Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Bukharan Jewish Lunch in NY's Diamond District: Tam Tov

It seems like a long way from the Silk Road, in the New York Diamond district, nested between watch repair shops and diamond resellers is a small and happy oasis of Central Asian Jewish cooking, the Tam Tov Glatt Kosher restaurant. The Tam Tov serves the Bukharan Jewish cooking that has satisified the Persian speaking Jews of Uzbekistan for a long time - the Bukharan Jews are one of the oldest documented ethnic groups in Central Asia, dating back possibly to Assyrian times but more likely to the end of the Persian exile around 500 BC. Since even before the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Bukharan Jews had been leaving Uzbekistan en masse and emigrating to Israel, New York, and Australia. An invite from Pete Rushevsky, klezmer tsimbl player extraordinaire, led up a creaky staircase three floors above 40 West 47th Street (near Rockefeller Center subway on on the B train) to one of the more unique traditions of Jewish cuisine.Pete has been keeping a professional eye on the changing face of New York's Jewish music communities as director of the Center for Traditional Music and Dance in New York. The Bukharan Jews have long been the professionals in performing the Shashmakam tradition of Bukharan classical music, a traditon that today has emigrated with the Bukharan Jews and is still a living part of their cultural identity. Bukharan restaurants often feature singers and instrumentalists on weekends and serve as centers for the Central Asian Jewish communities abroad, and the Tam Tov is no exception. Pete got to the Tam Tov first and started by ordering what he said was the best avocado salad in the city, served with excellent home-made lepeshka, the round Uzbek bread we discovered a few years ago while in the Ukraine. Bored of the latkes and borscht repetetiveness of Ukrainian eateries, we started eating at the halal Muslim Uzbek cafes that can be found at most city marketplaces in the Ukraine. And that's where we discovered lagman soup.Lagman is the far western version of a Chinese noodle soup - the "men" derives from the pan-asian term for pulled noodles, la mian - but it incorporates western elements as well: tomato soup stock, beef, and thicker wheat noodles, and my guess was that Tam Tov uses linguine.
Pete next ordered a couple of Uzbek rice pilaf dishes, the regular Uzbek plov (pictured above) with beef and carrots, and a "Bukharan plov" which had incorporated chicken bits with chopped cilantro and parsley.
Nearly every table had an order of manti dumplings. These were the classic Asian dumpling that migrated into Russia with the Tatars and Mongols and became known as pierogi, pelmeni, vareniki, or chibureki to the west, and manti in Turkish or mandoo in Korean. Like many, they are pretty simple and filling staples - the Tam Tov version is filled with beef and onions and perked up with a bit of Israeli shrug sauce from a jar on the table. Another nice touch was the french fries: Pete had been singing the praises of the Tam Tov Bukharan french fries... which he said were covered in chopped dill and garlic. Our waitress didn't know what Pete was talking about and from the look on her face, she quite obviously thought the man was insane. Dill? On fries? But eventually she said "OK. You want us to make them ... ummm.. like Bukharan style?" and out they came dressed with diced garlic and parsely.I would try this at home if I ever made french fries at home, which I don't. Now, as many of my readers know, I am often wary of Kosher resturants - I have been to many of them that were mainly fuel stations for the Orthodox, a place to absorb enough kosher calories until the trip home for a real meal. The problem is that the people who prepare most kosher restaurant food simply never have had food that rises above the level of merely palatable, and since they never eat outside of their community, how would they even know that their cooking is mediocre? This is most obvious among the Ultra Orthodox Hasidim, many of whom wont even eat the cooking of other Hasidic kitchens not supervised by their own rabbis. The matzoh-stuffed chicken leg that feeds half of Brooklyn's Jews is not a symbol of good Jewish cuisine. The endless Israeli salads... a cheap and easy way for kosher caterers to avoid actually cooking food. As for tradition? Grandma's cooking is great, but we can't sit at Grandma's table all the time. I have eaten a lot of kosherei in my time, and very little of it made my mouth want to sing the way the Tam Tov did. This is good food: the fact that it is kosher is probably just a side benefit for most of the customers who come for a unqiue, filling, and surprisingly inexpensive meal for midtown Manhattan.
Remember: you go into a doorway, walk up two flights of stairs... past the teenage girls speaking in Russian and the orthodox Jewish guy singing in the hallway in Persian... and do what Rushevsky does: order an avocado salad to go. It really is the best in the city.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Life is a Bowl of Chinese Wonton Noodle Soup.

In a week from now I will be sitting back at home in Budapest... wishing I was on East Broadway eating chinese wonton and noodle soup. It is always like this. I can easily leave the United States of Fox TV, of the mind numbing shopping malls and the squalid Starbucks coffee shops and the strange puffy stuff they think is bread, but I have the hardest time leaving the Chinese noodle soups. Fumie and I spend hours weekely trying to piece together the recipes for the proper soup stock, we run all over town chasing after some dry pasta that may or may not provide something "like" the classic Hong Kong fresh Cantonese noodle bite, but it is hopeless. You want Chinese noodle soup? You have to go to a Chinatown to have it.
The best thing about Chinese noodle soup may well be the price. You can fill yourself up for under four dollars, five if you want a chunk of roast duck or char siu pork tossed in. Yesterday Fumie and I made a beeline for one of our favorite places at 70 East Broadway in the heart of the Fujienese Chinese neighborhood: the East Corner Wonton Resturant.These are the places that your parents never took you to. You can easily recognize them by the ducks and ribs hanging in the window, and they seem to be on every street corner in lower Manhattan, adn quicte honestly, I am amazed that there isn't a Chinese noodle shop on every street corner in the entire world... we don't want your cheap goods and shoddy plastic shoes, China. We want your noodles. And your Roast duck. On Rice. We will give you five dollars of hard american currency for it. We will let you control if you will add some crispy spare ribs in sauce with that. Heck, we will hand over the entire American economy for it if you throw in some steamed chinese broccoli with oyster sauce. We are not proud. It's called pragmatism.
Suddenly, one-sided globalization seems like a much more comfortable concept. Chinese noodle soup comes in various forms, from a filling and cheap noodles and shrimp wonton version to noodles, shrimp, and any of a variety of roast meats seen hanging in the window. Duck, roast pork, stewed tripe, roast cuttlefish, and even those squiggly things that we think are pig intestines - I've had them, they are good, but I have never had them in a place where anybody spoke enough English to explain them to me.
I have a weakness for stewed beef, which means beef tendon, a gelatin-rich cut of cow leg that makes my skin feel like a baby's bottom. My advice for eating in a Chinese soup joint is - if you think you will not like something, and if the waiter feels he needs to warn your round-eyed lao wai ass about it, it is probably really good to eat. When the waiter says "You no like that" just remember to listen to him in reverse: you like that.
So go for the gelatinous stewed beef tendon... the squiggly pig guts... the orange cuttlefish... and always order the "chinese vegetable" with oyster sauce! You can thank me later. And trust that the world of New York's Chinatown knows exactly how to present itself. A bit later we striolled around and visited some of the local shops... excellent kitchen ware cheaper than anywhere lese in the world. And also the Chinese pharmacies, which offer cures for a dizzying array of ailments that all of us can use.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Korean Fish Heaven: Dokdo, Palisades Park, NJ. UPDATED WITH SEA SQUIRTS!

My old buddy, Marshall Tito, the guiding spirit of Former Makedoslavian Republic of Yugodonia (FMRY) drove up from the bowels of New Jersey last night a bit late to make it into the glowing lights of New York City for dinner, so we headed out into the borderlands along the Hudson in search of something to eat. Now, Madame Tito is not a fan of Asian food... but she was at the hotel taking care of cute little Tito Jr., so something Asian was definately going to be on the menu.
The towns along the Palisades Cliffs in New Jersey have always been a string of suburban ethnoid enclves, and the old Italian and German emigrant neighborhoods are now diminished and the nabes turn overwhelmingly Spanish towards the south, and Korean towards the more affluent north up towards the George Washington Bridge. After cruising around Fort Lee, NJ - and passing a couple of inviting Korean BBQ places, Vietnamese pho joints, and never finding the Malaysian restaurant we were searching... we turned tail and made it down the hill to Palisades Park, the single most densly populated Korean suburb in the area. You want serious Korean? Palisades Park.Walking along Broad Street is like walking along a street in Seoul. Dozens of Korean delicatessens, bars, bakeries, and restaurants... we've been here before. Since Marshall Tito (or Walter, as his friends sometimes call him) felt like something light, we passed on the BBQ, and looking into one brightly lit place, Tito saw some... crispy fish being served. Crispy fish! Aha! Who doesn't like crispy fish?We were seated and immediately knew it was going to be good... our hostess could barely communicate in English. That is not rare in NJ Korean places, but it almost guarantees fantastic food and great service. Live octopus and sea squirts swimming around in a tank... another good sign. A gaggle of middle aged Korean men smoking cigarettes just outside the door. Must be good! No other round-eyed customers... an excellent marker of quality! The menu had a few items listed in English, most all of which was unfamiliar... cod liver casserole? Pollack roe stew? A column of "Live Fish Dishes?" Welcome to the Dokdo, a Korean seafood restaurant, located at 280 Broad Avenue beneath a Dentist office acorss the street from the Palisades Park Police Dept. at the corner of Broad St. and East Central Blvd. (Tel: 201-242-9999)Koreans are proud of their food, and it is one cuisine that does not compromise or get watered down into an American version. The Koreans of New Jersey are a prosperous bunch - and they want the best when they eat. Fresh fish is essential. When we saw a bright room full of Koreans wolfing down fish, we knew we had hit paydirt. We naively thought we might start with some sushi, maybe try a fish stew, but eventually Marshall Tito simply relied on the time honored technique of pointing at other people's tables and saying "I want that." It always works. We finally agreed with our hostess to split the cheapest seafood combo at $60 for two persons. I mean, heck... for two? Why not? Koreans like to cover the table with small dishes... going out is always some kind of banquet. All we knew was that on the other tables there was a crispy fish. And then it began. An unending procession of seafood. Incredible seafood. Never have I had so much... so goooood. First they brought out some seared salmon sushi and edamame with pickled onions. I have never, ever, eaten anything that had artistically drizzled sauce on the plate, so I was skeptical... for a second. Ony a second. Amazing... better than any sushi I have had on this trip... and that would be the last we saw of rice for the rest of the meal. Next... a flurry of small dishes appeared. they are delicious, especially the guys. ... which are sea snails, shelled at the table by our hostess. Steamed monkfish roe, the foie gras of the sea. Monkfish may be ugly, but they taste great. Now comes a pair of fresh, very fat oysters with an artistic garnish of herring roe? Some grilled mushrooms? Shrimp tempura? A small bowl of something white was produced which the waitress could not explain... we were instructed to stir it up and slug it down in one shot and chase it with a shot of shoju, the clear Korean liquor. Then I realized that it was a yam starch concoction... putting my mind to rest that somebody had been jerking off a fish in the back room. But, hey, since a cod doesn't count as homo, boruch, omeyn, down the drain.Next came clam soup in clear pepper broth, a plate of corn caserole, and a bowl of raw seafood in cold broth with cellophane noodles and red pepper. Some of these things had tentacles... some didn't, some were recognizable, some were not, all were incredibly good. I don't know if they sneaked any sea squirt in there, but if they did, it tasted good and I thank them.This was a surprising and fantastic dish - sort of a Korean seviche, but with octopus, scallops, cuttlefish, and squid... and just in case we didn't have enough squid, a new salad of iced large squid slices, herring roe, lettuce and red pepper paste now appeared. After admiring it, a waitress came and tossed it for us. We must have seemed like two farm boys, marveling at the fact that there were ice cubes in our salad. If you don't know what to do, the staff will jump in and show you. Whoa! This was getting to be a lot of food. I was already complementing Marshall Tito on his blind luck in choosing of spur of the moment Korean joints, comparable to his amazing victories in Vis and his miraculous escape from Jajce, when out comes a bit more... grilled eel.
How are we ever going to finish this? We are stuffed to the gills with crusteacens and mollusks and cephalopods and things even lower on the Linnean scale of evolution when our waitress/hostess shows up at the table with this:A massive platter of thick cut Korean style sashimi, known simply as hwe, or fish. Tuna, salmon, sea clam, pollack, yellowtail, octopus, squid, white tuna... piled on a bed of shaved radish vermicelli. Lucky I didn't finish all the periwinkles! Korean sashimi is cut thicker than Japanese sashimi - it is a hefty mouthful, and there is a lot of it. Other tables had a mountain of some thin cut white sashimi on a huge bed of radish noodles, but this was perfect for those who think that sashimi is only a light meal. It wasn't. It was chunk o' fish. You get the soy sauce and wasabi to go with it, but you also get a spicy red pepper sauce to dip it in which makes a world of difference, and you can chase it with clam broth, buckwheat tea, or soju. Boredom does not occur in Korean cuisine. Yes, I am glad to report, we did finish it... slowly. Eating at a Korean restaurant serves the purpose that going to a bar does in Europe: it is a night out, you take your time, you enjoy talk with your friends, you drink a bit, and make the evening last. And if you think you are getting bored of regular Japanese sushi and sashimi, try the Korean version. After all, Dokdo is the Korean word for the Liancourt Islands, a couple of rocks in the sea of Japan that have been the bone of diplomatic contention between Korea and Japan for decades. And might I suggest sashimi to both sides... the boneless contention?
UPDATE Januray 26: a few days later I went back to the Dokdo with Fumie and my sister Pam. The hostess recognized me from my first visit, and she then convinced the owner to updgrade our combo plate order to the special Korean specialty combo for four people... and I can say it was every bit as good as on our first visit. The new selection was quite different, and it had a few of those seafood bits that we non-Koreans don't usually order. As Fumie said, these were just the things a Japanese would never put in front of a round-eye guest. The Koreans don't have any such hang-ups. These are Korean delicacies, so your Korean hosts are delighted for you to try them. The idea is to get your brain around the idea that you are happy to try them. This is Andrew Zimmern's Bizarre Foods territory... some of the stuff that I would never have ordered but once it was put in front of me... well I just had to try it. Like the sea squirts.
These were actually... interesting? They had an intense seafood flavor, a bit amoniac, a bit bitter... they had an outer skin that was smooth and leathery, and you had to suck out the orange meaty bit. It was bit like like eating seafood from a toy football on the halfshell. Well... I have done it. I ate sea squirt. After that, the sea urchin gonads - uni in Japanese - were easy.Simply buttery, rich, soft roes, never mind that they come from something in the starfish family. Like I said... going ever lower into the Linnean catagories we finally cam to this: sea cucumber. Sea cucumber is essentially a giant sea worm. Now, even though I have lived ten years with a Japanese woman who eats all kinds of creepy crawlies I have never thought I would be sitting at table eating giant sea worms, but there is a first time for everything. First of all... these things are blue. Animal protein blue. That is not a common color in meat.I have never eaten blue meat before, and most likely, neither have you. Second: sea cucumbers are not very smart. I mean, they are called sea cucumbers, not sea professors or sea lawyers. Even after they have been sliced, when you touch them with your chopstick they move a bit. I may well be the First Jew In The World Who Ate Raw Sea Cucumber. It can not possibly get more unkosher than this. Well, looks never stopped me. In they go!Aha! Superclam! Or tasty little ball of hard, chewy snot. The jury is still out on this one. I was the only one to eat these - everybody else tried them (or claimed to) and left the rest for me. Whether out of spite, adventure, or a natural boy scout's urge to gross out the girls at the table I almost finished the order. Almost. They had a surprisingly tough, chewy, almost crunchy texture, very salty, almost bitter... Now I know why things like this are such good fish bait. So remember: if you try the Dokdo... it is great. Even the creepy crawlies.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Golden Festival: New York Balkan Music Alive and Dancing.

New York's big annual Balkan music blast - the Zlatne Uste Golden Festival - was yesterday night. Actually, it was on Friday and Saturday nights at the Good Shepherd School in the Innwood district of Manhattan, but I only went on the Big Night... Saturday. And a Big Night it was. The Golden Festival is New Yorks - pardon the horrible pun - Big Blow Out, organized by the amazing Zltne Uste Brass Band - a conglomeration of dedicated Balkan Brass musicians who keep the older tradition of both Balkan Brass bands and Balkan Music Festivals alive in New York. I got there early in order to catch one of the wonderfully local workshop presentations by New Yorks ethnic family groups who keep the old traditions alive in the big city... Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman with her large and active family presenting the Yiddish song tradition that she - almost single handedly - kept alive in the Bronx for generations to enjoy.
Beyle - a poet, a teacher, and very active Yiddish songwriter was the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Heritage award in 2005 for her dedication to keeping Yiddish song traditions alive. Now 89 years young, she still belts out Yiddish songs with family, strength and good humor. Beyle's session was early in the evening, before things got really crowded, so it was a comfortable evening of family and song. Next up, however, was what we had all come for: Noise.
New York is not known as a hotbed of Breton music, but there is a newly formed Bagad - Breton bagpipe band - forming and they showed up to shatter some eardrums. A surprisingly large amount of people knew how to dance the various circle dances. I love this stuff - I reminded me of when I was in Nantes in 1999 at a boozy after-midnight party at the Summer Festival and the DJ suddenly switched from Techno to Breton Rock: a huge crowd went wild dancing these old circles dances.
While most of the performers at Golden Festival are people from New York's folk music scene, there are a lot of folks who play within New Yorks ethnic communities - Albanian, Macedonians, Italians, Turks - as well as some of the growing Balkan Roma communities who have settled in the Bronx and Yonkers. Yuri Yunakov broght his modern dance friendly Bulgarian wedding music to the stage. Downstairs I heard a steady stream of New York's various "Gypsy Punk" bands run through their paces.
My favorite of these are probably The Luminescent Orchestrii and Romashka, led by Budapest alumni Ljova Zhurbin and Inna Barmash. We hung out downstairs in the Kafana, where dozens of New York etnic food purveyors had donated free food as sponorship. The traditional free beer, however, had disappeared in a lisensing dispute with the city fathers... so we had to make due with spirits smuggled in from without. Notice Sarah Gancher, Girl Detective, in the back there? Another Budapest alumnus, Sarah and husband Rick were both in fine form, emitting a strange blue light throughout the evening. They did not step on anything dangerous or hurt anyone! Long live the Dominican package stores of Northen Manhattan!

Friday, January 15, 2010

Les Burgers du Paradis: 'Tits Morceaux de Jerrsai

The secret project I am working on causes me to spend most of my time locked in sedentary battle with my computer in New Jersey. I'm back in Hungary in a couple of weeks, but until then, I still have time to pick and choose among the strange, tiny hamburgers that are a local specialty of backwoods New Jersey. Tiny hamburgers - also known as sliders before the term came to describe appetizers on bistro menus - are a Jersey specialty going back to the Great Depression, when a small amount of cheap ground beef was smashed onto a griddle with a fistful of onions to produce a cheap, filling, and affordable lunch. The same rules apply today at the White Manna, a remarkably anachronistic holdover from the 1930s located on River Road in Hackensack, New Jersey. The White Manna used to be owned by the father of an elementary school buddy of mine, a Cherokee Indian married to a Hungarian woman, so we got to know it rather well. For the last 20 years or so the new owners have resisted all attempts to modernize or franchise the idea, making it one of the last of the authentic Jersey burger huts left standing today.You don't have a lot of choice - basically, onions or no onions, cheese or no - and you wait with a crowd of folks standing around talking about life in Hackensack in English or Spanish. The cooks seem to be Peruvians these days - the woman mastering the grill has been there for years.The result - served on a New Jersey soft potato roll, which allows for squishyness without disintegrating into a bready mess - is something you can't easily describe. Meat, cheese, onions, bun all seem to meld into a single flavor of ... squishy burgerness.
Unforunately, I have only eaten these while sober. In other mental states I would guess that these would seem like the Best Food In The World Ever. Packed elbow to elbow into the tiny diner, customers tend to wind up in conversation with each other and the staff, and the conversation tends to be about hamburgers. In particular, hamburgers that are a bit like the ones at White Manna. The closest in the area are White Castle burgers, and the new Boys in Town: Five Guys. The White Castle burger chain rarely sets up shop in a prosperous town - they go for highways, strip malls, and low income nighborhoods.Not merely a Jersey burger, White Castles are the oldest franchise burger chain still operating in the United States, and although they have updated their marketing strategy (calling their tiny meatwads "craves" and "sliders") they are still worthy of a good stoner movie. White Castles were the first of the two major culinary discoveries of my childhood (the other one was clams...) and I still remember the stomach ache I got in 1965 after eating eight of them in a sitting in the Bronx. I had to take Aron back there with my Dad in tow just to make sure he got a stomach ache like the one I got so long ago.
Aron first had a White Castle in 2001 when he was eight years old after discovering he didn't like Honduran pupusas - the resourceful Bob Godfried pulled into a North Bergen White Castle branch and we bought the little guy a bagful of the insidious meat crack. During the ride home he kept asking for "another of those dreamy hamburgers" and finally, eight years later, I was able to provide them. A few days later we hit the Hackensack franchise of Five Guys.
Five Guys is a Washington D.C. based chain of burger joints that is trying to provide an east coast equivalent of the California In-and-Out burger: a fresh and not-so-fast food burger that is made to order from high quality ingredients. On one of our first forays into Manhatten, Fumie, Aron and I were searching for a particular Chinese restaurant in Greenwhich village on a freezing night... only to find it had moved entirely across town. Desperate and facing iminent stravation, we began looking for alternatives when we saw a Five Guys across 7th Avenue... and were saved. The staff were friendly, the food was excellent, and th choices mercifully limited. Burgers. Double burgers. Choice of toppings. All burgers well done - I like them medium rare, but who is to argue. They know what they are doing here.
The fries are all freshly cut from stacks of potatos piled along the walls. When you order they warn you that it will take about ten minutes to make your burger. Five Guys proves that fast food doesn't have to be bad - or fast.Another Jersey institution that we just missed was the hot dogs at Hiram's in Fort Lee. There used to be two hot dog stands right next to each other: Callahan's and Hirams, and back in High School these were the go-to places where the young and restless from different school districts used to go to scout each other out. We stopped in on New Year's day... and not surprising we found the place closed. Better luck next time!

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.