I am not Jewish.* I have never lived in New York City.
However, for some reason, a lot of the foods I crave the most come from the culinary traditions of the Eastern European (Ashkenazi) Jewish community that are on display in so many delis, bakeries and shops in New York City. It drives me crazy that I can't find a decent bagel, smoked fish (salmon, sturgeon, whitefish, sable, you name it, I love them all), pickle, cheesecake or pastrami in San Francisco.
Maybe it's due to some sort of karmic connection that continually draws me back to New York? My grandparents lived on Long Island and my mother was raised there. My wife, N, grew up just across the GW Bridge. My college years were spent within striking distance of the city, just a short hop on the Shuttle (anyone remember People's Express?) or Amtrak from Washington, D.C., for many long and crazy weekends.
On my visit there last week, I made a special effort to seek out the best examples of two of these favorites, pastrami sandwiches and cheesecake.
I've had pastrami everywhere, from the infuriating Carnegie Deli to the crowded Katz's in New York, from Langer's and Nate n' Al in Los Angeles to Niman Ranch's version here. But nowhere have I had better pastrami than at the Second Avenue Deli.
Located on the Lower East Side, this deli is an institution. Unlike many of the other delis I've visited, Second Avenue Deli is glatt Kosher, so no dairy products are served. Thus, those of us with a weakness for the abomination known as the Reuben (in which the lily, usually corned beef but sometimes pastrami, is not only gilded but smothered to death and embalmed with the addition of thousand island dressing, Swiss cheese and sauerkraut) will not be tempted to stray from purity. Sorry N.
One taste of the pastrami here and you will be glad that nothing is there to interfere with the impossibly tender layers of juicy meat. It possesses a perfect balance of briny saltiness, peppery seasoning and creamy fat. A dab or two of deli mustard adds the right amount of zip and zing, but nothing else is needed. Aside, of course, from the two slices of caraway-studded rye bread that hold the whole thing together.
Lest I forget, the experience wouldn't be complete without Second Avenue's complimentary dish of sweet-and-sour coleslaw (no mayo) and my favorite bright green, crunchy half-sour pickles (full-sours and pickled green tomatoes are included, too).
Although I rarely have room, the mushroom-barley and matzoh ball soups are good here, and the potato latke with the obligatory applesauce isn't bad either.
But for real New York-style cheesecake you'll have to go elsewhere (remember, no dairy).
With Ed Levine's article in the New York Times as my guide, in which he tasted about 50 cheesecakes over the course of a month last year (poor Ed, such a hellish job), I sampled the cheesecake here that he called the "first among equals." Sure enough, just as promised, this cheesecake manages to achieve that elusive combination of creamy richness and ethereally light fluffiness, without being too sweet.
Just to make sure I was getting a taste of the finest New York has to offer, I stopped into another store on his list, Eileen's Special Cheesecake in SoHo, where I sampled a mini-cheesecake that, though amazing, was not quite as tasty as the slice I had at Two Little Red Hens. Or maybe, unlike Ed Levine, two cheesecakes in one day is too much for me.
* When I published this yesterday, I forgot to add my hearty wishes for all the best in the new year. Happy Rosh Hashanah!