Order Smarter at Jewish Delis

Rachel Tepper Paley

Every cuisine has its most famous dishes, every diner her go-to dish. But even your beloved pad Thai/cheese enchiladas/Alaska roll can get a little tired. Break out of that ordering rut with the help of smartypants experts who know all the menu’s secret tricks and gems.

Photo credit: ercwttmn/Flickr

Sometimes telling your waiter, “I’ll have what she’s having" isn’t the best ordering strategy at a Jewish delicatessen.

At these schmaltz-splashed institutions, navigating the menu can get tricky when you stray from the standard matzoh ball soup and latkes. You don’t want to end up with, say, dry pastrami! (Feh!) We asked Nick Wiseman, co-owner of the modern-styled DGS Delicatessen in Washington, D.C., what he looks for in a good deli (as opposed to an appetizing shop, which sells no meat)—and how to avoid wasting precious calories on dry corned beef.

Find out where the restaurant buys its meat. “Very few of the delicatessens buy their beef well,” Wiseman lamented. When it comes to sourcing excellent meat, diners should expect the same quality they might at a high-end steakhouse, he said. “It’s that process that makes the product so good.”

Be wary of photographs on the wall. Unless you’re dining in an iconic locale like 2nd Avenue Deli, Polaroids of the owner and smiling patrons plastered to every square inch of wall space may be a bad sign. Many newer places seek to cash in on the aesthetic, which is associated with older, more lauded restaurants. “It’s more kitsch than quality,” Wiseman said.

The pastrami at DGS Delicatessen in Washington, D.C. Photo credit: DGS Delicatessen/Facebook

Find out how long, exactly, the pastrami took to make. “A lot of people say they make their pastrami in-house, but that often means they just steam it in-house,” Wiseman said. There’s a whole lot more to making pastrami than steaming it: At DGS, Wiseman soaks pastrami in brine for a full week before rubbing it with black pepper and coriander. After that he smokes it for six hours, then gives it a 24-hour “rest.” Only then does he steam it for about five hours. (Pro tip: If the waiter tells you the pastrami is made in-house, ask how long the process takes. If the answer he gives is a day or shorter, something is fishy.)

Avoid the weird pastry-filled display cases. Wiseman admits that he has a bias against them—”I have an inner compulsion not to like those things”—but it’s not without reason. Often, these displays are filled with day-old pastries from unremarkable bakeries, or worse, a stiff cheesecake glistening with beads of condensation. “I just hate those things,” said Wiseman.

Keep a sharp eye peeled for pickles. Pickles—preferably lounging in a large, brine-filled jar up front—are a must-have. Does the waiter know if they’re full sours? Half sours? A tangy new pickle? Are pickled green tomatoes on offer? The more she knows, the better. “If they can explain what a full sour is, you’re good,” Wiseman said. (And that’s what you want to get; few places do better by pickles than a Jewish deli.)

Pickles at Carnegie Deli in New York City. Photo credit: Marie-Lan Nguyen/Flickr

Check if the rye is double-baked. DGS orders its rye bread from local bakery, but re-bakes it for 20 minutes before slicing it for sandwiches. “It’s an old trick,” Wiseman said, and “the only way to get good crust.” 

Spaghetti shouldn’t be on the menu. Ever. You can bet that a deli that tries to appeal to every single palate is slacking in the corned beef department. “They try so hard to make everyone happy,” Wiseman said. But in the end, no one is. “They think, ‘we might as well have flatbreads and guacamole.’” Which would be meshuganah

Order the egg cream. The soda fountain classic, a fizzy drink of seltzer water, whole milk, and chocolate syrup, is a must. ”If you don’t [drink it], you’re missing out,” Wiseman explained. Though the drink has waned in popularity since its mid-20th-century heyday, Wiseman is intent upon bringing it back. “Some things shouldn’t be left in the past. To me, a good egg cream is as core [to the Jewish deli] as matzoh ball soup.”