Beyond Bagels: Your Guide to the Iconic Jewish Food of NYC
If you grew up with a Jewish grandmother, you’re likely more than familiar with dishes like chopped liver and borscht. But if you didn’t, your knowledge of the cuisine might not go much further than your go-to bagel and lox—in which case, it’s time to change that. (For clarity’s sake, we’re talking here about the culinary legacy of the city’s Ashkenazi immigrants and their descendants. Many other regional Jewish cuisines can be found in New York, but that’s a story for another time.) From the institutions of the Lower East Side to new-school deli counters stocked with Dr. Brown’s, here’s how to eat your way through the city’s Jewish food scene, one knish at a time.
One Fish, Two Fish
The appetizing counter—displaying platters of smoked salmon and seafood salads behind glass like precious edible gems—is a familiar sight to many New Yorkers. Lox is best sliced thin, and who better to trust with the knife than those who have done it for over a hundred years? Head to Russ & Daughters on the LES (established in 1914) and Barney Greengrass on the UWS (established in 1908) for a melt-in-your-mouth slice, along with other delicacies like whitefish salad and chopped herring. The best new kid in town? Shelsky’s of Brooklyn, which features an array of aquatic delights, including buttery sablefish and whole smoked trout.
On The East Side
Thanks to its legendary pastrami (and, OK, Meg Ryan’s acting), Katz’s Delicatessen has a permanent spot on every foodie's bucket list. Walk a few blocks and you’ll hit Sammy’s Roumanian Steakhouse, where the staff makes chopped liver at your table, vodka is served frozen in a block of ice and the vibe can best be described as “basement bar mitzvah.” Another neighborhood staple is B&H Dairy, where locals have been eating borscht (beet soup) since the late 1930s. Get a bowl of the pink stuff, then go for a fried blintz stuffed with cheese, kasha (cooked buckwheat) with mushroom gravy and the famous homemade challah French toast. Yearning for a knish? Stop into Yonah Schimmel Knish Bakery, a spot that’s been making the savory stuffed pastries since 1910. (Outside the LES, Yonah’s knishes have been rivaled by Knish Nosh, a knish bakery in Queens, established in 1952.)
The yeasty, cakey revelation known as babka is ubiquitous in the city, but for our money, the two quintessential loaves are from Breads Bakery and Zabar's. Get a chocolate babka from each, warm two slices and declare a winner. Halvah, made out of sesame paste, is a fudge-like treat that traces its origins to many Middle Eastern cultures; it landed stateside with Jewish immigrants in the early 20th century. Right now, Seed + Mill is slaying the game with its sea salt and dark chocolate rendition.
Twists On Old-School Favorites
You could easily subsist on the goods of the city’s longstanding delis alone, but for a change of pace, plenty of new-generation spots are also worth a visit. Mile End Deli’s Montreal-style smoked meat will make you seriously consider moving north (especially if it’s served over poutine). At Frankel’s Delicatessen & Appetizing, the BEC is taken to new heights as corned beef, egg and Swiss on rye. Shalom Japan mixes Jewish with Japanese in dishes like matzo-ball ramen with a foie gras dumpling. And old meets new at 2nd Floor, a new cocktail bar from the 64-year-old 2nd Ave Deli, where adventurous eaters can pair smoked-tongue sliders with mescal or bourbon.
Drink Of Choice
Speaking of drinks, Dr. Brown’s has been the go-to brand for Jewish delicatessens since 1869. Flavors include approachable options like root beer, cream soda and black cherry, but if you want to sample its most unique offering, grab the celery-flavored soda, Cel-Ray. It’s available at most spots on this list—and is guaranteed to change your life with the first sip.