From absolute classics to the latest and greatest, where to nosh right now
By the end, Jay Parker had tried pretty much everything. The second-generation owner of Ben’s Best Deli, in Rego Park, Queens, had shepherded one of New York City’s last neighborhood deli icons almost to its 75th birthday, no mean feat—at the beginning of 2018, Ben’s was one out of a handful of greats left in America’s traditional deli capital, an astonishing fact, when you think of the roughly 1,500 establishments said to have populated the five boroughs during the era of peak deli, not even a century ago.
But New York had changed, and like so many other neighborhoods, Rego Park had changed, too—the city installed bike lanes, running down Queens Boulevard, right past Parker's front door, eliminating a large number of the parking s his customers used to fill, so many of them having moved so far away, by now. All of the adapting, and cost-cutting, and hoping, and crossed fingers couldn’t stave off the inevitable. So, early last summer, the neon sign in the window at Ben’s Best flickered out, and another crucial piece of New York’s culinary heritage puzzle lumbered off into the history books.
The experts on Jewish culture—the corner of the culture with the pastrami, corned beef, chopped liver, pickles, and rye bread, anyway—have been telling us about the decline of deli for the longest time now, about how we’re losing too many of our originals, and how too many people are turning away from the delicatessen's simple pleasures. Look at it purely from this angle, and you'll no doubt find yourself bumming, and hard—so many of the greats are gone now, the end of Ben’s Best was surely not the last tragic blow. See, for example, the ongoing saga surrounding the one-would-have-thought unsinkable Nate ’N’ Al’s in Beverly Hills, recently sold, and about to relocate—whether or not it survives all this, is anybody's guess. And that's not the only Los Angeles institution in peril, either.
Then again, dwelling on the negative never really gets anybody anywhere, and while losing a great classic is always a sad thing, if we look at all of this from another angle, if we set aside this obsession with Jewish deli culture needing to exist within a certain kind of framework, and we take a look around and see how things are changing, possibly, just maybe, for the better, it is difficult to not be the tiniest bit excited. Let us begin, because it is the best place to begin, with pastrami—when it comes to meat, is there anything trendier—and more sought after—than the pastrami beef rib, now being sold, typically in very limited quantities, at so many of the country’s top barbecue joints? What of the new generation of pastrami kings, for instance the exemplary Ugly Drum in Los Angeles, which has proved that if you really know what you're doing, you don't even need a roof or walls to become a favored destination? There are other encouraging trends, too—Montreal deli culture has successfully found a footing, south of the border, while in the Midwest, in part thanks to a resurgence in interest in classic Detroit food tradition, some of the old corned beef haunts are—happily—back on the grid.
Then, of course, you have all of the modern delis—this is a trend that isn't even all that modern, anymore, having picked up in earnest more than a decade ago, a trend that shows no sign of slowing. If anything, it’s picking up steam, with each new opening apparently keen on besting the last. The movement is spreading, too—while we’re still likely a good ways away from having an essential Jewish deli in every state, we’re in a good place, or at least a better one. We’re heading in the right direction.
So what, honestly, if the new arrivals don’t always adhere to certain expectations, so what if they’re taking liberties, serving things you’ve a snowball’s chance in hell of finding on the menu—bacon (gasp!), kimchi (the audacity!)—at the old-school holdouts. What matters, is this: the deli is is not dead, it is alive, it’s evolving, and it is growing, right alongside the rest of American food culture, and as long as there’s pastrami or corned beef on the menu, maybe a little chopped liver, and definitely some good pickles, we’re into it, and we’re there. In order to bring you the very best, we tried as many as we could, and here, from strictly kosher to Jew-ish, are the delis you need in your life right now. — David Landsel
The Essential Ten
New to the culture? Here's where you get up to speed.
An early Tarantino-worthy coffee shop kept sparkling clean, at the heart of one of the West Coast's most densely-populated neighborhoods, this is not only America’s finest Jewish deli, this is also one of America’s most essential restaurants, full stop. A giant gulp of actual, real, live Los Angeles, Langer’s draws in all sorts, all classes, for two simple reasons—the pastrami, considered to be some of the finest in the land, served on rye bread too many New York delis can only dream of. Both products are made off-site to the Langer family’s exacting specifications, finished on premises, and then sliced to order. The #19 sandwich—a pile of hand-carved pastrami, layered with Swiss cheese and the house coleslaw on rye, has been called the best sandwich in Los Angeles, but that's a little bit too much like drowning your barbecue in sauce, before you've had a chance to taste it—start with a traditional pastrami on rye, with a bit of mustard.
Behind every person thrilled to be going to Katz’s, there’s probably somebody else trying not to panic—America's best-known deli has been busily defining the very idea of being extra, well over a century before we found the language. Confounding, crowded, too loud, too impatient, too fast, with a primitive ticketing system most likely designed to terrify the uninitiated, Katz’s is easy to get over, very quickly, if you let yourself get hung up on the trappings of the experience. Drill down, past the noise, the clamor, the yelling, and focus on what really matters, which is the pastrami itself, sensitively, carefully rubbed, smoked, steamed and sliced like the wind, by hand. There are no short cuts here, and you can tell when you dig in, the meat practically melting away as you go in for that first bite. They could serve this pastrami on a barge in the middle of the East River in January, and we'd probably swim there—at least there would be more breathing room than there ever seems to be at Katz’s cramped Houston Street headquarters, in some ways left nearly as-is, since the beginning.
New York deli culture is far from what it was, that much has been established, but the truth—the whole, kosher truth—is still out there, for those willing to make the trek to neighborhoods like Riverdale, far away from Katz’s, and the other Manhattan delis that have been lavished with so much attention throughout the years. Your first stop on any deli deep dive should be this family-owned classic, dating back more than fifty years now, helmed by long-time owner Joseph Dekel’s son Yuval, who grew up wanting to be a drummer in a heavy metal band, but walked away at age 24 to guide Liebman’s into the 21st century. (There’s now a Liebman’s app.) So far, so good—the pastrami here is among New York’s finest, and the menu is a beautifully classic read, filled with everything you’re looking for, and likely a few things you’d forgotten about. Plenty of booth seating makes Liebman’s feel like a casual, outer boroughs coffee shop. It is so much more than that.
Brian Shapiro is fourth-generation Shapiro, and he has been in charge of one of the Midwest's best classic restaurants since the turn of the century, and there are so many things that he will tell you, if you have the time to stop and listen, including just how good the food is, here at this spartan, less cafeteria, just a short walk from the heart of downtown Indianapolis. Not that the food at Shapiro's needs an introductory speech—from top-notch pastrami to delicious brisket, to the roasted, never-frozen, hormone-free chickens, to large, house-made cheesecakes, some of the most craveable rye bread going, and everything else you fancy getting your mouth around, the food at Shapiro’s is honest, it's quality, and that’s not just because these things are fashionable right now. Shapiro himself will remind you, if had forgotten—they’ve been doing slow food since well before caring about ingredient quality came back into style. Have either of the Reubens, but make sure to go for some of Shapiro's peppered beef, as well—salted, washed, cured, peppered, smoked, and then dusted with just a hint of a paprika-sugar blend. Serving all comers at the heart of Indiana’s largest city for over a century, Shapiro’s is one of those rare establishments managing to effortlessly transcend both genre and location. Here's to four more generations—at least.
Everything is different, now, in the neighborhood where you will find Chicago’s best-loved delicatessen, but change is nothing new for this 77-year-old institution, which has moved multiple times since the very beginning, and after a rather impressive renovation in 2016, barely looks like Manny’s at all, or at the Manny’s you may remember, which had all the charm you’d expect from a cafeteria in an old wholesale district in Chicago. Today, the place appears to be thoroughly modern, complete with sparkling subway tile and a espresso bar, but what matters most is that the legacy remains intact—the deli, treasured for generations by so many Chicagoans, is currently being operated by the third and fourth generation of the founding family, and what also matters is the food. You’ll start with the corned beef, but the rotating list of daily specials—this really is a cafeteria, as the name suggests—lamb shank Mondays, oxtail stew Thursdays, is worth committing to memory.
Ann Arbor, MI
Back in 1982, a generation (at least) ahead of peak New Deli, Ari Weinzweig and Paul Saginaw were out there on their own, in a tiny storefront near the University of Michigan campus, asking themselves the question, how do we make the classics, but make them better? They threw themselves into finding the best ingredients, and, knish by knish, they built an empire that now includes cheese-making, bread baking, coffee roasting—if you can eat it or drink it, Zingerman’s is most likely doing it. At this point, honestly, you could dedicate an entire day or two to sampling your way through the Zingerman’s empire, and you really ought to—today's Zingerman’s feels very much like the Chez Panisse of the Midwest, a beautiful thing from a long time ago now, a thing that may not be quite so unique today, but it still matters, and very much so. At the core of the business, you will still find the now-vastly-expanded deli, with its menu of classics—fluffy matzo balls in rich Amish chicken broth, latkes made with Yukon gold potatoes, smoked Great Lakes whitefish salad, chopped liver from those good, free-range chickens, indulgent rice pudding, and—of course—some of the country’s finest pastrami and corned beef, produced in Detroit (where they know about these things) to Zingerman’s exacting specifications. There are so many delis out there now, working to drive the culture forward—it's important to remember that Zingerman’s was first past the post.
What Liebman’s and its shrinking peer group are to New York, Brent’s is to deli-mad Los Angeles, a stunning specimen of the classic sort, buried way the hell out of the way, in this case deep in the San Fernando Valley, ensuring that the clientele remains mostly locals, many of whom will have never set foot inside Langer’s, and likely would not care to, even if Langer’s were less than an hour away in traffic, and when is there ever not traffic. This is perfectly fine—the black pastrami Reuben sandwich that Brent’s serves, both here in Northridge and at their vaguely less essential Westlake Village location, holds its own against any classic deli in the country, a stack of thickly-barked meat on that good Los Angeles rye, with kraut, Swiss and Russian dressing. Worth a journey.
There are so many reasons to cheer—cautiously, anyway—for the resurgence of New Jersey’s largest city, and right up there on the list has to be the fact that the Brummer family’s beautifully minimal Halsey Street establishment, founded in 1962 and famously surviving Newark’s devastating riots not even a decade later, is alive, well, thriving, and here to watch downtown Newark doing better than so many had ever dreamed it possibly could. The homemade mushroom barley soup, terrific potato pancakes, and chopped liver from a family recipe, are just some of the gems from Hobby's sprawling menu—best of all, though you’re just twenty minutes from Lower Manhattan via the PATH train, you’ll feel like you’re in on some terrific secret, in some place much further away. That’s Newark for you.
With Midtown Manhattan’s Carnegie Deli gone for good—who could have predicted?—you may ask yourself, has the era of the insanely large sandwich finally drawn to a close? Not even—you’ll just have to cross a few bridges and tunnels to get to the most enthusiastic keeper of the flame. Owner Harold Jaffe worked at the Midtown institution for a decade, and it shows in pretty much everything he does; here, in a total New Jersey nowhere, moments from the Outerbridge Crossing into Staten Island, Jaffe has all the space the Carnegie never did, enabling him to do things like create the world’s largest pickle bar, and bake cakes that vibe even bigger than the Carnegie originals. Same goes for the sandwiches, with triple deckers—of very good corned beef and pastrami, mind you—containing three and a half, maybe more pounds of meat. One thing’s exactly the same as the gone, never to be forgotten Carnegie: the prices.
There isn't much left of Charm City’s famed Corned Beef Row, in fact, there’s very little left to the surrounding neighborhood at all, just east of downtown and north of Baltimore’s Little Italy, but there’s enough—enough to draw lines of cars down to that seen-better-days stretch of Lombard Street, year after year, with many of them headed to Attman’s, which has been here since 1915, remains family owned, and serves up (you guessed it!) the city’s favorite corned beef. The menu is as near-ancient as Attman’s itself, containing everything from coddies (the poor man’s crab cake) to kishkes; don’t rush in and out of here—sit with the whole experience for awhile, observe the goings on, and let the general absence of anything terribly modern soothe you, while you nurse a helping of Ida’s apple cake. You don’t ever have to leave, if you don't want to. Not until closing time, anyway.
14 New Names to Know
No two truly alike, behold the future of deli (listed in alphabetical order)
This offshoot of a popular pizzeria offers two key ingredients from the classic Jewish deli menu—the pastrami sandwich, the pastrami made from all-natural Piedmontese beef, served with a spicy, whole grain mustard, on house-baked rye, along with a great Reuben. And it’s enough, really, particularly when you consider that they’re also selling crispy, chewy, beer-boiled bagels, way out here in Nebraska.
What began as a pop-up at Oakland’s superb Beauty’s Bagels (an absolute treasure, if not quite deli-like enough to make this list) is now a full-blown hang, hiding in plain sight right near the traffic-choked I-80/Ashby interchange. Slow down your life, and submit to some of the better Montreal smoked meat (sometimes described as a hybrid of pastrami and corned beef tradition) found south of the border. While you’re here, try the poutine: hand-cut fries, serious gravy, proper curds and—oh, Canada!—lots more smoked meat.
Who knew that a glorified breakfast sandwich joint pushing the likes of bacon and for Pete’s sake, pizza bagels, would capture the hearts of so many? This new arrival, proudly referring to itself as a "Jew-ish" deli, boasts converts from all over, even New York, for pastrami served on a breakfast sandwich, in a cheesesteak, and in tacos, served on housemade tortillas. Reinventing the deli has been a thing for some time now, but we’re hard-pressed to think of an an establishment breaking the rules quite so enthusiastically, with such entertaining results.
You don’t have to know all that much about Los Angeles to appreciate that the Sunset Strip is culturally about as far away as you can get from MacArthur Park and still be in the same city, but now the two have something very delicious in common—Trisha Langer, of Langer’s fame, recently threw open the doors to this modern, modestly-sized outpost of the empire, bringing some of that priceless authenticity to a part of town that could certainly use a dose of something down to earth and dependable.
Perhaps the most visible of the new-school pastrami pushers in New York, for good reason, this Russ & Daughters doppelgänger in Greenpoint (seriously, that decor, how great is it) pushes back on any notion that modern deli might not thrive in a city still clinging to the old ways. Your elders might find the breakfast sandwiches slightly horrifying, but never mind—the smoky pastrami, egg and cheese on a Challah roll is currently one of New York’s most distinctive morning meals-on-the-go. Crispy little potato latkes, served in a trio with sour cream and applesauce for $9, are the perfect anytime nosh.
Todd Ginsburg’s sizeable contribution to New Deli wasn’t the very first to blaze onto the scene, but on this list, he's nearly an old-timer, having opened up shop back in 2014. In a part of the country best associated with other kinds of delicious food, this delightful establishment has thrived, becoming one of Atlanta’s best restaurants, a restaurant where you can get great cured meats, house-made bagels, great latkes, chopped liver—shall we go on? Okay, fine, make sure to order the Reuben.
Larder Delicatessen & Bakery Cleveland
When is pastrami on rye so much more than just another pastrami on rye? When you leave fermentation master Jeremy Umansky in charge, that’s when. This disarmingly casual new-waver, at the heart of Cleveland’s comestibles-centric Ohio City neighborhood, turns out koji-cured, mushroom powder-rubbed pastrami, served on the unique house rye, with housemade mustard (read up on all the details in the latest issue of mkgallery). The end result—delicious.
This classic downtown lunch room with a proper (but in recent years, mostly forgotten) deli heritage, Perly’s, short for Perlstein’s, has been revived in a grand manner by a local restaurateur who fell in love with the art deco-style storefront. Today, you’ll not find a finer matzo ball soup for miles around; the menu, while noticeably modern, contains so many well-executed staples, some diners have trouble understanding that Perly's, as we know it now, is actually quite new.
A crew with New York roots that knows what they’re doing, opened this fashionable joint that hits so many of the right notes, beginning with some very fine bagels, good enough that you won’t mind that the locally-made corned beef, pastrami, and house-smoked turkey aren’t served on the traditional rye. We’re allowing it.
Mike Solomonov’s not-for-profit soup joint has evolved to become one of the city’s best little delis (the space is definitely part of the charm), all while holding fast to an original mission to assist Philly’s less fortunate. As commendable as the cause the Rooster supports: the house pastrami, and that matzoh ball soup.
Jerrod Rosen’s design-conscious deli (featuring a sizable portrait of Larry David, just for laughs) has been a presence in Denver’s so-hot-right-now RiNo neighborhood for less than a year, but this is already one of those places where you can’t help but feel like you’re in good hands—the Rosen family goes way back with Colorado, four generations to be exact, some of them players on Denver’s very early deli scene. Fish is smoked in-house, the matzoh balls come from a family recipe, and so does the rugelach.
With all the blurring of lines going on, why shouldn’t this glorious, sit-down offshoot of America’s best loved appetizing store go on a list of delis? Besides, the pastrami-cured salmon’s enough to turn just about anyone pescatarian. (If not, there’s chopped liver, and chicken soup, not to worry.) Just a short walk from the original Houston Street shop, it’s hard to believe the cafe—which quickly became a New York can't miss—has only been around since 2014.
Root vegetable latke tots, pastrami chili, the very presence of kimchi in the establishment—for plenty of Chicagoans, this is the rebellious deli, but in reality, the highlight of a visit to this North Center newbie is the not-so-much upgraded, but rather sensitively nudged toward the present matzo ball soup, followed up with some quality pastrami on Publican-baked bread.
When Micah Wexler ditched fine dining to make pastrami, which he began selling from a stall inside the evolving Grand Central Market in Downtown Los Angeles just a few short years ago, the result was instant fame, both for Wexler and his fine meats. There are now four locations, including one in Palm Springs, but the O.G. Sandwich—pastrami, mustard, rye—remains the thing that holds it all together.
17 More Classics to Love, While They’re Here
Show some respect for these gems—many of them have lived longer than you have (listed alphabetically)
Even if this Upper West Side legend didn’t have a full meat menu—which it does, triple decker sandwiches, even—there’d be a temptation to break with tradition, sneaking the vintage appetizing institution onto a list of delis. Thank goodness, then, that the home to some of the best smoked sturgeon in the land is also available to skillfully handle one's pastrami and corned beef and chopped liver needs.
This spartan shoebox on Nostrand Avenue, owned by Yemenite Muslims, seems at first an unlikely venue for classic deli comforts, but looks aren’t everything. This Bedford-Stuyvesant staple started out as a deli, but much like the surrounding neighborhood, has lived many lives; today, David’s is appreciated by pastrami lovers for attractively-priced sandwiches, stuffed with healthy portions of near-perfect meat that competes handily with what you’ll find at the more widely-known places back across the East River.
Like Cracker Barrel, but with the promise of Debbie Akin’s very fine chopped liver, your visit to this nearly three decade-old institution in sunny La Mesa begins with the gift shop, which is also the bakery, where you can stock up on massive and gorgeous loaves of challah bread to take home, after you eat. From homemade blintzes and borscht to hot pickled tongue or kosher salami sandwiches, all the good stuff is here, alongside an expansive menu that reflects the wants and desires of this popular ’s evolving clientele.
Factor’s Famous Deli Los Angeles
For any restaurant, making it to your 70th birthday is a big deal, but Factor’s isn’t just any restaurant, it’s Los Angeles royalty, thriving as a non-kosher establishment, right along the very kosher Pico Boulevard strip. For many Angelenos, this isn’t the first deli on the list, but for a loyal clientele—roughly eighty percent of the business is said to come from regulars—the other delis aren’t even worth seeking out.
Mountains of everything—from the city’s best piled-high meats to absurdly large portions of chocolate babka French toast, which you must try—are sort of a thing at this Queen Village institution, where sandwiches are offered in two sizes—regular, and zaftig. You’re two blocks from South Street, give or take, and of course there’s a pastrami cheesesteak, like you had to ask.
So entrenched in the Avenue U scene is this kosher essential, known for pastrami and their house-cured corned beef, it’s easy to forget that the place only dates back to 1993, which in New York deli years, is not a very long time at all. Don’t worry about it—the owners grew up in deli families, and they clearly know what they’re doing. Stop in for homemade knishes, real-deal chicken soup, and (of course) sandwiches.
Beloved by people who enjoy a giant corned beef sandwich and avoided like the plague by the sort of Midwesterner that still requires large amounts of feigned politeness alongside their dining experiences, this typically brusque kosher old-timer holds its own on the food front with Manny’s, Chicago’s most iconic deli institution, even if the Kaufman’s experience vibes slightly more generic. (Not their fault—a 2011 fire required a complete renovation.)
Ziggy Gruber descends from deli people, and he’s run his own show on both coasts, in New York and Los Angeles—this is a man who knows his kishkes from his kasha varnishkes. The menu at this brawling, Galleria-adjacent is an entertaining read, but from the vast selection, dive straight in with triple-smoked pastrami (a house specialty), but only after a bowl of the particularly delicious chicken soup. There’s now a second location, just a couple of miles away.
Like an empty nester looking to live their latter years to the fullest, this Queens classic successfully relocated to the Upper East Side some time ago, where it is now living its best life, serving up some of the more underrated pastrami that you will find in Manhattan, far enough off the tourist circuit to feel like something of a neighborhood find. Get the pastrami, but also consider the absolutely massive potato pancakes.
Why anyone drives I-95 between New York and Boston is a mystery; for starters, it isn’t even the shortest route, distance-wise, and typically otherwise, and then there’s the fact that if you do not go the northern way, past Hartford, you will not pass by this vintage strip mall gem just off of I-84, squashed between two budget motels, across from a Dunkin’ Donuts. Inside, the Jewish deli-cum-vintage New England truck stop of your dreams awaits. Stay for tongue and eggs, smoked sable, kosher chopped beef liver, and all the Hebrew National meats; you could also just grab a sandwich (and a loaf of challah, and some jam, or whatever else) and go. Soup lovers are well-catered for here—there's an entire , so you can plan a month ahead.
More than a decade after the closure of Wolfie Cohen’s in Sunny Isles, we’re still in mourning for South Florida deli culture as we knew it, but the persistence of this regional institution (go to the Pinecrest location, it’s the best one) is something of a comfort. Of course there’s a Jewish Cuban here, like you had to ask—corned beef, salami, Swiss and pickles, on griddled bread.
Exactly the sort of deli you’d expect to find exactly one crosswalk away from Chez Panisse, up on Shattuck Avenue, this East Bay institution is best explained to people living east of the Rockies as the regional solution to the problem of Zingerman’s being located two time zones away. Responsible sourcing, good ingredients, and attention to detail—they make their own celery soda, it’s a whole process—make Saul's a Bay Area keeper.
Let’s be honest, much of the appeal surrounding this Murray Hill institution, which bounced back handily from a 2012 fire (and the fifteen-month closure that followed), stems from the fact that you can come here whenever you like, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. There might be better pastrami in town, but none quite so readily available.
The East Village icon has been through a lot—the unsolved murder of founder Abe Lebewohl, and then a landlord dispute that left the doors closed for what felt like too long (nearly two years). Today, you’ll find things a little different. For starters, there are now two locations, neither of them in the East Village, or on Second Avenue; also, the corned beef might be better than the pastrami, but in a city that casts aside tradition like yesterday’s newspaper, the survival of any institution is worth celebrating.
Palm Springs + Palm Desert
Sherman himself has passed on, but the Harris family works hard to keep the founding member’s legacy alive at this classic , with two locations in the Coachella Valley, both dishing up this deli-literate region’s favorite pastrami and corned beef.
Smoked lamb cholent, house-smoked pastrami egg rolls, salami burgers—we’ve seen some pretty wild stuff coming out from behind the counter at this adventurous little joint, serving a conservative town not typically known for rule breaking, which is half the fun.
West Bloomfield, MI
Most of the major Great Lakes cities retain their own rather entrenched deli and appetizing cultures, perhaps none quite so alive as the one you will find in Metro Detroit—for a total scene, head for this half-century-and-counting classic, operated by the second and third generation of the founding Goldberg family.