When you arrive in New York, for your first time or after being away for a while, you want a taste of what makes the city unique. Sure, you could pop into one of those hip bastions of dining where everything’s pickled or ensconced in some kind of obscure animal fat but, really, aren’t they doing that in most food cities these days? What you crave is the sort of thing that doesn’t push the envelope in any way; you want comfort food, New York City style, served gruffly yet with an inscrutable sort of love. What you crave is the 2nd Avenue Deli.
It was never my intention to choose the 2nd Avenue Deli for our first meal back after six months away. But there we were on the Upper East Side (where we were staying) and the 2nd Avenue Deli was just down the street. And that made sense, didn’t it, for someone who’s been subsisting on farro salads and tacos here on the west coast. We needed a deli:
I suspect some of you might point out that L.A. has wonderful delis too, most notably Langer’s which (presumably) serves the best pastrami in the country. But that’s not really the point. The point is that in L.A., I don’t crave pastrami–the weather’s not right, the mood’s not right. In New York, on a chilly February night (though not as chilly as we were expecting) deli food is absolutely the correct thing to eat.
When you sit down at the 2nd Avenue Deli (which, I should reveal here, isn’t really on 2nd Avenue; neither is the other location) you’ll notice a container of spicy mustard on the table and a laminated menu set before you. Here’s Craig modeling his:
Is there really a tasting menu? No, definitely not. But I titled my post that because if you order what we ordered it pretty much IS a tasting menu for far less money than you’d normally spend on a tasting menu. The trick is to order a soup and half a sandwich (for $16). If you do that, you’ll be treated to crunchy, vinegary coleslaw:
A lovely selection of pickles (including a pickled tomato, which I never eat–I’m a cucumber pickle dude):
(I probably never told you that my grandmother–my mother’s mother–used to sell pickles at the Roosevelt Field flea market on Long Island. Her 2nd husband, my grandpa Joe, owned a pickle factory called Stern’s Pickles. One day I’ll tell you more about it.)
Next comes that soup which you see in the lead photo—a matzoh ball soup with a matzoh ball so light and fluffy you could tie it to your house and fly away like the guy in “Up.” The broth is light but flavorful (we once ordered a jar of it delivered to our apartment when Craig had a cold–it’s the ultimate cold cure) and it’s presented the way they might present soup at a fancier restaurant: the matzoh ball and carrots in the big empty bowl, the broth in a metal container that’s then poured out by your waitress in dramatic fashion. It’s dramatic because it seems like that boiling broth might spill over the sides but it’s the perfect amount.
When it’s time for your half sandwich, I say go with the corned beef (though pastrami is a fine choice too). Slather it with that spicy mustard:
You could even ask for some extra bread and make a whole sandwich out of your half sandwich–there’s so much meat in there, it would certainly work. At the 2nd Avenue Deli the corned beef is lean, incredibly tender and still warm as you bite into it. If that doesn’t scream “Welcome To New York” as you’re eating it, I don’t know what does.
But what rounded out the “tasting menu” for us was this very kind gesture from the waitress. She brought us each a shot of an egg cream and rugelach for dessert:
I asked her if every table got this and she said, “Only tables that I like.” Some New York sass to boot!
It’s easy for food people who plan their trips around food to forget that newer doesn’t necessarily equal better. Sometimes it’s the stuff that a city is famous for–in this case, deli food–that’s worth seeking out for your first meal there. Save the dehydrated pork belly with pickled fennel stems for Day 2.