Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Liebman's Delicatessen. The Bronx. Home.

As a native New Yorker I am entitled to certain opinions, not the least of which concerns two of my city's most valuable culinary tradition: Chinese food and delicatessens. Both of these exist outside of New York, but only in New York have they taken on the role of cultural identifiers. Indeed, if you are New York Jewish, those two cuisines are part of the self definition of New York Jew. Who has the best Chinese food and where can you find the best deli are far more important to a New York Yid than anything the Talmud has to say about when to begin a fast. And the problem is that while New York Jews have access to endless possibilities for eating good chinese food, the traditional Jewish delicatessen is slowly, but surely, disappearing. One of my favorite blogs - David Sax's Save the Deli - which has morphed into a best selling book of the same name as well - follows this disturbing trend. In Manhatten there is Katz's, as well as a few others including the newly reopened Second Avenue Deli, Sarge's Deli, and Pastrami King, but many - including Katz's - have become tourist magnets, to the extent of having lines of tourists waiting outside to get a taste of the rather bland sandwiches that once satisfied the appetites of people coming and going to nearby Yiddish theater performances.Out in the boroughs of the Bronx and Brooklyn, delis are slowly becoming victims of the changing makeup of ethnic neighborhoods and the modern Jewish tendency to drift to lighter Middle Eastern Israeli foods like felaful and hummus when searching for something kosher to eat. And there are a lot of people in New York searching for something kosher to eat...
The echte traditional Yonah Shimmel's Knish bakery, for example, is now serving mainly the bloated veggie burgers that pass as knish in Israel and its outlying orthodox neighborhoods such as ... Teaneck New Jersey. A knish is square, ugly, and brown. It should not look healthy. It is not merely a bit of dough warpped around some broccoli. It... is knishness... It should not look like the knish pictured below... an abomination to the greasy, salty, brown potato stuffed memory of the Ukraine and Moldova we know as... knish. (Go to Katz's if you want a real knish.)
Ladies and Mentschen... this is not a knish. If you want to find the good old time deli stuff, you have to trek out a bit. Aron and I took the Bx 7 bus from 181st street in Manhatten to the Riverdale / Knightsbridge area of the Bronx to try out Liebman's Deli, one of the last of the old classic delis left in the Bronx. We were not disappointed. Head off to 552 West 235th St. in Riverdale. Now!Liebman's is one of the last delis that cures and smokes its own corned beef and pastrami. This is no small task. The owner/manager is the son of the last owner, a real deli master, and he has managed to keep the tradition of the small deli alive through a high family standard of quality control. We were there on a weekday night, and it was hardly packed... neighborhood regulars mostly... The meat isn't thick cut like Katz's. It's machine sliced and rolled into a delicate meatwad in the style of the classic NY deli of forty years ago. Most NY delis used to serve their pastrami thin sliced back in the day. Liebman's seems to be stuck in a time warp, but in fact it rides the line between retro chic and downhome neighborhood eatery. Most patrons I saw there were actually eating their salads and roast chicken, not the classic leadbelly Jewish sandwiches. A lot of single New Yorkers eat out almost every night, and lots of extremely non-exotic, home style restaurants exist to serve them. If I lived in the area and didn't want second rate Thai food or sushi, I would eat at Liebman's regularly as well...
This is actually what most of us from the Bronx remember as the "real" pastrami. Katz's was, essentially, an anachronistic specialty that you got on those rare trips to the once dangerous and decrepit Lower East Side. Liebman's, however, is still a functioning neighborhood deli: no lines of tourists crowding to get in, and prices are fully half that of Katz's (pastrami for $9 instead of $15.) the bucket of pickles is on the table, the mustard is there, the drinks are Dr. Brown's cream soda... we are home.
A special treat we tried at Liebman's was mini kosher beef cocktail franks baked in knish dough. These are probably an invention of the owner, and if there were still dozens of other delis in the Bronx, as there were fifty years ago, they would probably all copy his idea. As it was, these were excellent substitute for any side dish like french fries. Don't visit Liebman's without ordering these. They make my mouth happy. The Bronx never appears in the pages of any New York City tourist guide - I know, because I always look. If you are in Manhatten and want to visit Liebman's, rest assured it is in one of the Bronx' most easy going neighborhoods - and in general, the Bronx is a pretty nice place to live these days. Take it from me, a native born Bronx boy. From Manhatten take the Bx7 bus from either 168th st. or 181st to 236th street in the Bronx - just tell the driver to call out your stop. (While living in exile in New York City during the 1940s, the great composer Bela Bartok lived around the corner, at 236th st and Cambridge Ave.) Or take the #1 subway to 231st or 238th and walk a few blocks. We ended our night at the An Beal Bocht, an Irish pub that features live music and good Irish food, while our friends from the Bosco Stompers played their annual get together Cajun Dance hall dance concert.This is a real find: the best Guinness Stout on tap in the city of New York, and Irish wait staff, and a diverse local clientele. The site of many of NY's finest traditional Irish music sessions, and only a few minutes north of Manhatten. Count me in.

4 comments:

yrstruly said...

i've been reading your blog for a couple of years now. as a jew and someone who lived in budapest for a while - i love it. but it wasn't until your liebman's entry i felt compelled to write. i love liebman's. my grandparents live in the neighborhood, and i lived there for a year as well, and it's always my first stop when i go "home." i'm glad to see it recognized on this blog. i always prefered it over katz's and 2nd ave deli.

Ganch said...

Great post. OK bob i gotta ask — do you not like eisenberg's? I feel like I never hear you mention it. I prefer it to 2nd ave deli for one, also it's a lot cheaper and easier than katz's (although I love katz's). I love going and just sitting at the counter for lunch. Also it's in the flatiron, where there is Nothing Else to Eat, which makes it even more awesome.

Chanterelle said...

All those years I was trekking up to Kingsbridge Heights and I never went to Liebman's? Godfried has something to answer for! BTW, is that him singing???

Great blog!

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