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.View Larger Map
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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.
(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.
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