Relax, you need not debate that question much longer. Most traditional Jewish delis are dead or dying.
But one man isn’t ready to set aside the old sandwich board just yet.
“We should save the Jewish deli because it’s part of Jewish culture,” David Sax, author of “Save the Deli: In Search of Perfect Pastrami, Crusty Rye, and the Heart of Jewish Delicatessen,” told JNS.org. “We don’t want it to disappear because it’s hard to bring them back. You can’t just flick a switch and turn it back on. Most importantly, the reason people love Jewish deli is because the food is great and the flavor is incredible.”
In his book, Sax describes that Jewish delis no longer exist in many cities across America where they used to be housed. “In [other cities], one or two holdouts are barely hanging on,” he writes. “Traditional products are disappearing from menus and shelves because they don’t fit into the bottom line.”
In New York City, tourists and sandwich diehards cherish these delis: Katz’s, 2nd Avenue Deli, Carnegie Deli, Stage Deli.
When asked to weigh in on which deli is in fact “the best,” Sax demurred, but only slightly.
“I try not to weigh in on these things because everyone has their own opinions and it is subjective,” he said. “I have my personal favorites. When I go to New York City I enjoy Katz’s pastrami sandwich. It is just incredible because it is hand cut and because of the atmosphere.”
In 1888, the Iceland brothers established what is now known as Katz’s Delicatessen on Ludlow Street in New York’s Lower East Side. Upon the arrival of Willy Katz in 1903, the name of the store was changed from Iceland Brothers to Iceland & Katz. Willy’s cousin Benny joined him in 1910, buying out the Iceland brothers to officially form Katz’s Delicatessen. In the early part of the 20th century, the Lower East Side was home to millions of new immigrant families.
Of course, not everyone agrees with Sax’s preference of deli. Some say the best pastrami sandwich comes from the Carnegie Deli, one of New York’s culinary landmarks, which opened in 1937 as a 40-seat restaurant in midtown Manhattan, across from Carnegie Hall.
“It’s very simple why the Carnegie makes the best pastrami sandwich in New York,” said its co-owner, Sandy Levine. “It’s because we have our own manufacturing plant. We smoke, we cure, we pickle our own meats. We don’t use a jobber. It’s a USDA facility. The other delis buy their meats from jobbers. When you buy from jobbers there’s no consistency in the process. Everything we do is done in-house. If you come in here today, five years from now or 10 years from now, it’s the same.”
Levine said the experience at the Carnegie is unsurpassed, starting with the size of your sandwich.
“First off we give you at least a pound of meat,” Levine said. “We say if you finish you made a mistake. We don’t want you to leave hungry. It’s not only the quality; it’s the quantity and the ambience. People sit together in a communal atmosphere. It’s the waiters, the pictures on the wall, the hustle and bustle.”
Since poor immigrants frequented delis, portion size was of the utmost importance, Sax said. “They were coming from hungry lives in Europe,” he said. “In the ’70s and ’80s the delis had a war on who had the biggest or highest sandwich, and that raised expectations.”
Perhaps the story of the 2nd Avenue Deli can give Jewish deli lovers hope.
Upon arriving in America and not even speaking English, Abe Lebewohl took his first job in a Coney Island deli, where he was employed as a soda jerk. During lunch breaks, he volunteered to help out behind the counter, to better observe the restaurant’s operation. He soon graduated to the coveted position of counterman. Over the next few years, he worked in a number of deli kitchens, learning the secrets of superb pastrami.
In 1954, with a few thousand dollars he managed to set aside, Abe took over a tiny 10-seat luncheonette on East Tenth Street — the nucleus of the 2nd Ave Deli. Working around the clock for years — often filling in as cook, counterman, waiter and even busboy — he put all his time and energy into making a success of his tiny establishment. After decades of struggle, Abe’s dream of success in America was a reality.
On March 4, 1996, Abe was murdered on the way to the bank to make a deposit. His widow Eleanor, daughter Sharon, and brother Jack decided to keep his dream alive, but the deli closed its doors in January 2006 due to a dispute with its landlord.
Then, amid much fanfare, the 2nd Avenue Deli reopened at 162 East 33rd Street in 2007.
In the end, it’s not about who makes the best pastrami sandwich, but about preserving a part of history, according to Sax.
“There’s a reason why there are still lines at Katz’s and the Carnegie,” he said. “There you’ll find a wonderful glimpse into Jewish culture. It’s more than somewhere to eat.”