The story of the NY Jewish deli is much like the story of NY itself, which is to say, one of immigrants. German immigrants to be exact. Around the turn of the century New York was heavily German. They brought with them their sausages (frankfurters that they sold on the street…the original hot dog cart), pretzels, liverwurst, rye bread and much, much more. They also brought with them their Delikatessens. **note to readers…skip to the bottom if you just want to read about the food and not the history**
In Europe a Delikatessen was actually a place to get specialty food. Between 1880 and 1920, more than two million Yiddish speaking Jews from Eastern Europe came to New York. Yiddish is a mostly Germanic language and the word delikatessen was recognized immediately.
At this point the deli of the turn of the century began to change into what it is today. Some delis became kosher, some did not, but most changed from being a small take-out type specialty food store to an eat in place where the Jewish population could gather to eat and socialize.
Much of the original German “deli” food stayed like the smoked fish, chopped liver, frankfurters, the tongue, cold cuts, the rye and pumpernickel bread, the noodle dishes and cold salads. The pastrami and corned beef became popular because it was from a kosher cut of beef and also because beef was abundant in the USA. Put all of this together and you have the NY deli we know and love today.
So why this history lesson? Because it shows that sometimes things are less about actual food than they are about food ways. This iconic institution that lends its name to sandwich shops all over the country is steeped in cultural, religious and social history. It’s more than just a great place to eat.
Want to experience the iconic NY Jewish deli for yourself? Here are two classic, yet different delis to try.
First up, the heavyweight champion, Katz’s Delicatessen. It was opened in 1888 and is a kosher “style” deli, but not actually kosher. I call it the heavyweight because it’s world renowned and HUGE. It’s a local favorite, a tourist destination and even a pop culture icon.
Walk in and grab your food tickets. They’ll be punched when you order your food and you’ll pay when you exit at the end. Next, step right up and order. If you’re ordering a meat sandwich they’ll slice off a bit and let you taste it first. This is a great way to get a sample of what everyone else in your party is ordering.
Tongue is my favorite and they serve a pretty nice cold tongue sandwich here ($16). Get it on rye with mustard. They’re really well known for their pastrami and corned beef($16), so of course, get that too. If you don’t want to spend $40 on lunch you can always grab one of their famous frankfurters (again, a throwback to those German immigrants) for $3.45. No one will care that you’re not getting a sandwich and it’s actually really traditional. I’ve heard good things about their chopped liver and their matzo ball soup. You can get soup and a half sandwich for around $15.
If you can’t finish your behemoth walk up to the counter and ask for some butcher paper so you can wrap it to go. They’ll be more than happy to oblige. Oh, and save some dough by drinking NY’s finest tap water at the self-serve filling station in the back.
Eisenberg’s. This is where I had the best tongue sandwich of my life. It’s a smaller, more intimate deli that opened in the 1920’s during a deli boom. It’s beloved by locals and not as well known by tourists.
Sit at the counter if you can. It gives you that old-school-deli feel.
Their whitefish salad sandwich ($8) is a winner. Get it with lettuce and tomato on toasted rye. The folks next to me swear by their soup…any soup they make. I, however, go for the tongue sandwich($10). It’s hot and it melts in your mouth. It’s not as big as the one at Katz’s but it also not almost $20. It’s perfectly sized, perfectly seasoned and perfectly delicious. It’s the best tongue sandwich I’ve had.
Their menu is pretty affordable and has all the staples like pastrami, chopped liver, etc. but there’s also a whole lot more.
If I had my choice I’d choose Eisenberg’s over Katz’s but they both have their place in this great, big, melting pot of a city.