Home » My Favorite Jewish Delis and Restaurants in North America

My Favorite Jewish Delis and Restaurants in North America

Traveling Gourmet

by Jeff Heilman
Canter’s Deli (Photo by Canter's Deli)

Delicatessen food is not just about taste; it's about tradition and community.

Canter’s Deli (Photo by Canter's Deli)

The appeal of the deli extends far beyond sandwiches alone. It embraces a world of culinary treasures, from hearty soups and stews to decadent salads brimming with fresh produce and savory toppings.

Organized and first presented by L.A.’s renowned Jewish museum the Skirball Cultural Center, before traveling to the New-York Historical Society, the recent “I’ll Have What She’s Having”: The Jewish Deli exhibition, named for Meg’s Ryan’s fake climax scene at Katz’s Deli in When Harry Met Sally, paid moving tribute to an iconic culinary story born of diaspora.

Historic photographs and artifacts depicted how the two million-plus Jewish immigrants that emigrated to the U.S. and Canada from the Rhineland and then Eastern Europe and Russia between 1880 and 1924 adapted and amalgamated their culinary traditions in their new home. The delicatessen, loosely translated from the German for “a place to find delicious things to eat,” and selling mainly meats, and the kosher appetizing store, specializing in fish- and milk-based dishes, became cornerstones of American food culture. Sadly, these beloved institutions are in alarming decline. According to Ted Merwin, author of Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli,” NYC, once home to some 1,500 delis, is down to around 20.

Bagelmania (photo by JpegPhotographer)

Bagelmania (photo by JpegPhotographer)

Gone but never forgotten icons include Carnegie Deli, Ratner’s, Ben’s Best, and Jay & Lloyd’s. Lamented closures in Los Angeles, another deli stronghold, include Drexler’s, Greenblatt’s, Billy’s, and Jerry’s.

By some estimates, only around 150 delis remain in North America, which acutely accentuates the inestimable culinary and cultural importance of the surviving landmarks. In her opening remarks, Skirball curator Cate Thurston described the Jewish deli as “a community centered on food—a secular synagogue, if you will, that connects and welcomes all who have ever found comfort at the bottom of a bowl of matzo ball soup.”

From heim, Yiddish for home, heimish describes the cozy and familiar, cooking included. With heimishe front and center on the menu, you’ll want what I’ve had at these touchstone, torch-bearing treasures.

RUSS & DAUGHTERS (New York City)
Many early Jewish immigrants started out as street vendors. One such entrepreneur was Polish émigré Joel Russ. Coming to Manhattan’s Lower East Side in 1907, where an estimated three-quarters of all Eastern European Jewish immigrants settled in the U.S., Russ spent the next seven years selling schmaltz herring, working his way up from a barrel to a pushcart to a horse and wagon.

In keeping with the trend of creating brick and mortar locations with counter service, Russ opened his appetizing store in 1914 before relocating around the corner to its present location. Russ’s three daughters, Hattie, Ida, and Anne, all worked in the shop as teenagers. In 1935, he made them full partners and in an unprecedented and controversial move, created the first U.S. business with “& Daughters” in its name.

Crowned by its evocative 1951 neon sign featuring the business name bookended by whitefish, the original shop is a siren call for the finest herring, smoked and cured salmon, roe, caviar, house-baked breads, and other specialty fare. Becoming the fourth-generation owners in 2009, cousins Josh Russ Tupper and Niki Russ Federman celebrated the 100th anniversary of the “House that Herring Built” in 2014 by opening sit-down Russ & Daughters Cafe on nearby Orchard Street.

Decorative aluminum ribbing, lightbox shelving boldly lettered with the names of classic fare, and other fetching design elements set the stage for superb noshes, platters, soups, and more. Sit at the front counter and watch the open kitchen action or kibitz in a vinyl booth for an essential, consummate NYC dining experience. My favorites, including the potato latkes with wild salmon roe and crème fraiche, and the trio of fish platters named for Russ’s daughters, dazzle every time.

For leftovers, the replica 1950’s paper bag printed with wood-type letters is a great souvenir. Additional locations include the Brooklyn Navy Yards and Hudson Yards. Store: 179 E. Houston St, NYC; Cafe: 127 Orchard Street, NYC. Tel: 212- 475-4880. russanddaughters.com

KATZ’S DELICATESSEN (New York City)
Count my eldest son Alexander among the devotees of America’s oldest deli. He gets Katz’s for all the right reasons. “When people line up and walk in that door, whether it’s 2 P.M. or 2 A.M., they bring the energy of the street in with them,” he noted on our most recent pilgrimage. “Inside, the communal vibe is like being in a play or a movie.”

Katz’s has been a true NYC production since day one. Originated as the Iceland Brothers kosher deli by two namesake siblings, this Lower East Side icon became Iceland & Katz when Willy Katz joined in 1903. When his cousin Benny came aboard in 1910, they bought out the Icelands and in 1917, renamed the business Katz’s Deli, adding Harry Tarowsky as a partner.

Sign at Katz's Deli (Photo by Leonard Zhukovsky)

Sign at Katz’s Deli (Photo by Leonard Zhukovsky)

Katz’s found lasting footing as a community hub. Dinner of franks and beans was a Friday night tradition. Actors and entertainers energized the restaurant during Yiddish theater’s peak years. In the 1930’s, Katz’s moved across the street to its present location to make way for subway construction, adding its neon-lit façade in the late 1940’s.

Amid runaway development, Katz’s, operated since 1988 by the Dell family shines on as a beacon of another age. Akin to a rite of passage, the experience can be like the subway at rush hour. Take (and don’t lose) your ticket, and pivot right for hot dogs or left to jockey for position in the eight “cutter” lanes. While waiting, soak in the hustle and bustle and look for artifacts like the overhead placard pointing to the When Harry Met Sally table. Another sign memorializes the slogan “Send A Salami to Your Boy in the Army,” coined during WW2 by the owners when they mailed food to their sons overseas.

The ace counter men assemble up to 4,000 sandwiches a day, including slow brined corned beef, brisket, and turkey, but the meat of the matter for me is the pastrami. Salt-cured, spice-rubbed, smoked, boiled, steamed, thin-sliced against the grain, and piled high on rye with extra mustard, each pepper-crusted bite sends me places. And don’t get me started on the dill pickles. Boisterous and resilient, Katz’s is NYC quintessence defined. 205 East Houston Street. Tel: 212-254-2246. katzsdelicatessen.com

LANGER’S DELICATESSEN-RESTAURANT (Los Angeles)
In 2002, the late Nora Ephron, who scripted When Harry Met Sally, wrote an essay about Langer’s titled “A Sandwich.” Published in The New Yorker, her love letter celebrates “the finest hot pastrami sandwich in the world.” A decade earlier, legendary L.A. Times restaurant critic Jonathan Gold wrote, “The fact is inescapable: Langer’s probably serves the best pastrami sandwich in America.”

In 2021, current L.A. Times food chronicler Bill Addison named Langer’s to Gold’s prestigious “101 Best Restaurants in LA” list. Describing the sandwich in question, the No. 19, as “an unorthodox but nonetheless holy union of hand-carved pastrami, Swiss cheese, coleslaw and Russian dressing,” Addison declared that “it should be named the official sandwich of Los Angeles.”

The No. 19 at Langer's Deli (Photo by Langer's Deli)

The No. 19 at Langer’s Deli (Photo by Langer’s Deli)

To borrow from Ephron, the “soft but crispy, tender but chewy, peppery but sour, smoky but tangy” No. 19 truly stands apart. Served hot on Langer’s signature “re-baked” crispy-crust rye, this melt-in-your-mouth classic is my regular lunch stop direct from LAX.

Langer’s has also earned its stripes in other ways. After arriving in New York from Odessa, Russia in 1905, Harry and Rose Langer settled in Newark, NJ, where they had three boys. All three worked, including Al, who became an in demand counter man. In 1936, the family moved to L.A., where Al continued to hone his craft. After opening a deli in Palm Springs, he returned to L.A., got married, and served in WW2. In 1947, he purchased a small deli by historic MacArthur Park and renamed it Langer’s.

Becoming a darling of the Hollywood crowd in the 1950’s and 1960’s, Langer’s later weathered the vicissitudes of changing demographics and neighborhood decline. Taking an active role in civic turnaround, the business, open Monday to Saturday from 8 A.M. to 4 P.M., flourishes today under Al’s son Norm and his wife Jeannette. 704 South Alvarado, Los Angeles. Tel: 213-483- 8050. langersdeli.com

CANTER’S DELI (Los Angeles)
In 1924, Ben, Joe, and Ruby Canter opened Canter Brothers delicatessen in Jersey City, NJ. Following the 1929 crash, they ventured west and opened a new namesake shop in Boyle Heights, then the heart of Jewish Los Angeles. In 1953, following an earlier move in 1948, Ben relocated the renamed Canter’s Fairfax to the former Esquire Theater, its home ever since.

This time capsule food temple is 24/7 heimishe defined. “We are like home for many customers,” said third-generation co-owner Jacqueline Canter by phone. “They are like family, and like our parents and grandparents before us, my brother Marc and I are here seven days a week for them.”

Familiar faces, including long-time staffers, go back generations. “People who ate here as kids now bring their children and grandchildren,” said Canter. “We offer comfort and care, which started with my grandparents feeding people in need during the Depression.” In true mitzvah spirit, she took one customer chicken soup when he was hospitalized.

Adding a second dining room in 1959, and the legendary Kibitz Room cocktail lounge in 1961, Canter’s, otherwise barely unchanged, is an authentic step back into 1950’s L.A.

“The room was all but camera ready for Mad Men,” said Canter, who appeared as an extra in Curb Your Enthusiasm’s “Blind Date” episode, also filmed here. Curb’s Richard Lewis is among a long parade of celeb regulars, dating back to Marilyn Monroe. The Kibitz Room’s rocking legacy goes from The Doors to the many legends who later jammed on the small stage. Guns ‘n Roses were regulars, guitarist Slash is a family friend, and Bob Dylan’s son Jakob launched his career here.

For me, the house-made double-baked caraway rye is the star attraction and foundation for mighty sandwiches like the Fresser (Yiddish for “eat voraciously”) that features hot corned beef and pastrami piled extra high. The pickles, matzoh ball soup, and other original recipes are history on the plate. 419 North Fairfax Avenue, Los Angeles. Tel: 323-651-2030. cantersdeli.com

SECOND HELPINGS

Founded in 1961 by transplanted New Yorker Harry Perlstein, Perly’s Restaurant & Delicatessen was a fixture of the Richmond, VA dining scene. Stunned by its sudden closure in 2013, locals rejoiced a year later when restaurateur Kevin Roberts and his wife Rachelle revived the Art Deco gem. “It’s Yiddish for Delicious” with spins on tradition like the Benny Goodman: potato latkes with smoked salmon, poached eggs, dill hollandaise, and salmon roe. Playful cocktails include the “Larry David,” blending vodka or gin with house made celery soda, the famous “Jewish Champagne.” 111 E Grace Street. Tel: 804-912-1560. perlysrichmond.com

Potatoes Latkes (Photo by Fascinadora)

Potatoes Latkes (Photo by Fascinadora)

Established by Romanian immigrant Reuben Schwartz as the “Montreal Hebrew Delicatessen,” smoked meats shrine Schwarz’s Deli has held court on “The Main” in the heart of Mile End, Montreal’s original Jewish stronghold since 1928. The pastrami here is marinated for 10 days in herbs and spices that local writer Mordecai Richler described as a “maddening aphrodisiac” marketable as “Nectar of Judea.” It’s smoked overnight in a brick oven infused with decades of build-up, and steamed all day, making the pastrami on rye with yellow mustard your reward for the customary long line. Fun fact: Celine Dion is a co-owner. 3895 Boulevard St-Laurent. Tel: 514-842-4813. schwartzsdeli.com

When in Vegas, I get my deli fix at relative newcomer Siegel’s Bagelmania. Serving New York-style boiled bagels and home-made nosh since 1989, this Midcentury Modern-inspired bakery and deli offers a full menu of dine-in and to go classics. Highlights include East Coast lox, nova, and white fish; chicken noodle soup; and piled-high sandwiches. In true Vegas style, Siegel’s hosted the second annual Bagel Eating Championship on National Bagel Day this January. Eight-time Coney Island hot dog champ Joey Chestnut won, wolfing down 15 bagels with cream cheese in eight minutes. There’s also a satellite location at Harry Reid International Airport’s Terminal 1. 252 Convention Center Drive. Tel: 702-369-3322. siegelsbagelmania.com

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