Manhattan Delis and the Art of Knish

A couple of weeks ago, I took a business trip to New York City for all kinds of exciting Shiksa-related meetings. On the trip, I also made it my mission to explore the Manhattan Jewish deli scene. The history of Jewish deli food is totally fascinating. To prepare for my trip, I read the book “Save the Deli” by David Sax. David gives an in-depth history of Jewish delicatessen, explaining the historical roots of Yiddish Jewish cuisine and America’s deli culture. The book is a must-read for anybody interested in Jewish deli food. The book’s descriptive, delicious prose left me primed and ready to enjoy some tasty deli treats.

One thing I have learned in my years of researching Jewish food is that Jewish delis are rarely kosher. In Save the Deli, Sax explains that the expense of keeping a restaurant kosher and the politics of kosher certification turned many deli owners away from the kosher standard:

Though kosher Jews will say, with unwavering conviction, that the only true delicatessen is a kosher delicatessen, what predominate in New York today are Jewish-owned, Jewish-operated, Jewish-patronized, non-kosher delicatessens. Among them are some of New York’s best-known delis, including Junior’s, Katz’s, Carnegie, and the Stage. Some kosher-style delis may have stopped being kosher for economic reasons; some were simply never kosher. They were opened by those who wanted no part of the complicated, expensive, and often hypocritical world of kosher certification.

I was only able to visit seven delis on this trip (including all of those listed by Sax in the paragraph above). I was pretty busy with meetings and events, so I missed out on some crowd favorites like Russ and Daughters and Yonah Schimmel’s Knishes Bakery– tragic, considering this is a knish blog. Unfortunately I had to stick to Manhattan and the neighborhoods I was already visiting for other reasons, and my time was  limited. I didn’t have a chance to make it out to Brooklyn, even though I know some of the best East Coast delis are out there. If your favorite deli is not on my list, fear not—I will certainly visit it in the future!

I decided to try a knish in each deli to compare the different ways Jewish cooks approach the Art of Knish. I’m excited to tell you about my experiences! But first, a little history…

The Lower East Side tenement district, early 1900′s

Between 1880 and 1920, roughly 2 millions Jews immigrated to the United States from Eastern Europe and Russia. In his book, Sax explains that knishes became popular fare for these new American Yiddish communities:

Suddenly, the foods of a people dispersed for nearly two thousand years came together in one corner of Manhattan. Romanians tasted the dishes of Poles and Litvaks, Russians cooked for Ukranians and Germans. Early on, the preferred vehicle for Yiddish food was the pushcart. In many cases, the wife would pickle, bake, or cook in the cramped tenement apartment at night, and the husband would sell the food all day. Soon, enterprising shopkeepers and suppliers began making bulk amounts of foods in their stores, selling them to armies of pushcart peddlers to distribute around the neighborhood. Foods needed to be cheap, preserved (because there wasn’t refrigeration), and easily eaten by hand. Most customers were garment workers, who are at their sewing machines or on the street. The most popular items were knishes, black breads, ryes and bagels, pickled herring (wrapped in newspaper), salamis, other cold cured meats, and pickles.

I’ve made and tasted knishes many times over the years, sharing recipes with family and friends and modifying my own recipes as I go along. One thing I’ve learned is that everybody makes a knish differently. There is no “one way” to make a knish—you’ll see that in the pictures I’m posting here. Some people like doughy knishes, some flaky, some biscuit-y. Some people like small bite-sized knishes, while others prefer big, overstuffed pastries. The most popular filling is potato, with kasha as a close second. I’ve seen knishes filled with meat, cheese, spinach, liver, and even sweet fillings like fruit. Knishes are a creative way to use up leftovers; indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if the first knish was invented for just this purpose. In other words, if you have some extra brisket from Shabbat dinner and you’re not sure how to use it—why not stuff a knish with it? Get creative. If you can imagine an ingredient tasting good encased in a savory pastry, it will make a great knish!

Here are the delis I was able to visit on my trip:

Carnegie Deli
Ben Ash

Stage Deli

Juniors
Zabar’s
The 2nd Avenue Deli
Katz’s Deli

I also visitied Sammy’s Romanian, another famous Jewish food landmark—but that experience deserves its own blog.  ;)

As you might guess, I came back from my deli trip two pounds heavier. But it was totally worth it. While I’ve made and tasted knishes many times over the years, this was my first experience comparing deli-style knishes. I can safely say I ended my trip with a broader understanding of knish. Now I’d like to share what I learned with you!

First stop…

CARNEGIE DELI

Me outside Carnegie Deli

For my first breakfast in Manhattan, I visited the famous Carnegie Deli on 7th Avenue. The Carnegie opened in 1937 and has been serving hungry Manhattan natives and tourists for over 70 years. I’ve been to Carnegie many times, but this visit was different. I was on a mission.

I ordered my favorite deli breakfast—a toasted egg bagel with cream cheese and lox. On the side I ordered two knishes, one potato and one kasha.

Did I over-order? Of course. But I dug in with gusto.

The crust of both knishes was thin and slightly chewy with the attractive sheen of a yellow egg wash. The potato knish had been reheated a bit too long—a piece of the crust was tough and overdone. The filling was fluffy, salty and oniony—in other words, yummy. I noticed that there were a few sesame seeds sprinkled on top, which is something I do when making burekas, not knishes. But as I said, everybody does this knish thing differently.

The kasha knish was very similar to the potato one—same crust, same color, same texture. But the filling, a mix of whole grain kasha and mashed potatoes, was totally unappealing to me. A kasha knish can be great if it’s done right. This kasha knish tasted old and stale, somehow. Not great.

I’m happy to report that the bagel and lox were delicious! The portions were enormous. My fiance and I enjoyed potato knish and bagel leftovers for a midnight snack.  :)

BEN ASH

storefront

Ben Ash sits right across the street from Carnegie Deli, luring in unsuspecting tourists when Carnegie is too busy to seat them. I had tried Ben Ash once before years ago and hadn’t been impressed. But it was just around the corner from our hotel, so I figured I’d give it another shot.

I should have turned around when I saw only three customers there at the breakfast hour. Now I can say with certainty I will never go back. The round knish they gave me tasted stale and flavorless—the filling was bland, the crust was rubbery, and it was totally greasy. It wouldn’t be worth mentioning here, but this is a knish blog, so I thought I’d give you a heads up.

If you’re checking out delis in NY, skip Ben Ash. It’s overpriced and underwhelming. Thank goodness I didn’t go for the $26 “Ben Ash Reuben Giant Knish” topped with pastrami and sauerkraut, I can only imagine how awful that might have been.

STAGE DELI

Just down the street from Carnegie is another New York landmark, Stage Deli. Like Carnegie, it opened in 1937 and quickly became a favorite with the Broadway crowd because of its proximity to Times Square. From their website:

The Stage Deli began its ascent to gastronomic fame in 1937 when Max Asnas, a Russian émigré, opened a modest little delicatessen on the corner of Broadway and 48th Street. Mr. Asnas stocked his deli with the foods of his native land—blintzes, salamis, smoked fish and thick loaves of Russian rye bread. Because of his quick wit and despite what some may have considered a “slightly gruff” manner, Max Asnas soon became the toast of Broadway. Actors from the nearby theaters strolled into The Stage in between rehearsals. Vaudeville comedians partook of his gargantuan corned beef sandwiches and The Stage Deli soon became known as the place to be—and the place to be seen.

I decided to try a square fried knish at the Stage. Here’s a pic:

It was decent—a simple potato filling encased in thick, biscuit-like dough, baked and then fried. The filling could have used more seasoning to my taste, but it wasn’t bad…just slightly boring. I was still in search of a truly satisfying knish.

JUNIORS


I was told by some friends that I shouldn’t miss Juniors, a huge deli-like restaurant in the heart of Times Square. I say deli-like because Junior’s isn’t really a deli, though they do serve some Jewish dishes on the menu like latkes, blintzes, and chopped liver (they call the latkes “potato pancakes”—oy vey). I stopped by to check it out, and was told by the friendly host that they don’t have knishes on the menu. He convinced me to try one of their “famous cheesecake” slices instead. I ordered it to go, stuck it in the hotel mini fridge, and ate it in my room that evening. It was too rich and overly sweet for my taste, though I’m sure others might disagree. Cheesecake is what made Junior’s famous, after all.

I left Juniors feeling annoyed that my deli experience so far had been pretty underwhelming.

ZABAR’S

Here’s where the trip takes a definite turn in the RIGHT direction. I headed over to Zabar’s on the Upper West Side, hoping against hope that my knish experience would improve. Thankfully, it did!

Zabar’s is an incredible gourmet shop located on Broadway and 80th for over 70 years. Though not quite a “deli” per say, it has been owned by a Jewish family for generations. From their website:

In 1934 Louis and Lillian Zabar started Zabar’s by renting an Appetizing Counter in a Daitch Market. Louis had a philosophy. He would sell only the highest quality smoked fish at a fair price. He wanted his customers to trust him and he wanted them to become “regulars.” He traveled to the smokehouses and sampled the smoked fish himself. He refused much more than he accepted. He developed a reputation of being hard to please. Over the years Lillian and Louis took over the Daitch Market – and Zabar’s was born. Louis worked long hours; he roasted his own coffee. He hand selected every item that Zabar’s sold – always wanting to give his customers the best available at a “fair” price. The store was his life.

Louis Zabar’s hard work paid off. Over the years the store flourished, expanding and taking over an entire city block. A family run affair, their website claims there is “always a Zabar in the store.” The store now sells all kinds of Jewish favorites, from lox to bagels to—you guessed it—knishes! Zabar’s knish selection is the largest I’ve ever seen. They are truly “gourmet” knishes. Here’s a pic of their knish and strudel wall:

I wanted to try one of everything, but I settled for a spinach potato knish because I had to pace myself (I had three deli stops to make in one day)! Here’s the knish I enjoyed.

It was flaky, delicious, divine—the perfect pastry, a flavorful filling, a wonderful way to start my deli day.

For those of you who don’t live in an area that has great knishes, Zabar’s has a mail order service. Yummy! Highly recommended.

THE SECOND AVENUE DELI


The 2nd Avenue Deli holds a special place in my heart. Of all the delis I visited on my trip, 2nd Avenue manages to maintain a wonderful old-fashioned neighborhood deli feeling. From the time I entered to the time I left, I was made to feel welcome—like one of the family. There’s a sense of nostalgia in the place, even though it recently opened in a new location (so it’s technically no longer on 2nd Avenue).

The history of the 2nd Avenue is well known to most New Yorkers. If you’re unfamiliar with the story of Abe Lebewohl, the legendary deli owner and Mensch whose life ended far too soon, please read the following article from the New York Times:

A Counter History

The food—what can I say? It was authentic, delicious. You could feel the love and care that went into making these dishes. 2nd Avenue is a kosher deli—no real dairy products are served on the premises. They maintain their kosher tradition proudly, and I can’t say I missed the dairy one bit. The food at 2nd Avenue was the best I’d had on my trip so far. And they didn’t certainly didn’t want me to leave hungry! Before I’d left, they’d served me samples of their famous cholent, some sweet chopped liver on toasted rye crackers, and a little chocolate soda. Delish!

Brad, the counterman, told me that the 2nd Avenue Deli makes their knishes both round and square. Traditionally round knishes are baked and square knishes are fried. I tried one of each, both stuffed with potato. The round was my favorite, but both were excellent. The Zabar’s knish was more sophisticated in terms of pastry quality, but the 2nd Avenue knishes had an authenticity you couldn’t replicate. They’re the real deal; biscuit style dough, tasty soft and fluffy potato filling, perfectly warmed. They tasted fresh, not like they’d been tossed from the freezer to the microwave. Add to that a Dr. Brown’s cream soda and I was in knish heaven.

I left the deli feeling full and happy in both body and spirit. It was by far my favorite deli on the trip, and I plan to make it a regular stop on my future trips to New York. You should, too—in honor of Abe Lebewohl. If you stop there, have a knish for me.  :)

KATZ’S DELI

I ended my trip with a self-guided tour of the Lower East Side tenement district and a visit to Katz’s Deli. Katz’s is the oldest deli in New York City, and I’m guessing it might be the oldest in the world, too. It was opened in 1888 by the Lustig family, not long after Jewish immigrants began flooding Ellis Island. In 1916 it was bought by Benny and Harry Katz, two German Jewish brothers. They changed the name to Katz’s Deli and moved it across the street to the location where it remains today. You’ve probably seen the inside of Katz’s deli, even if you don’t realize it. The famous “I’ll have what she’s having” scene from When Harry Met Sally took place at Katz’s. From presidents to celebrities to heads of state, everybody who’s anybody has eaten at Katz’s. It’s an experience not to be missed.

I’d done my research. I knew exactly what I wanted to order—a pastrami on rye with spicy mustard. I ordered the meat “juicy lucy” style, meaning I asked for the fatty cut (not lean). I normally eat pretty healthy, but how often do you have an opportunity to eat at Katz’s? I wanted the real deal. And boy, did I get it.

The meat was moist and tender, melt-in-your-mouth delicious. The bread was soft and fluffy. The pickles were some of the best I’ve had. I smothered the meat in spicy mustard, just as it should be. Here I am enjoying my sandwich and my life!

My fiance had the corned beef sandwich. It was great, too… but we both had to agree that the pastrami was really something special.

Of course, I had to order a knish too; a round one (baked) on the advice of our waiter. It was pretty good—on par with the Stage and Carnegie Deli knishes. But 2nd Avenue and Zabar’s definitely had the Katz knish beat.

For those of you familiar with Katz’s, you might enjoy knowing that I sent a salami to my boy in the army. Actually, I don’t have a boy in the army, so I asked them to send one out to a deserving soldier. Somewhere out there, a soldier received a salami from the Shiksa in the Kitchen. I hope they enjoyed it half as much as I enjoyed my pastrami on rye.

Katz’s Deli marked the end of my week in Manhattan and my knish adventure. I can’t wait to go back and try more amazing Jewish delis!

Comments (36)Post a Comment

  1. I love 2nd Avenue deli, my cousin lives in New York and we used to go there all the time. Their chulent is really special.

  2. I’m glad you liked 2nd Ave Deli the best (or so it seems). It is by far my favorite Kosher Deli in the world (and I have been to a few). There are still a could of kosher ones around other than the 2nd Ave, but not many.

    Enjoy!

  3. Try Ben’s Kosher Delicatessin, NYC, The food was great. My daughter had a side order of potato latke’s. They were 2 that filled the whole plate. The pastrami and corned beef was also awesome.

  4. I currently live in Memphis but spent most of my life in NY and LI.
    I loved the 2nd Ave deli which is the most kosher of your grouping of Delis with Zabar’s, where my father Sam worked for 49 years, an outstanding food emporium with a number of kosher products.

    I never have had the good fortune of being in NY and getting to go to the 2nd Ave deli since its revival and opening in its current location. The crowds were too great on “opening day”.
    My anecdote re: the 2nd Ave deli—-
    In the 1980′s after being casted and immobile for weeks from an achilles tendon rupture, my cast was eventually shorted. It took me quite a bit of time but I crutched my way from 1st and 14th where I lived to 2nd and 10th where I indulged in Mushroom Barley Soup, a braised turkey wing and 2 sides (kashe varnishkes and egg barley with mushrooms. I salivate thinking about it. I loved the pastrami sandwiches and knishes I ate there over the years.

    An aside: Yona Schimmel’s knishes–a pure knish store (and kosher) is very near Katz’s which was near Ratner’s, a dairy restaurant of quality I worked in for 3 years worth of Sundays.

    Thanks for your blog.

  5. My husband and I spent early shabbat reading your blog. We had such fun remembering the different delis and what we had eaten and liked or not. Thanks for the wonderful memories! I look forward to your recipe for potato knishes!

  6. If you only gained 2 pounds, then you really are a shiksa ;)

    I really enjoyed reading about your deli tour. Actually, Juniors has a nice deli sandwich (not Katz’s or 2nd Ave, but good). We also love the cheesecake.
    When you return, you really do need to get out the Brighton Beach, Brooklyn boardwalk for a knish.

  7. For a good knish you have to go to Yona schimel on the east side of NY.Now 80 I remember the good Deli, knish places of NY.

  8. So glad you all enjoyed this blog! Phil, you’re right, I did like 2nd Avenue best. Not only is it kosher, it’s got a great family-run feel to it. Feels like home. Debbie, I plan on getting out to Brooklyn next time for sure!

    Stanley, I’ve heard from some people that Yonah Schimmel is great, but others say it’s gone downhill. I wish I could have tried it but I ran out of time– too many meetings this time around. Next trip, for sure!

  9. I was thinking after reading part 2 that the round knishes can also be made with a cookie cutter then seal 2 together with filling inside around edges. Just a thought.
    I plan to make these for my husband one day soon. I am a shiska and am very proud to be one.

  10. I enjoyed reading your article. I have been living in Israel for many years (stemming from the Bronx) but whenever I return for a visit to relatives and friends in NY we have a date at the 2nd Ave.Deli (superb pastrami on rye – and my husband (deceased- always ordered the ‘flanken’. Then we would make a trip to Houston Street and second ave.for Yona Schimmel’s knishes , the best. It always gives meafeeling of de ja vue ( and nostalgia) since the decor is exactly the same as it was way back in the 30′s and 40′s , the dumbwaiter and all.The only change was the greater variety of knish fillings.

  11. I grew up in the Catskills..heart of the borsht belt…BY FAR THE BEST KINISH EVER WAS MADE BY RUBY THE KINISH MAN

    Has anyone found a place that make a kinish like his or the recipe …both his dough and filling were the best ever

    those were the days !

  12. I never missthe 2nd Ave Deli on my visits to NY from Israel where I have been living for the past 50+ years. I have not yet been to the new site on 33rd. but will try it on my next visit . My husband loved the flanken soup but I always went for the unbeatable pastrami on rye with the delicious side dishes of cole slaw and pickles. My mouth waters just in the thinking!!
    I hope the new location still keeps the old touch.

  13. Being a history buff myself, more specifically of the Jewish Immigrant experience in the USA, I loved your (live) reporting on the New York delis. I’ve been at the 2nd Avenue Deli, at their old place. But I felt as if I was at each location you so perfectly describe. I only hope that you have an active, long term subscription to Jack La Lanne (For illustrative purposes only.). What all that “Noshing” can do to your waistline.
    BTW. You don’t look like a “Shiksa” at all. You look very JFB. (Jewish From Birth.).

  14. Flaky not greasy which means not deep fried. Now can you find a good Bialy in LA, CA for us. Manhattan Bagels(franchises) are mostly owned by Koreans now and are OK. Western Bagel’s Bialys suck though they now have whole wheat bagels in several varieties. Most LA Delis have feeble Bialys.

  15. @nd Ave Deli has gone way down hill since moving ……When Abe own it …the place was special …… they tryied to stay with the way Abe would have run it after he was murdered but it started going down hill even then…..After the move ….oy …not so good

  16. If you haven’t tried it already, the next time you go to NYC try the knishes at Knish Nosh in Queens. I hear their other food isn’t worth trying, but the knishes are still tops.

  17. I want a constitutional amendment that says no pastrami, corned beef, or bagels are allowed to be created outside of Manhattan.

    I’m from Nebraska. We have the best steaks in the world, but our pastrami is mediocre at best. Our bagels have no connection to real bagels.

    I guess it’s time to get on a plane!

  18. Reins NY Deli in Vernon, CT (exit 65) just northeast of Hartford has THE BEST meat knishes I’ve ever had. Can I find these in NYC?

  19. I hope you are still checking in on this site.

    I was looking for a recipe for Jewish style coleslaw and I ran across your site. The coleslaw recipe I am looking for appears to the type that 2nd Ave. Deli has pictured on your site.

    Is there a chance that you have a recipe for that style of coleslaw. I have looked on the net and found many recipes, but I don’t remember the coleslaw that I had many years ago having mayo in it. All the recipes I have run across have mayo in them.

  20. You were so close to the perfect Knish while you were at Katz Kosher Style Deli. Too bad you did not walk off some of that 2 lbs a few short blocks to Rabbi Yona Schimmel’s, Kinisher to the stars. Pure Kosher small and packed but, take this goy’s word, the best Knish and Latkes on the planet.

  21. I checked this lovely site hoping to find the deli i saw in a recent documentary. Missed the title but it was about classical musicians around the world; Australia, Finland and the US. In the US there were some wonderful Jewish musicians eating at a wondrous deli. Manhattan I thought, but one of the violinists said all the cholesterol was balanced by the sheer joy and pleasure when eating the food. I agree. The House of Cholesterol the deli may be but it is far outweighed by the pleasure.
    One day I will sing with Danny Luv from Sammy’s.

  22. When I was a kid in the 60s, I went to Brighton Beach everyday in the summer. Right under the subway tracks was Mrs. Stahl’s Knishes. These were legendary and to die for. Potato, Apple, Cherry Cheese, Cabbage, Kasha and Pletzels. We would usually get one to eat on the subway on the ride home at the end of the day. I heard they started making some other fillings in later years.

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