Which famous Jewish deli makes the best pastrami sandwich? The answer to that
question lies within the taste buds of the eater. However, we may not need to
debate this issue much longer, as most traditional Jewish delis are dead or
“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 slightly, but he eventually answered.
try not to weigh in on these things because everyone has their own opinions and
it is subjective,” he told JNS.org. “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.
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In the early part of the 20th
century, the Lower East Side was home to millions of new immigrant
“This, along with the lack of public and private
transportation, forged a solid community such that Katz’s became a focal point
for congregating,” Katz’s website states. “On Fridays the neighborhood turned
out for franks and beans, a long time Katz tradition. During World War II, the
three sons of the owners were all serving their country in the armed forces, and
the family tradition of sending food to their sons was captured in the company
slogan, ‘Send A Salami To Your Boy In The Army.’” 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 that opened in 1937 as a
40-seat restaurant in midtown Manhattan, across from Carnegie Hall.
the original owners retired in 1976, the deli was taken over by a new restaurant
group, Milton Parker, who was known as the CPM – Corned Beef and Pastrami Maven.
Now in its third generation of owners, the deli is still family-owned and
operated by Marian Levine, Parker’s daughter, and her husband, Sandy
“It’s very simple why the Carnegie makes the best pastrami
sandwich in New York,” Sandy Levine told JNS.org. “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
“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.”
Sax said that because delis were originally
filled by poor immigrants, portion size was of the utmost importance. “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
In 1979, New York Times
critic Mimi Sheraton put Carnegie
Deli on the map when she named its pastrami sandwich the No. 1 pastrami in New
York City, against 22 other delis. Thirty years later, in September 2009, Dr.
Phil said on his show, “The Carnegie Deli makes the best sandwiches in the
world. If you come to New York, you need to go to the Carnegie Deli. The food is
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, Lebewohl took over a tiny
10-seat luncheonette on East 10th 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, Lebewohl’s dream of
success in America was a reality.
On March 4, 1996, Lebewohl 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
“At 9:00 a.m. on December 17, 2007, the perky hosts of the morning
shows, wire service reporters, and newspaper photographers all filled the 2nd
Avenue Deli, descending on the few eager customers eating pastrami sandwiches
for breakfast like they were celebrities,” Sax wrote of the deli’s reopening,
adding that he walked away “confident that at least one deli was safe.” The deli
opened another venue at 1442 First Avenue in 2011.
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 told JNS.org. “There you’ll find a wonderful
glimpse into Jewish culture. It’s more than somewhere to eat.”
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