The New York Adventure Part 6: Katz’s Delicatessen

I promise my wife and I didn’t schlep all the way to New York to just eat Jewish deli food for our tenth anniversary trip, although that remains a huge part of The City’s culture and history, as well as its appeal for both of us.  I might be a secular, non-practicing Jew, but that food fills me with nostalgia for my childhood, as well as for early-to-mid 20th Century Jewish big city experiences I feel and relate to strongly, despite not being born yet.  Does that make sense?

I’ve written before about how food embodies our shared human experiences: our history, our politics, our economics, art, science, even religion.  And while I rarely feel like I fit in anywhere, I feel a sense of belonging to something larger and greater than myself when I nosh on a knish, a bagel with pickled fish, or a pastrami sandwich.  My wife indulges me, and she appreciates the food as well.  It might not feel like as big a deal if we could get all the same food at the same quality level at home, but we can’t, so going to the iconic originals, the legendary landmarks, the places that have survived a century because they’re that damn good, is a big damn deal.

My family was not what you might call “of the travelers.”  My parents, both teachers in the Miami-Dade County Public Schools, were (and still are, in retirement) hard-working, patient, generous, and awesome, but we never took many trips when I was younger.  That’s why when we went to New York in the summer of 1991, it was the most profound and transformative experience of my life thus far.  My dad is from Brooklyn — specifically the East New York neighborhood that hasn’t been gentrified and hipsterized like so many other parts of the borough — so I feel like New York is in my blood, despite never having lived there.

That was a whirlwind trip, indulgent for all of us.  My brother and I had never even flown before.  We stayed near Central Park (and even took a horse-drawn carriage ride through the Park, which I do not recommend), visited family in Brooklyn, took in museums, made a pilgrimage to the legendary comic book store Forbidden Planet (much larger back then than it is now, enough to blow my middle school mind with its two floors).  On top of that, we ate at great Jewish delis of decades past that have long since closed their doors: the Stage Deli, the Carnegie Deli, and Lindy’s in Manhattan, and Grabstein’s in Brooklyn.  Despite everything in the City feeling more decrepit and dangerous back then, it was an awe-inspiring and unforgettable trip that made a huge impact on my life.  I had always romanticized New York from my dad’s stories about growing up, my lifelong obsession with DC and Marvel Comics, and my teenage love affairs with jazz and punk music.  But after seeing, feeling, and tasting it for myself that summer, New York changed me forever.  I desperately wanted to go to NYU for film school, but obviously that never happened.  I spent the next 15+ years fantasizing about a return trip and everything I would do, see, and eat there.

Even though my parents would never consider themselves “foodies” (and often wonder how the hell I ended up like I did), I think our original New York trip sowed the seeds of my own desire for culinary capers and appetizing adventures.  I finally made it back to New York with my wife while we were just dating, and the post-9/11 City felt much cleaner and safer than it did in 1991.  That time we took in my first real Broadway shows and visited maybe the most iconic New York delicatessen of all, Katz’s Delicatessen (https://katzsdelicatessen.com/).  And we returned again, to the City and to Katz’s, for our honeymoon a few years later, in 2009.  Finally, a decade later, we were back once more.

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Katz’s feels chaotic when you’re a laid-back Floridian.  When you go in, you get a ticket, and then you can either get in line with one of the meat cutters behind the counter, or wait for a table with a waiter, who is usually cartoonishly brusque and rude (and yet, strangely charming).  I told my wife to grab an open table outside of the waiters’ section, and I lined up.  As you can see, it’s kind of a free-for-all.  They’ve been doing this for over a hundred years, but could there possibly be a better way to get everyone in and out?DSC02186When you finally get to the front of the line, if you order pastrami, the cutter will cut you a small slice on a plate, for you to sample.  Make sure you have a buck on hand for the customary tip.  Keep in mind, because they hand-slice the meat at Katz’s, it comes out much thicker and juicier than most sandwich shops with thin, machine-sliced pastrami.  Normally I prefer my deli meats sliced thin, but there’s nothing like this.

Anyway, here it is, the finest pastrami sandwich known to man, hand-sliced right in front of me.  I asked for a little fattier, juicier pastrami — none of that lean stuff for us.  A little helpful hint from your friendly neighborhood Saboscrivner: When you’re at Katz’s, pay the $1 upcharge and get your sandwich on a CLUB ROLL, dig me?  The rye bread they use is essentially an edible napkin, because it barely holds up under the weight and greasy juices of the copious amounts of cured and smoked meats.  The club roll is delicious, and it supports the meat and condiments better.  Rye is for suckas.  DSC02183

This was a $23 sandwich, but two healthy, hungry people can easily split it and be satisfied.  I added some of their mustard to my half and even dabbed a bit in a small plastic cup of Russian dressing, meant for their Reubens, but my wife would do no such thing.  DSC02184

Pickles are included.  Just as I did on my previous visit, ten years ago on our honeymoon, I tried both kinds, but just couldn’t get into them.  I am truly trying to develop a taste for pickles, but kosher dills and half-sours just don’t tickle my pickle.  DSC02185

Anyway, leaving is a whole big production, because you have to present your ticket when you leave, then weave through the hangry crowd to get to the front.  But here’s another helpful hint: If you’re paying with a credit card, pay in the back.  We went to the front and waited to check out, only to find out they only accept cash up there.  Rather than force my wife to hustle back through the hungry, hangry hordes, I was lucky I had some sock money on hand (or in sock, to be accurate), so we settled up and escaped.

Katz’s can be an exhausting experience — I definitely wouldn’t go there for a chill, relaxing meal — but there is no better pastrami sandwich to be had in New York, which means there is no better pastrami sandwich to be had anywhere else.

The New York Adventure Part 5: Russ & Daughters Cafe

Russ & Daughters Cafe (http://www.russanddaughterscafe.com/) opened for business in 2014, but it still feels like a time capsule of old-school Jewish New York, particularly representative of the early 20th Century Lower East Side.  And it should, because the original Russ & Daughters “appetizing store” is still going strong after opening over 100 years ago, in 1914.  The sit-down cafe appropriately opened a full century later, with gleaming retro interiors, luxurious booths, and tantalizing displays, reminiscent of the original.  dsc02160.jpgDSC02163

This was another pilgrimage for me.  My wife and I have been to New York more than once before and even hung out in the Lower East Side, but never made it to the original Russ & Daughters storefront.  The more accessible and comfortable Cafe didn’t even exist when we were last there for our honeymoon in 2009.  So I studied the menu in advance, determined to do it right.

I started us out with two mini potato knishes, which case with some nice deli mustard.  I’m much more of a knish guy than my wife, and since I didn’t indulge in knishes at Ess-A-Bagel or Junior’s, I figured it was now or never.  They did not disappoint.  They were very soft, with a nice oniony flavor in the potato filling and a soft, yielding dough shell I could cut with the side of my fork.  If you don’t know from knishes, those baked (or occasionally fried) pockets of dough stuffed with potatoes or other fillings, I highly recommend them, especially if you’re anything like me and sometimes crave a mustard delivery device.  Publix has started carrying the Gabila’s brand in the frozen food section, and those are some of my favorites.  But these were no slouches.
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My wife ordered the Shtetl platter: an everything bagel with smoked sable, after I turned her onto it at Ess-A-Bagel.  While she said it was all very good, the bagel was smaller than Ess-A, and they skimped on the sable.  You can see the thin slices they served her, whereas Ess-A packed their much larger bagel with thicker slices and chunks of the good stuff.  I ended up with all her tomatoes and onions, as well as the goat cream cheese, which was a little funky for her tastes, despite how much she loves goats.  It wasn’t baaaaaaaaad.DSC02165

As the self-proclaimed Dean of Sardines, I am also a lifelong fan of pickled herring.  My family used to bring in bagels on Sunday mornings at our suburban Miami home, always with cream cheese, nova salmon, and a jar of Vita or Skansen brand pickled herring, and I have loved it ever since.  The most common kinds that you can even buy at Publix are boneless herring fillets, shiny and silvery, either in a wine and vinegar sauce or a sour cream sauce, both sweetened and packed with onions.  Definitely not something to serve or eat on a hot date, but way more delicious than they sound.  I guess they would have to be, right?

I was overjoyed to order a sampler platter with four different kinds of pickled herring to try: regular pickled (along the top), roll-mops (two long, thin fillets wrapped around pickled onions), schmaltz (fat) herring on the bottom left (cured in salt and sugar), and matjes herring on the bottom right (mature schmaltz herring cured for a longer period of time, tinted red by sandalwood).  The schmaltz herring was juicy but incredibly salty, even by pickled fish standards, and even by my own standards.  It was a bit much — still worth trying, but I definitely wouldn’t order it again.  DSC02167
Anyway, the platter came with a mound of sweet, vinegary pickled onions, surprisingly tasty pickled beets, and a sprig of fresh dill.

But wait, there’s more!  My herring platter also came with slices of soft, fresh-baked pumpernickel bread and three different dipping sauces: a creamy mustard sauce with dill (top), a thicker and sweeter mustard (left), and a sweet cream sauce (right).  I cleaned my plate, eating everything as a careful ritual: tear off a piece of pump, dip one side lightly in one of the sauces, add a piece of fish (never mixing the different kinds), top with pickled onions, repeat.  I think they brought just enough bread to cycle through all the different possible combinations and permutations.  It was good pumpernickel, and I have been craving more ever since.  In fact, I bought some upon returning home, but wouldn’t ya know it?  It was better in New York.  (Must be the water!)DSC02169

We left with these delightful little coffee-flavored hard candies from the Netherlands, a nice alternative to a mint (although after eating all that fish, a mint might have been better for my breath).dsc02173.jpg

Oh, here’s a bonus shot of the original Russ & Daughters appetizing store, the one that opened in 1914.  It was a short walk from the much newer Cafe, and an even shorter walk from the equally legendary Katz’s Delicatessen (which is coming, Saboscrivnerinos!).  I went inside just so I could have the experience, but it was a mad mob scene.  I took a number — 446 — but they had only just called 404.  There are no tables to eat anything there, and whatever I would have wanted to buy was perishable and would never have survived the voyage home, so I left empty-handed.DSC02191

I was very sad that the timing of our New York adventure occurred before June 12th, the start of the New Catch Holland Herring season at Russ & Daughters.  These are supposedly the best herrings in the world, and you eat them standing up, holding them by the tail and lowering them down into your mouth, like cartoon cats.  Back in that more innocent time when it was cool to like Louis C.K., he brought Parker Posey to Russ & Daughters on a date in an episode of Louie, and they ate the New Catch Herrings together.  Just like when he showcased Veselka on another episode of the show, I have wanted to go to there ever since.  Mission accomplished!

The New York Adventure Part 4: Xi’an Famous Foods

One of the restaurants I researched for our New York trip, after reading raves for years, was Xi’an Famous Foods (https://www.xianfoods.com/), a family-owned Chinese restaurant specializing in spicy noodle dishes, with eleven Manhattan locations, three in Queens, and one in Brooklyn.  From its humble beginning in a tiny mall basement food stall in Flushing, Queens, in 2005, Xi’an has grown into a familiar New York City institution.

According to the website, the city of Xi’an in northwestern China created a unique cuisine incorporating Middle Eastern influences and lots of spices, including mouth-numbing Szechuan peppercorns.  I have reviewed some of Orlando’s own Szechuan-influenced restaurants, Taste of Chengdu and Chuan Lu Garden, and I’m always a noodle fan, so I had to try Xi’an Famous Foods while I could.  Luckily, while we were touring our favorite museum, the always illuminating Museum of Modern Art, I looked out a second-floor window and saw a Xi’an location directly across the street!  It was meant to be.

Unfortunately, this location wasn’t the most accessible for my walker-wielding wife, who courageously climbed down a few steps to enter.  We took note of all of our “adventures in accessibility” in New York and realized how lucky we are that most buildings and businesses in Orlando are accessible for people with disabilities, compared to larger, older cities.  New York is still rad, but that was an ongoing issue throughout our trips, past and present.  But I digress.

Anyway, Xi’an Famous Foods posted its full menu on the wall inside, with photos — something we really appreciated, that I wish more restaurants would do.  DSC02149

My wife was a little intimidated by the promised spiciness, and the place was hopping with the lunch rush, so we compromised with me ordering my meal to go, to enjoy back in our room.  Chili oil leaked in the bag on the way back to our hotel and made a huge mess, which made photography difficult, but I did my best.

This was the dish I fantasized about in advance: hand-ripped wide biangbiang noodles with stewed oxtails.  Everyone warned me to order the noodles with the cumin lamb, and I do love cumin lamb, but oxtails win out.  DSC02152
That’s a dish I crave almost constantly, especially from Jamaican restaurants, despite indulging only once or twice a year.  I’ve made slow-braised oxtails at home too, but since she doesn’t care for them, it almost seems like more trouble than it’s worth.  Needless to say, these oxtails were much spicier than the Jamaican recipes I am used to, and I even ordered it mild (better safe than sorry, I figured).  They were tender and unctious, though, just as they should be from the slow stewing or braising process.  The noodles were delicious, with a great chewiness.

But since I’m also a cumin lamb fanboy, I had to try it too.  Luckily, Xi’an offers a spicy cumin lamb burger, a sandwich on a crispy flatbread bun that was like a cross between a pita and an English muffin, in terms of texture.  The bun didn’t do much for me, but the lamb was tender, flavorful, and very, very spicy.  I wimped out with the noodles, but felt I owed it to myself and to the cook to try something at maximum strength.DSC02156

Hello my baby, hello my honey, hello my ragtime gaaaaal!DSC02154Final thought on the famous cumin lamb: NOT BAAAAAAAD.

I wish I had more to say, but I just wish I could have tried more things.  I don’t think you can go wrong with anything atop these biangbiang noodles: not just oxtails or cumin lamb, but also spicy ground pork (like the dan dan noodles I love so much), stewed pork, spicy and sour pork belly, bone-in dark meat chicken, vegetables, and even plain noodles tossed in chili oil.  You can get most of the noodle dishes in soup as well, plus dumplings stuffed with spicy and sour lamb or spinach and vermicelli noodles, with or without soup.  Everything was very affordable, and as we could tell from the midday crowd, Xi’an Famous Foods must be a hot lunch spot for New Yorkers around the city (no pun intended).  I’m glad I finally got to feel the heat for myself.

The New York Adventure Part 3: Junior’s

One thing New Yorkers and well-traveled foodies always warn people about is to NEVER EAT IN TIMES SQUARE.  It’s tourist trap central, featuring comically-large, multi-story versions of national and worldwide chain restaurants.  That’s where you have your oversized Olive Garden, your astronomical Applebee’s, your stupendous S’barro (someone once said they have the best pizza in New York!), and I swear we passed some kind of combination prodigious Planet Hollywood and Brobdingnagian Buca Di Beppo.  (“I’M AT THE PLANET HOLLYWOOD!  I’M AT THE BUCA DI BEPPO!  I’M AT THE COMBINATION PLANET HOLLYWOOD AND BUCA DI BEPPO!”)

But when we took a cab down to the Richard Rodgers Theatre to see Hamilton (only the greatest musical of all time!), my wife and I both clocked Junior’s (https://www.juniorscheesecake.com/), another one of those legendary, old-school Jewish New York restaurants.  I was a little surprised to see it, because I thought Junior’s was a Brooklyn thing, and I knew we weren’t going to make it into Brooklyn on this trip.  I barely gave it a second thought, because on the rare times we go to concerts, plays, and stand-up performances at home, my wife is usually too tired to go out for a bite afterwards.  When I lived in Gainesville (go Gators!), I loved going out for food with my friends after a show.  To this day, food always tastes the best to me at night, after doing something fun.

But after being completely blown away by the awesomeness of Hamilton, my wife said she could eat, and we both immediately thought of how close we were to Junior’s.  It turns out there are two separate Junior’s locations in the Times Square/Broadway area, and they’re open late to accommodate the after-show crowd.  Little did we know that we would end up taking in a second Broadway show on this trip, or that we would end up at both Junior’s locations!  I’m so glad we did, though.  Since this was the only restaurant I didn’t research in advance, it ended up being the most pleasant surprise.

This is the 45th Street Junior’s location, at 1515 Broadway.  It looks old, but it was founded in 2006.  (The original location in Brooklyn was founded by Harry Rosen in 1950.)DSC02130

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Like so many of the iconic Jewish delis of decades past, Junior’s served us free cole slaw (good) and dill pickles (meh) for the table.DSC02132

My wife’s chocolate milkshake was good enough to bring anyone to the yard.  Dig that Junior’s glasses have instructions for mixing up the perfect egg cream, with seltzer, milk, and chocolate syrup (go Fox’s U-Bet or go home).dsc02134.jpg

I have to admit, I wasn’t expecting anything special when I ordered onion rings, but I am an onion ring aficionado, this is The Saboscrivner, and we have a little recurring feature on here called

[NEW YORK POLICE SIREN SAMPLE!]

RING THE ALARM!

And these were godly onion rings.  I didn’t know what to expect from their thick batter coatings, but they were crispy-yet-yielding on the outside, and soft on the inside, with a slight sweetness.  If I had to describe them, it was almost like a funnel cake-style batter, or like a really good old-fashioned sour cream cake doughnut, but with a crunchier outer layer — and of course not that sweet.  I’ve never had their equal and doubt I ever will again.DSC02136

This was the combination corned beef and pastrami Reuben sandwich we ordered to share in our post-Hamilton afterglow, and it was a winner.  The rye bread was buttered and lightly grilled to perfection, as opposed to too many Reubens where the bread is toasted hard to the point of being burned, and you can’t even take a bite without the sandwich flopping apart.  Both meats were sliced thin and lean, but this would not be our only pastrami experience on this trip, fear not.  DSC02137They served the Russian dressing on the side, which was great because my wife is always hesitant around sauces and condiments, whereas I generally love them, and I feel like we ended up with more this way.  Needless to say, some of my onion rings took a dip.

And finally, the piece de resistance — a slice of Junior’s famous blueberry cheesecake.  We both love cheesecake, and we both agreed this was the best cheesecake of our little lives — so much better than Florida mainstay Publix, and streets ahead of the Cheesecake Factory.  It was perfect in every way, to the point where I almost feel guilty posting this pic and raving about it, knowing my dozens of readers (baker’s dozens?) can’t just pop off to Junior’s to score a slice for themselves.  DSC02138

Our last day in New York, we realized we didn’t have any set plans for the evening, so we decided to see Chicago, a musical we had never seen live before.  We love the 2002 Best Picture-winning movie, though.  Since the Chicago revival is the longest continuously-running show in Broadway history (since 1996), it didn’t have the hype that Hamilton did, and were were lucky to score excellent and affordable fifth-row orchestra tickets.  It razzle-dazzled us, especially Desi Oakley, whose adorably sexy and hilarious lead performance as coquettish murderess Roxie Hart, blew away the A-list actress from the award-winning film.  Plus, we’ve been digging Fosse/Verdon, the FX miniseries about the mercurial director-choreographer and his dancer-actress-muse, and they aired their making-of-Chicago episode mere days before our New York arrival.  Call it fate, call it luck, call it karma, but I believe that everything happens for a reason!

Our luck just kept improving, because the Ambassador Theatre, where we saw Chicago, is right next to the other Times Square-area Junior’s location, 1626 Broadway at 49th Street, which opened in the summer of 2017.  And after how much we loved it the previous night, my wife was more than up for an encore performance.  This one featured the mid-century “space-age” design I love so much, that was so popular from the postwar years into the early 1960s.  It was cool to see this new version of the rotating “Junior’s” sign that the original location in Brooklyn has.  DSC02175

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My wife ordered something I probably never would have gone with, but it knocked our proverbial socks off: a brisket sandwich served on crispy-fried potato latkes, served with au jus and some of the freshest, chunkiest applesauce ever.  This thing was huge!  The brisket was pretty good (we’re both too used to smoked barbecued brisket, and this could have been improved by being a little fattier), but the latkes (AKA potato pancakes, goys and girls) were among the best we’ve ever had.  And yes, you eat them with applesauce.  DSC02180

I spend so much of my life thinking “What am I, chopped liver?” that along the way I became a big fan of the stuff.  I had yet to try chopped liver at any of our other NYC deli destinations, so tonight was the big night.  It came served simply, two big scoops with some thin slices of bread, which could have been toasted or grilled to hold up better to the weight and creamy richness of the chopped liver.  And as much as I love onions, raw red onion is a little much for me, so I left those alone.  DSC02181

I asked my wife if we were going to indulge in another slice of Junior’s heavenly cheesecake, but she was already enchanted by seeing a slice of red velvet cake being walked out to a nearby table.  She loves red velvet cake far more than I do, but hey, anniversary trip, and who am I to stand in the way of her continuing good times?  She loved it, and even I liked the bite I had.  Fear not, fearless readers — even the two of us, together at this late hour, couldn’t finish the whole supersized slice.  DSC02182

So that was Junior’s.  I hadn’t planned it into our schedule at all, but fate intervened, and we ended up there twice — two different nights, two separate locations.  And Times Square or not, tourist trap or not, everything we ordered transcended our expectations.

And here’s a helpful hint from your old pal The Saboscrivner: Orlando denizens, you CAN treat yo’selves to Junior’s cheesecake locally, at Pickles Deli in Longwood, on State Road 434 right off Exit 94.  They ship it in from New York and serve plain, raspberry swirl, chocolate “skyscraper,” and carrot cake “skyscraper” cheesecakes by the slice.  So forget the Factory and try Junior’s for yourselves.  Plus, Pickles is pretty great too.  Expect a review at some point this summer!

The New York Adventure Part 2: Veselka

On our first evening in New York City in ten years, we absolutely had to make a pilgrimage to The Strand, the four-floor bookstore that puts most other bookstores to shame.  We went there on our honeymoon back in 2009, and it seemed even larger this time, with a better selection.  After browsing for a while, marveling (no pun intended) at how their graphic novel selection had grown over the last decade, and buying my wife some books, I knew where we had to go for dinner.  After a Lyft ride we unexpectedly shared with another commuter (who seemed as surprised as we did), we ended up where we were supposed to be:

Veselka (https://www.veselka.com/), the 65-year-old Ukrainian restaurant I’ve wanted to visit since Louis C.K. took his TV daughters there for a late-night breakfast in the first season of Louie, before we knew what we now know about Louis C.K..  It was also one of Anthony Bourdain’s stops in his heartbreaking final episode of Parts Unknown, set in the East Village and Lower East Side.  It’s a counterculture hangout favored by local luminaries and celebrities for many decades, a place that radiates cool without trying to be cool at all.

Veselka is an East Village institution, a diner that opened in 1954 and has been open 24 hours a day, seven days a week since 1990.  The menu boasts American breakfast, lunch, and dinner classics as well as traditional Ukrainian specialties, which I figured I would stick to.  They also serve beer and wine.  Here are some of the specials of the week:DSC02111

My wife and I both love pierogies, and Veselka is pierogi paradise.  You can get them boiled or fried, and we opted for fried.  They have several varieties, so we went for a platter of four different ones: meat, potato, cheese, and truffle and mushroom (that one was all her).  Each one was better than the last, but I think we agreed the cheese one was the best, with a subtly sweet, creamy, farmer’s cheese filling.  The pierogies came garnished with applesauce, sour cream, and my beloved caramelized onions.  We didn’t expect that they would be crispy and bubbly on the outside, like old-school McDonald’s fried apple pies, since most pierogies I’ve had are sauteed in a pan with butter.  These were better than either of us could have imagined!DSC02104

My wife ordered chicken schnitzel, a breaded chicken breast cutlet that came with two sides.  She went safe, with fries and egg noodles, although it was a little disappointing the egg noodles didn’t come with butter.  They were just plain!DSC02105DSC02108

I had a hard time deciding, but since a lot of the Ukrainian specialties included mushrooms, I ultimately chose bigos, a hearty Eastern European dish I first tried many years ago at Hubert’s Polish Kitchen, a restaurant at the North Market in Columbus, Ohio, when there was snow on the ground.  It’s a salty, sweet, and sour sauerkraut-based stew that also includes kielbasa sausage, roast pork, and onions, and it is absolutely delicious, even in May.  I should learn to make this at home, I like it so much.  DSC02109

One of my sides was really creamy potato salad, loaded with dill and carrots, that worked well cutting the richness and saltiness of the bigos stew.DSC02110

And because I know my wife always loves it, I also ordered kasha, roasted and boiled buckwheat (O-TAY!), a traditional Jewish side dish often served with bowtie pasta (kasha varnishkes).  My mom used to make it a lot, when we were kids.  I think kasha is just okay, but my wife seemed to like Veselka’s version a lot.  We had no idea how huge the portions would be, so we had to help each other with all of this food.  DSC02106

My wife wasn’t blown away by her honey mint ginger iced tea.  It sounded refreshing, but it had a fierce gingery bite.  dsc02102-1.jpg

I, on the other hand, loved my vanilla egg cream, a sweet drink that contains neither eggs nor cream.  The chocolate egg cream, the much more common variety, is a classic old-timey Jewish New York beverage, made by stirring together seltzer, milk, and Fox’s U-Bet chocolate syrup.  Accept no substitutes.  Florida followers, you can find Fox’s U-Bet at most Publix stores, and it’s far superior to any other commercial chocolate syrups.  We always keep a bottle in the fridge for occasional egg creams.  They are like a dessert that also helps with digestion!  (Altacocker alert!)  But I had never even seen a vanilla egg cream before, and I’m glad I went for it.  I love vanilla-flavored anything, but the kitchen is the only room I like things to be vanilla in, if you know what I’m sayin’.dsc02103-1.jpg

And for dessert, we shared fresh blueberry pierogies, drizzled with sour cream.  These weren’t the crispy fried pierogies from earlier in our meal, and we were a little surprised they contained actual whole blueberries, lightly warmed during the cooking process, rather than blueberry compote or preserves that we expected.  They were tasty, but I might have preferred the crispy fried exterior and sweeter blueberry compote filling.  DSC02112

If I lived in the East Village, I would probably be a regular at Veselka.  This was our first experience with any Ukrainian food, although I sure love Polish food and miss Polonia, the Polish restaurant that used to operate near my old apartment in Longwood (one of Orlando’s countless suburbs).  But most importantly, I love all the history and atmosphere at these classic New York eateries, the places that have been around for decades and stay open late.  They are primo people-watching spots, and you can tell multiple generations have shared delicious meals and happy memories there, and they’ve also survived some shit there.  Very few restaurants in the Orlando area have been around this long, but whenever a place lasts this many decades, you know they’re doing a lot right.  Veselka definitely is.

The New York Adventure Part 1: Ess-A-Bagel

My wife and I are celebrating our TENTH wedding anniversary in October, and we both wanted to make a big thing of it by returning to New York City, where we spent our honeymoon in 2009.  We haven’t had a chance to return in this entire last decade, but since my wife is a college professor and I’m also in academia, October is a pretty busy time for us, and it would be impossible to get away then.  So we opted for a mid-May getaway, during the empty and quiet weeks between the spring and summer semesters, before New York starts to rival Florida’s heat and humidity.  We also had some personal and professional milestones to celebrate, so the timing was right and the stars lined up for us.  We planned to take in the sights, see shows, and eat like kings.

Just as we did on our honeymoon, we chose our hotel based on its proximity to the legendary Midtown Manhattan bagel restaurant Ess-A-Bagel (https://www.ess-a-bagel.com/), considered by many the best bagel shop in the bagel capital of the world (sorry, Montreal!).  And wouldn’t you know it — we ended up reserving the exact same hotel, just under a different name and new management, ten years later.  It was meant to be!

So here is where the magic happens, this hole-y site.  I’m always taken aback by just how small and cramped many iconic New York restaurants and businesses are, and Ess-A-Bagel is no exception.  You enter and automatically line up, make your way down the counter until someone calls you, place your entire order with them, pay at the end, and hope there’s a tiny table available for you by then.  DSC02113

Ess-A-Bagel boils and bakes some of the largest bagels I’ve ever seen, with all the classics represented: plain, sesame, onion, garlic, salt, everything, pumpernickel, and cinnamon raisin, among others.  Here’s a gigantic everything bagel, which is our favorite — coated with sesame and poppy seeds, toasted onion and garlic, and coarse kosher salt crystals.
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You have a ridiculous choice of cream cheese and tofu-based spreads, all made fresh in-house.  This is like heaven.  The choices are unlimited, but you cannot go wrong.DSC02114

In addition to all the standard cream cheeses, Ess-A-Bagel has a large selection of smoked, cured, and pickled fish, all standard Jewish fare that accompanies bagels.  Most people are familiar with nova salmon — sometimes referred to as lox, although most lox is MUCH saltier than the more familiar nova your basic brunch spot offers.  It pairs so perfectly with cream cheese.  But when you get out of Orlando, you have far more fishy options for your bagels, and these are everything to me: smoked whitefish salad, large golden smoked chubs (whitefish), pickled herring fillets in either a sweet wine-based sauce or a sour cream-based sauce (both with plenty of sweet pickled onions!), rich smoky sturgeon, and the finest of all the smoked, cured, and pickled fishies: buttery sable, which sounds far more appetizing than “black cod.”  Sable is the finest thing you can eat, and here is an article I found with a recipe and more information about it, for the uninitiated.  These are the foods of my people, and they fill me with such joy.DSC02116

You also have a wide variety of tuna, salmon, and other seafood salads.  DSC02117

And some pasta salads, potato salad, cole slaw, and additional vegetarian options, sold by the pound to enjoy as sides.DSC02118

You can also order bagel sandwiches with the sliced deli meats and cheeses of your choice, but it seemed pointless to me to come all the way to New York and Ess-A-Bagel for a turkey, roast beef, or ham and cheese sandwich.  (Despite its traditional Jewish specialties, Ess-A-Bagel is not a kosher restaurant, and I’ve never kept kosher anyway.)

The day we left for New York, we woke up at 3:30 AM to catch our 6:30 AM flight, got caught in morning rush hour traffic from Queens to Manhattan, and made it to our hotel to find out our room wasn’t ready yet.  At that point, it was 12:30 PM — nine hours since we got up, and we hadn’t eaten anything yet.  So we walked to Ess-A-Bagel just in time to join the long lunch line, and by the time we got our food and snagged one of those aforementioned tiny tables, almost an hour after that, it didn’t occur to me to take any pictures.  Mea culpa, although some long-suffering Saboscrivnerinos may be relieved.

That first day, my wife ordered a toasted and buttered everything bagel, with a quarter-pound side of whitefish salad on the side.  I wanted a bialy, that lovely cross between a bagel and a roll (baked, but never boiled!) with an indentation in the middle for baked onions, but they didn’t have any left.  (See this Food Republic article for some bialy background!)  So I got an everything bagel with sun-dried tomato cream cheese and my sweet, sweet sable.  I also ordered a huge, fluffy salt bagel to tear off chunks and scoop up a quarter-pound of smoked shrimp and crab salad that looked and sounded great, and tasted even better.  Everything was magnificent.  My wife had fond memories of an apple cinnamon muffin from our last visit a decade back, but that was crumbly and dry, failing to live up to her nostalgia the way the bagels and fish did.

Our second day in the city, we wanted to take it relatively easy and eat a light lunch in our room, in preparation for seeing a show that evening.  I walked back to Ess-A-Bagel to bring everything back to our hotel, and that time I remembered to take some photos.

My wife tried my sable the previous day and understood what I had raved about on and off for the last ten years, so she asked for an everything bagel sandwich with sable (left), and I happily obliged.  I decided to try something different: a bialy sandwich (finally!) with baked salmon salad (right), at once smoky and creamy, so it didn’t need a layer of cream cheese.  DSC02120

Here’s a half of my bialy sandwich, generously stuffed with the baked salmon salad: DSC02124

And her sable bagel, with nice thick chunks of the buttery, rich fish to melt in our mouths:DSC02125

That huge everything bagel I showed you earlier came from this second visit.  I also got a quarter-pound of their smoked tuna spread to go with that, and it was another good choice.  I grew up eating canned tuna, to the point where I was shocked the first time I ever encountered rich, deep purple raw tuna in sushi in my late teens.  My wife doesn’t like the smell of canned tuna, and it’s high in mercury and unsustainable, so I haven’t bought or even ordered it in years (although I am a huge sardine aficionado, and those are super-healthy and super-sustainable).  But trying smoked tuna seemed like a worthwhile move, and it was far better than any conventional tuna salad I’ve ever had before.  DSC02123

My wife also asked for a black and white cookie, that New York deli and bakery classic.  These should be more cake-like than anything — thick and moist, never crunchy or crispy.  This one was unique for having a slight lemony flavor to the yellow cookie/cake underneath the layer of black and white icing that reminds us “We’re not so different, you and I.”DSC02122

And then we went to see Hamilton, and I think it tied with seeing Tom Waits in concert in 2006 as the greatest musical experience… no, greatest cultural experience of my life.  I love American history, and I come by it naturally.  My dad was an esteemed history and social studies teacher, and now I teach a class that incorporates some U.S. history too.  Combine that with my deep loves of musical theater (encouraged by my wife, a former child and teen actress) and hip hop, and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s award-winning show always felt like it was made just for me.  I have obsessed over the original cast album for over three years, so finally being able to see it (and in the greatest city in the world, no less!), being right there in the room where it happens, was awe-inspiring.

Like I said, we ate like kings over our few days in the City, so stay tuned over the next week (or let’s face it, probably longer) for more of our culinary New York Adventures, right here on The Saboscrivner!