I have had a craving for a kosher overstuffed tongue sandwich on rye bread. The kind that you can only get at a kosher deli. These days they are few and far between. According to Jay Parker, owner of Ben’s Best, at 96-40 Queens Blvd., there were once up to eight kosher deli’s just in the surrounding area of Rego Park. Now, Ben’s Best is only one of two located in all of Queens County.
Jay isn’t the first owner as it was being passed down through his grandparents who immigrated from Poland and Russia during the 1930’s. This was the all too common story of people who would never take a hand out and sacrificing their life to better the future of their children’s. They did not want their offspring to work in a deli but rather go to school and grow into a more lucrative business.
At that time the grandparents worked and lived atop a canned goods store. Jewish immigrants, particularly the Ashkenazi, yearned for their own “comfort food” of the meats, soups and what were considered inexpensive “delicacies”. Jay told me that back in the 1930s and once the slicing machine was invented, there were 1500 kosher delis in New York City and that now there are only about a dozen.
Jay’s father, Benjamin, was the first to own this boutique delicatessen in 1945. Jay took over in 1984 after his father died, trading Wall Street for pastrami and quite happy and proud that he did. “You just can’t get this stuff anywhere else”.
Of the space, half is taken up by the counter and kitchen. There is no party room. Jay says he likes it this way as keeping up the quality and taste is easier to serve and satisfy a smaller amount of diners at a time.
Finished with the history. Let’s get to the food. I really wanted to sample everything on the menu. I settled on what I felt were the important ones starting with Jewish penicillin. In other words, Chicken Soup with a huge Knaidel (matzo ball), thin noodles, a couple of carrot slices and pieces of chicken. It’s all about the broth using whole chickens, chicken bones and soup greens. I found that there was just enough salt to taste the savored flavor. Hey, you can always add salt, but you can’t take it out.
Chopped liver, for those that have never had it, is made from chicken livers. Schmaltz (chicken fat), hard boiled eggs and onions are added. All is ground up to what would be considered a chunkier pate. I recall years ago when my mother made this and she had to use a chopper rather than a food processor. The chicken fat was taken directly from a fresh kosher chicken. When fried up, there were small pieces of the crisp fat, called greeven. Great on rye bread. Chopped liver at Ben’s Best is served with slices of red onions, red peppers, black olives and some lettuce. Oy, what a great sandwich it made, not to mention the good taste. Jay has the bread specially made with caraway seeds that are totally ground. No more having someone point at your teeth.
Stuffed cabbage is another favorite of mine. Cabbage leaves are basically stuffed with ground beef and cooked rice, along with a few other ingredients, then simmered in tomato soup. I found both the taste and consistency a bit different from ones I’ve had before, even making it myself. Ah! The beef was ground a bit more than usual and tomato SOUP is better than tomato SAUCE. The cabbage roll is served with peas and carrots atop.
Since I have mentioned cabbage, I’ll mention the cole slaw and pickles that are served with meals. Thank goodness, there wasn’t vinegar in the cole slaw. Pickles are coming from a barrel and not a jar. One sour, one half sour. Perfect!
Potato pancakes (latkes) may be typical of Chanukah. You don’t have to wait for the holiday. Made from grated potato (less the water), onion, matzo meal, flour, eggs and oil, they are thick. Jay has them served with apple sauce that is freshly made on the premises. Option at home is to serve with sour cream. There isn’t any dairy served here.
Kasha Varnishkes are actually a Sephardic recipe that combines these buckwheat groats with farfalle bow-tie pasta. There are no meat products in this version. If the waitperson asks if you want beef gravy served on the side, ask “Which side?”
A delicious knish is a standard. What make a difference is the knishwich, a sandwich of meat served inside a knish. It’s like having your meat and potatoes in a better form. All of the meats are made on the premises. Ben’s Best is well known for the pastrami. I had sampled the pastrami, corned beef, brisket of beef and turkey. I could see what the pastrami rave was all about.
No, I did not forget the tongue. It is quite difficult to buy at a meat market or supermarket as I have heard from many that the Chinese discovered what they find as a “delicacy”. That’s right, they are shipped off to China and will pay highly for it. It’s not unusual to find the price of cooked tongue here at about $40 per pound. Jay’s overstuffed sandwich has about a half pound of meat. In other words, eat it sparingly! Nurse it! Savor it! Love every bite of it! My craving has been satisfied for a while. Oy, a mechayeh!
Stressed is desserts spelled backwards. Jay said that they make their own baklava. Perfect timing as the baklava was just coming out of the oven. Twist my arm. OMG it was awesome! Aside from eating it hot, I notice that the walnuts were chopped fine. As much as I like baklava, I don’t particularly want to chomp on nuts.