Ask a random New Yorker about the best delis in the city and you might be met with a dismissive response. Partially that’s on you, because what are you doing bothering strangers? More significantly, it could be a reflection of delis’ decline over the last few decades. Today many people seem to fall into one of two opposing yet equally upsetting sides of the culinary aisle: The traditionalists who hold over your head that you’ve missed out on the heyday of deli culture; and the healthy, who hold over your head that a deli’s fatty goodness is killing you from the inside. However, a handful of the landmarks continue to thrive (e.g. Katz’s), while innovators willing to disregard orthodoxy (e.g. Mile End) are creating healthier and diverse incarnations of the standard offerings. To keep you from harassing pedestrians, please enjoy this list of some of the best delis in the city.
9. Eisenberg’s Sandwich Shop
With a slogan boasting that it’s been “Raising New York’s Cholesterol Since 1929,” Eisenberg’s Sandwich Shop endearingly owns the glaring downside of great deli food. But the rich flavor of its pastrami and the refreshing novelty of Eisenberg’s popular egg cream, make total defiance of your cardiologist so worth it. Besides, we’ll all be dead someday anyway.
8. Sarge’s Deli
The city sorely missed its sole 24-hour deli when it a grease fire in 2012 shut it down for more than a year. Thankfully it reopened in early 2014, restoring a sense of comfort about having the option to order a pastrami omelet at three A.M.
7. Barney Greengrass
Lovers of smoked fish must visit the Upper West Side institution Barney Greengrass, a.k.a. “The Sturgeon King.” The bare, rickety decor might give you a cold, hollow feeling you can’t quite place, but then the food comes and ennui disappears. Highlights include the salmon and lox with eggs, while many patrons loudly praise the chopped liver. Personally, I love the blintzes, which burst with flavor.
6. B&H Dairy
This sliver of a kosher vegetarian restaurant has been an East Village staple since it opened about 60 years ago. Its matzo ball soup is among the best in the city, and is only enhanced when paired with readily available challah bread. And no matter what you do, make sure you order the latkes every single time you go.
5. David’s Brisket House
Here’s something novel: a great Jewish deli owned and run by a Muslim family. Jewish immigrants founded this Bed-Stuy staple before a Muslim partner in the business eventually took David’s Brisket House over in the 1980s. Ruminate on the niceness of story as you await your cheesesteak made with brisket. And at $8, this exceptional sandwich is likely the cheapest entree option in this whole bunch.
4. Carnegie Deli
Carnegie’s signature sandwiches are so big they almost feel hostile. The stacks of meat between the bread are Sisyphean. It’s worth noting the sandwich named after Woody Allen—featuring a combination of corn beef and pastrami—as a particular favorite, recalling how it being merely named after him was once so exciting, back when you identified with him for hating yourself, before you had to wonder if you should hate yourself for identifying with him. Point is, memories.
3. Mile End Deli
Like a secular Jew walking through Hasidic Williamsburg, the lack of orthodoxy on the menu at Mile End Deli might invite looks of confused familiarity. While Montreal-style kosher dishes are available, this artisanal deli also offers modern touches, like a rotating selection of craft beers. So Brooklyn. The smoked and cured beef brisket is a menu highlight, as is the poutine: a Montreal specialty of fries topped with cheese curds, and slathered in smoked gravy. They also have a second location in NoHo, which serves Chinese dinners on Sunday nights.
2. 2nd Avenue Deli
When 2nd Avenue deli closed the doors to its original location a few years ago, it might have seemed another sad indication of a dwindling scene. Fortunately it reopened in a new location shortly after, and shows no signs of going anywhere. While Katz’s atmosphere makes for a more eventful experience, no deli rivals 2nd Avenue for taste. The food in this cozy, diner-like setting is as thoroughly flavorful as it ever was. Sandwiches are leaner than at Katz’s, with meat that’s thinly sliced and less fatty. Elsewhere on the menu, the salty, buttery core of their matzo balls is always a nice surprise. Bonus points for the shit ton of pickles you get.
1. Katz’s Delicatessen
No mention of Katz’s would be complete without a nod to Meg Ryan’s orgasm-faking scene in When Harry Met Sally, which happens at this Lower East Side institution. But gawking at a movie set is not why you’re here—though from the meandering lines, to the deft meat carvers, to the owner occasionally wandering around to say hello, there’s a fair bit of welcome theater. When you enter, you’re herded into Katz’s clattering mess hall like the cattle you’ll soon be consuming. Order lumpy mounds of peppered pastrami or corned beef—the only kind in the city still carved by hand—stacked high on rye. Once you’ve gotten your sandwich and a can of Dr. Brown’s Cel Ray soda, sit down and exhale before rewarding yourself with complementary "half-sour” and “full-sour” pickles. It’s good enough to make you say, “Now THAT’S what she was having!” Please don’t say that though.