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Monday, February 15, 2016

The Absolute Best Kosher Deli in Brooklyn - If Not the Entire World

True story:  Here's a reverse of the classic first-time customer in a kosher deli story.  My wife's cousin goes into a new 'kosher style' deli in Houston, Texas and orders a pastrami on rye with a little mustard.  He's told it will take a little longer because it's a special order.  Why? The sandwich automatically comes with lettuce, tomato and mayo.  Anything other than that is a special order.

Come on, even I can't make up anything like that. How can anything I write below beat that?

Raise your hand if you lived near, or at least ate at, the best kosher deli in Brooklyn.

Think hot pastrami or corned beef taken out of that stainless steel steam chest and the smell wafting over the glass-front counter as it is carefully and gingerly placed (ha!) on the slicing machine and piled high between two slices of fresh rye bread.

Oh I see someone in back has her hand up.  You went to a deli where the meat was cut by hand.  you win!

Hold on.  You know darned well you can't just order a sandwich and don't bother looking at the menu.  Since the age of eight you've had the menu memorized - including the daily specials which haven't changed in at least five years.

It's decision time.  For the indecisive who can't decide between the corned beef and the pastrami there's always the combo triple decker, but for most of us our taste buds were already fired up and ready to go to work long before we even walked through the door.  Looking at the menu was merely an unnecessary ritual while waiting for Irv to take our order, and even that wasn't necessary because all he'd have to ask is if we wanted the usual.

Want to see the counter help go into a fit of uncontrollable hysterics?  Ask if the corned beef is lean.  "Yeah, lady.  It's organically grown, free range tenderly cared for by monks, but I'll trim the fat for you."

Trim the fat off the corned beef and you have a sandwich consisting of two slices of bread and a shmear of mustard.

Okay, so that's the first hurdle.

I liked to order pastrami just to hear how Irv would fracture the word.  Twenty years in the same job and he never mastered the basics of his chosen vocation's vocabulary so that when he yelled the order to the guy behind the counter it always sounded like 'astronomy sagwiz.'  Didn't matter; the counter guy knew.

Here comes round two: 'French fries or knish?' 'knish.' Potato or Kasha?' 'Potato.' 'Square or round?'
'Round.' 'We don't got no more round. It wouldn't kill ya, maybe for once you should try square.'

We're going to take a short detour that those of you have read other of my stories know I am famous for.  (Don't you grammarians go nutso over the construction of that last sentence.)

Irv may have been wrong, after all.  The square ones are fried.  If only your mother knew then what was going into her darling's frail stomach along with the pastrami sandwich and the Cel-Ray soda.

In any case, there was and still is only one major knish purveyor. Gabilla produces more than 15 million knishes a year - most of them the square fried ones - from its Long Island bakery, having long since outgrown its original Williamsburg home - and still sends the majority to Brooklyn where your cousin Arnie consumed one-fifth of them before his by-pass surgery.

Picture this. Katz's Deli on the Lower East Side sells about 1,500 knishes a week - at $3.75 apiece.  If
Arnie knew that, he'd be turning over in his grave.  Yeah, the same knish you paid fifteen cents for - mustard included.  You can now buy them, and round ones in 6-packs from Gabila's website.

Today you can order sweet potato, spinach, mushroom, blueberry, cherry, chocolate cheese, tomato and mozzarella knishes from Gabila's and Yonah Schimmel's Knish Bakery who has been selling knishes since 1910 on Houston Street on the Lower East Side .  Oh yeah, they also have potato knishes.  There ain't nuthin' sacred no more.

The majority of round knishes are produced and baked in the individual deli.  The true knish aficionado prefers the round to the square.  Probably healthier.

OK. I can't wait for you readers to nominate your favorites:  Mrs. Stahl's (which has gone to knish heaven) in Brighton Beach or the guy on Bay 1 who sold knishes out of a shopping bag on the beach   And, of course, how can you not mention the old guy with the 'Mom's' push cart who sold molten hot knishes outside Winthrop and Tilden.  (I have a separate blog chapter dealing with street merchants that talks about the knish man.)

Now, wasn't that detour worth it.  Don't you really want a knish right now?

Ready for round three? 'Cole slaw please.'  'Onda sangwiz or onda side?'

Round four: 'You want sompena drink?' 'Whaddaya got?' 'Whaddaya wiseguy?' 'Okay, I'll have a Tab.' 'OK, one celery soder. Straw or glaz?'

'Excuse me. Its' Cel-Ray, not celery soda.

How else to wash down that pastrami on rye (with a hint of real deli mustard you dabbed on from a stainless steel container that every table had) than with a bottle of Dr. Brown's Cel-Ray soda.  (It was originally called 'tonic' until the government intervened.) Before we get into a major dispute, you can substitute cream soda for the Cel-Ray, but it has to be a bottle and none of those new boutique flavors like black cherry.

First, we're talking about a world before canned Dr. Brown's and a world before Dr. Brown's diet sodas.  The name was Cel-Ray, not Celery - even though it contained a hint of celery seed in the flavor, along with sugar and, of course, seltzer.  Rumor has it that it was created by a Lower East Side doctor treating immigrant children.

Watch out.  Here comes another detour. Brooklynites, in their attempt to conserve letters are often accused of 'dropping the 'r' at the end of a word.  NOT TRUE.  We just place it at the end of words not typically pronounced by the rest of the English-speaking world.  For example: 'Gimme a glassa warda.'  See? same number of r's, just placed more strategically.  Another example: 'Gimme a canna cream soder.'  See wad I'm sayin?

Okay, back to the ordering ritual. 'Please bring some pickles with the sandwich.'  'Sweet or sour?'

In retrospect, there are fewer questions on most AP exams and certainly not as much stress.

Thee were several prerequisites for being hired as a waiter in a kosher deli.  You had to be named Irv, Max, Sol, Lou, Dave, Nat, Ziggy or Sid.  These, coincidentally, were also the required names to be a deli owner. If, at birth, you were named other than the aforementioned names you were destined for another line of work. The desperate would change their name to get the job.  A second requirement was to have zero peripheral vision so that if a customer who was not exactly lined up with the waiter's nose tried to get the waiter's attention, he would be ignored.  Minimal hearing would also be a plus: 'I heard ya say square knish.  Eat what I brung.  I won't charge ya.'

Age plays a major role in the hiring process - at least reversed age discrimination.  You stand a better chance of being hired if you had already put in fifty years in another job - preferably as a tailor.  Younger than age 60 you were destined to be called  Junior, or worse, 'Kid'.

Growing up in East Flatbush we had a plethora of deli's. Like synogogues, there were always at least two - one you wouldn't step foot in, even if they had the last pastrami on earth. Let's have a moment of silence for Brooklyn's real kosher deli. May it long live in our memories.

Now, before you get your stuffed derma in an uproar, I'm talkin' real kosher deli - no milk products.  And, I'm not talking about places like Carnegie Deli in the City or the Carnegie wannabe Harold's in New Jersey or Ben's in Forest Hills or their outpost in Westbury.  I'm talking real kosher deli. Are there any outside of Brooklyn? 

OK.  Today's quiz.  Name the deli  on Church and E 46, Church and E 48, Church and Linden, Ave D off Utica, Utica between Church and Linden, Clarkson and E 51.  Was there any on Church Avenue west of East 46th Street?  How about on Remsen or Ralph Avenues?

We live in north central New Jersey.  I've googled 'kosher deli in Northern New Jersey.'  Ha!

How about opening one in Houston?

And a final shot of a 'real' sandwich from Harold's in New Jersey.

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