

Tiny cole slaw next to plastic fork

Lastly, we sampled Arepa Lady’s Arepa do Chocolo. We rated these Arepas 10 out of 10 at our visit to the restaurant in Queens two years ago, as they were a surprise hit. Alas, at this eatery they were disappointing. Not nearly as well cooked or tasty, although Larry was impressed. It could be that this outlet simply has too many patrons to properly prepare the product. Our take on the Dekalb Market: Not worth the trip – we wouldn’t go back unless perhaps we were sightseeing in the area.

We were off to Café Mogador in the East Village, where we arrived at 3:50 pm for an early dinner. It was unclear whether parking was free, so we plugged $7 into the meter just to be safe. There was a sign at one end of the block, but we couldn’t tell where it was pointing. We continue to be baffled by the NYC parking signs.

According to one review, lamb and chicken Tagine were on the “top 50 foods to eat in NYC before you die” so we wanted to check them out. Café Mogador is a smallish Mediterranean restaurant with crowded tables but nice atmosphere. We started with the fairly bland hummus. The tagines, a stew, one with chicken, the other a lamb shank, were average. The lamb shank was quite good but the sauce added little. The chicken tagine was rather dry and bland and the olives in the sauce were definitely not a plus. Overall, we were not impressed but it is fair to say that we were not really in the dinner mode at 3:50 in the afternoon. At the bottom line, you could dine here but keep your expectations low and do not believe the hype of “top-50”-type lists.

We then headed to Times Square where we again, just as we have for the last 6 years, easily found street parking between 5th and 6th ave on 51st (52nd and 53rd in previous years), paying the meter $3.50 per hour. After spending close to an hour on the bleachers over TKTS enjoying the view, we headed to an excellent Broadway musical, "The Band's Visit."

At 10:30 pm, after finally getting out of the city, we headed for a repeat visit to Rutt’s Hutt in Clifton, NJ, near our hotel. Rutt’s Hutt has been around for a very long time and there is memorabilia that harkens back to another era. It is the home of “The Ripper” hot dog, which is a dog they deep-fry, so that the casing rips. Four variations are offered depending on how long the dog stays in the fryer: In and Out, Medium, Weller, and, the one that spends the longest in the oil, the Cremator. The In and Out is barely cooked while the Cremator is fairly well burnt to a crisp with the fat in the hot dog cooked out. Our waitress, Angela, (she was the awesome waitress we also encountered last year), recommended “the Weller” and discouraged us from ordering either of the less-cooked options (In and Out and Medium). Malcolm and I went for the Weller. Larry wanted to go bold, so he ordered the Cremator. Gary unfortunately went for the Medium, which couldn’t compare to the “Weller”. Larry loved his Cremator, which he said tasted like crisp bacon. Malcolm, envious of Larry’s obvious enjoyment of the Cremator, ordered one for himself. Both Larry and Malcolm said they would order that one again. Gary and I would go for the Weller. The onion rings (greasy but good) and rice pudding were also excellent. Rutt’s is a unique place. We recommend that you order the well-cooked options and avoid the In and Out or Medium, which do not capture the charm of the place or the quality of its unique ripper hot dogs.

Early Sunday morning we headed to Bubby’s in Tribeca for breakfast. Bubby’s is a large family-style restaurant with a generous space in between tables. Conversation is easy and it’s nice not to have to worry about getting your elbows in someone else’s food. The patrons were mostly well-to-do yuppies with families. $21 (gak!) for three pancakes. Gary originally thought the price was a careless typo, written by someone who meant to put $12 on the menu. We ordered one plate of three plain and another with blueberries. The pancakes were excellent, fluffy and tasty, but only two of us would return to pay $21. Larry’s $7 OJ likewise seemed a little outrageous price-wise. (The week before, I had sampled the pancakes at “Good Enough to Eat” on 8th and Columbus Ave, which I thought were comparable and cost only $14). Downstairs at Bubby’s is worth a visit for the interesting hallway to the restrooms with photo booths and an old Pac Man machine.

We headed to Katz’s for our mandatory stop for pastrami sandwiches. We split two and as usual, they were melt-in-your-mouth delicious. Katz's earned a 10 from all of us. We've taken 12 of these trips over the years, and a perfect score is extraordinarily rare. There is really no point in going into details here – as we have said several times in the past – while there are some other excellent delis out there, the hand-cut pastrami sandwich ordered at the counter and consumed on premises is the best deli sandwich in the world.

After a quick stop at the mobbed “Russ and Daughters” next door for excellent take-home halva (no wait for their baked goods), we drove a mile down the road to JG Melon’s second location, arriving when they opened at noon for cheeseburgers and round, crinkled fries. The restaurant is larger and more comfortable than the uptown branch. We had sampled first-rate burgers at their crowded uptown original location, but wanted to see how this new incarnation measured up. The cheeseburgers (with high-quality American cheese) were again outstanding – thick, flavorful and moist and served on an above-average bun. The fries were good, though somewhat bland and mealy for some of us. At 12:30, we were on the road headed home.

For our next trip, we’re leaning toward visiting family-owned establishments where the owners or chefs come out and talk to patrons and we see a true pride in their business. We’ve thoroughly enjoyed restaurants like that, and the food has been consistently excellent. So far, we’re thinking of repeat visits to Delorenzos Pizza, Hobby’s Deli in Newark, Goodmans Deli in Berkeley Heights, NJ, Rutt’s Hutt, and again our mandatory visit to Katz’s. We’re still looking for other good options. If you know of one, email us.