Wednesday, May 06, 2009

The Brooklyn Deli Triangle

When I was growing up in Brooklyn, in the sixties, there were probably hundreds, certainly dozens of kosher delis where you could get a respectable, and sometimes great, pastrami or corned beef sandwich. Now there are really just a handful left, and that's more than you can say for most boroughs, especially if you discount "kosher-style" Manhattan tourist traps like Stage and Carnegie.

Most of the old-style delis that are left in Brooklyn are located in a fairly concentrated area, a triangle encompassing Midwood, Gravesend, Sheepshead Bay, Marine Park and Mill Basin (and I'm not sure what the boundaries between these neighborhoods are). You could say there's a veritable route des delis, from Avenue M to Avenue U on one axis, E. 19th to E. 58th on the other.


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I've started exploring the classic delis of Brooklyn with my old friend Arthur, a native Brooklynite and a deli maven. It was Arthur who, some time ago, had told me about Essex on Coney, which was a Brooklyn outpost of a once-noted Lower East Side deli. Arthur told me that there was really only one thing worth ordering at Essex on Coney, but it was really worth ordering. He was talking about the corned beef, which was cured in-house. All the other deli meats, he told me, were just so-so. By the time we finally got to Essex on Coney several months ago it was no longer on Coney (Island Avenue, that is). They had merged with a diner of long-standing, on Avenue M near Ocean Avenue, one I used to visit as a teenager, The Caraville (which was not glatt kosher at the time, as it is now). So now one can order both Jewish deli food and diner food at a place that looks like a diner. I had a corned beef sandwich, and was indeed impressed. It was moist and flavorful, with a respectable but not obscene fat content. Arthur the deli maven was spot on. The spinach and potato knish I tried was all right, but nothing special. One feature of classic delis is that you're served free pickles and cole slaw when you're seated, and both were quite good at Essex/Caraville (A on map).

Essex Corned Beef

In January of this year Arthur and I went to Jay & Lloyd's (C on map), in Marine Park. This place looks like an old deli, and it seems to have a loyal clientele. Our waitress ran hot and cold. At first she was brusque, but at times she showed glimmers of warmth, or, as Arthur put it, hot flashes of warmth. As we were perusing the menu, I noticed that they listed rolled beef under sandwiches, but with no price and the word "seasonal" in parentheses. I found that odd, and I started telling Arthur about my blog post on the scarcity of rolled beef. The waitress, who obviously isn't losing her hearing, yelled from across the room, "Ya can't get it anymore!"

I told her that, actually, you can, and that I've had it recently as Sarge's, and it's also served at the new Second Avenue Deli.

"How long ago?" she yelled. It was a challenge.

"Just a couple of months ago."

"Well they tell me you can't get it anymore."

"I'll bet there's only one supplier that makes it," I said. "I guess yours doesn't carry it."

We got back to the menu. I knew I was going to have a pastrami sandwich, but having made the trip I decided I had to try something else, so I went for an appetizer that looked wonderfully unhealthy and fattening: fried kreplach with onions (and I wouldn't be surprised if the onions were sauteed in chicken fat). They were a bit of a disappointment--the meat stuffing was rather bland and underseasoned. The pastrami sandwich, on the other hand, was a thing of beauty, perfectly spiced and moist with a perfect fat to lean ratio, it brought back pseudo-Proustian false memories of the idyllic Brooklyn childhood I never had.

Jay & Lloyd's Pastrami

The waitress must have heard me telling Arthur how good the pastrami was, because as I was going to the bathroom she said to me, "I'm glad you enjoyed our food."

"The pastrami was fantastic," I said.

"That's what we're known for!"

The next time out, Arthur and I went to the Mill Basin Kosher Deli (D on map), which required a transfer to a bus from the subway, a moderate schlep. It's very close to the King's Plaza Shopping Center, which I used to frequent as a teenager. I had high hopes for this one, because it seemed to have gotten the most online kvells from diners. This time I got Arthur to agree to split two sandwiches, a corned beef and a pastrami, as well as an order of French fries, of which I had read raves. I have to say, though, I was tempted to walk out when I saw that the menu listed them as "our famous freedom fries." The big, fat fries were quite good, but both sandwiches were somewhat disappointing, especially since I'd been led to believe that this was the deli of delis. The problem was that both the meats were too salty as well as too dry. The corned beef was no contest for Essex, and the pastrami couldn't hold a candle to Jay and Lloyd's.

Corned Beef and Pastrami at Mill Basin

Mill Basin Fries

Another survivor from the days of deli glory is Adelman's, on Kings Highway. This was going to be my last deli stop with Arthur, on a Sunday, but the day before it struck me that I really needed to go back to Jay & Lloyd's to give the corned beef a try. The way I figure it, if you're going to do a deli comparison the two benchmark deli meats should be corned beef and pastrami. Based on Arthur's report I had no problem passing on the pastrami at Essex, but if I were going to pronounce Jay & Lloyd's a great deli I had to try the corned beef. So I went back on my own. Sadly, I can't pronounce Jay & Lloyd's a great deli. After the near-perfect pastrami, the corned beef was mind-bogglingly bland, perhaps the most flavorless corned beef I'd ever tasted. And the matzoh ball soup was equally bland, among the worst I've ever had. Could Jay & Lloyd's be a one-trick pastrami pony? I'll have to make at least one more visit before I'm sure.

Adelman's
(B on map), like Jay & Lloyd's has the classic shabby deli look about it, as opposed to Essex/Caraville, which is pure diner, and Mill Basin Kosher Deli, which is a bit too prissy in its decor. At Adelman's I decided to opt for the half sandwich special, which consists of a half deli sandwich of your choice, a knish, and a soft drink for $9. The pastrami at Adelman's was respectable, though no real challenge to Jay and Lloyd's. It was a bit on the greasy side, and perhaps a little too heavy on the pastrami seasoning, but still satisfying. The meat knish (I hadn't had one in years) was fairly bland. I remember more garlic and pepper flavor in the meat knishes of my youth.

Adelman's Pastrami

There were a few surprises in my deli adventures. Based on the general consensus on Chowhound and other food review sites I was expecting Mill Basin to be the winner and Adelman's the loser. Yet Mill Basin was a total washout and Adelman's was not bad at all.

So, in the Brooklyn deli sandwich pageant, I'd have to say that the pastrami at Jay & Lloyd's and the corned beef at Essex are the clear winners. But all of these delis seem to have their weak points, and overall I'd have to say that unless you're already in Brooklyn you'd do just as well to get your deli sandwiches in Manhattan (albeit for a few dollars more) at either Katz's or the 2nd Avenue Deli.

15 Comments:

Anonymous Elinor said...

This is great, Peter!
mmmmmmmm, pastrami! is Jay & Lloyd's better than Katz's? I.e., worth going farther than across the street? (I only like pastrami.)

1:29 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

Nice post. I can recall when the Mill Basin Deli opened, and we used to go there and also take out since it was just two blocks from the house.

But I can't say much about the food, since, now a vegetarian and never a meat-lover, the only things I ever ordered were turkey (dry everywhere, but given enough ketchup everything tastes good to me; they'd also, like most delis, give me a slice of Bermuda onion it) or the franks.

Other lost Brooklyn delis:

Ziggy's: On Utica Avenue's west side between Church Avenue and Linden Boulevard, this really was owned by Ziggy, a Zero Mostel lookalike and soundalike. He also had a branch of Ziggy's in the Five Towns, maybe Cedarhurst or Lawrence. My father (on the phone from Phoenix) said Ziggy's was "really good."

Zip's: Not that far away on Remsen Avenue (somewhere around Church Avenue or Snyder Avenue one block south), we used to go here on the one day we were able to go out for lunch at Meyer Levin JHS 285 on Ralph and Beverly (across the street from Tilden High School). I don't know if there was a Zip, and again, all we ever ordered were franks and french fries. Later, at Brooklyn College, I met Robert Wechsler, whose father was a longtime waiter at Zip's.

I can't remember the name of the kosher deli on Avenue K, just west of Utica Avenue and before East 49th Street where Avenue K intersects with Flatlands Avenue. The food here, according to my father in Phoenix, who also can't recall the name, was "so-so."

I think the College Deli on Flatbush Avenue between Hillel Place and Glenwood Road was a kosher or kosher-style deli. You must remember it from Brooklyn College, no?

According to my father, the best deli in Brooklyn in his younger years was on Utica Avenue around President Street, near the Famous Dairy Restaurant on Eastern Parkway (which I recall distinctly - it's been a McD's for 30 years).

Other kosher delis my father recalls from the old days were on Kings Highway, one near Coney Island, one just a few blocks away closer to the subway station on East 16th Street; another one near the station on Brighton Beach Avenue ("very good"); and a "very famous one, the name is on the tip of my tongue" on Ralph Avenue around Foster Avenue and Farragut Road. Oh wait, I remember it -- I think it was closer to Avenue H, across from South Shore High School.

2:22 PM  
Blogger Peter Cherches said...

Richard, you must have known the Georgetown Deli, which had a great reputation.

Elinor--not sure whether you really need to make the trip to Jay & Lloyd's, though you wouldn't go wrong with the pastrami. And it was great to see you at the Darinka event.

7:27 PM  
Anonymous Harry Wittenberg said...

Peter,
You bring back such memories with this post. Both my senses of taste and smell kicked into high gear when I saw the pictures of one of my favorite cuisines. What always made those sandwiches taste better were the pickles (half sour, of course) and pickled tomatoes as condiments.

What struck me were the prices. between $13 and $16 dollars, I hope those sandwiches were robust in size and taste. Here in the Bay Area, there are just two delis worth their schmaltz (and still owned by members of the tribe). The New York Deli on Polk Street near California is definitely worth the trip. They even have respectable kishka and decent knishes. But the corned beef and pastrami (flown direct from NYC -"tanks goodness" it was a non-stop flight) are terrific. As close as you'll get to NY via LA.

Last time we were in NY, we hit the Greek diners for a tour. I miss those huge breakfasts.

1:12 AM  
Blogger Joanna said...

Pete - Seth agrees! He says Mill Basin has been steadily slipping over the past decade, but, as you noted, the fries are good. He even suspects they aren't using Hebrew National franks anymore.

7:02 PM  
Blogger KyleH said...

Have you tried David's Brisket House in North Crown Heights, surrounded by mainly West Indian places? Pretty great. Worth the trip.

10:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I grew up on St Johns between Albany and Brooklyn in Crown Heights. I remember all the following great kosher deli's (around 1950-1960); Barnofsky on St Johns and Buffalo, Greff's on St Johns and Schenectady, a deli on St johns right off Albany Av,
one on Albany right off Eastern Parkway, one on Kingston near Lincoln, one on Kingston near Empire Blvd, 2 on Utica around Carol or Crown. They were all great, but Greff's was the best;
Eric

3:27 AM  
Blogger Jon said...

I grew up in the East Flatbush and Midwood sections of Brooklyn in the 50s and 60s. There were a two other Jewish delis that come to mind from that era. One was the Coronet Deli on Flatbush Ave near the old Marine Theater, between Kings Hwy and whatever the next block south was. The had the BEST thick cut french fries out of the brown bag, full of delicious ketchup and salt. The other was in East NY Brooklyn, and was called "Cousins" I think. It was off of either Utica Ave or Church Avenue. Can't remember for sure. It was an old world style Jewish Deli, kosher and the best!

5:29 PM  
Blogger Lily said...

Richard..the deli you're talking about that used to be on Ralph and Glenwood was first Appy's then Joe's South Shore...incredible stuff...that was my deli..lived on E. 51st and Flatlands!

9:19 PM  
Blogger Brosen said...

Jon, Cousins was on Avenue D between Utica and East 51st street. It was owned by Seymour and Mike. Great Deli. Probably one of the best in all of Brooklyn.

9:58 PM  
Blogger Robert Weiss said...

Brosen is right. Cousins was indeed on Avenue D. My buddy had his bar mitzvah there in the adjoining room (which I think was a later addition) in 1965. Great deli. Great soup. Loved going with my grandparents.

6:27 PM  
Blogger Lynn said...

That was my dad, Mike. He'd be so happy that you appreciated his food. I can see his big smile. Oh how I miss those days!

6:17 PM  
Blogger Lynn said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

6:21 PM  
Blogger Lynn said...

Thank you. My dad, Mike, and cousin Seymour, would be happy to hear your words of praise. They lover that store!

6:23 PM  
Blogger thinman2001 said...

Peter:

The deli located at the corner of Ralph and Glenwood formerly known as "Appy's" and later Joe's South Shore was owned and operated by my father, Leonard Apploff, and two of my uncles (ergo, the restaurant name "Appy's"). I worked many summers and weekends there serving hot dogs and knishes from the grill that was located alongside the register immediately to the left of the entrance door. In an unfortunate piece of bad timing, the restaurant was sold and my parents moved to Florida before the construction of South Shore High School. Who knows, I might have become the Corned Beef King of Brooklyn instead of spending 40 years as an attorney!!!

Stuart Apploff

11:29 PM  

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