When in New York, you have a very different sense of Jewish culture and influence than elsewhere in the United States. The entire Jewish population of the US is between 5.5 and 6 million people (less than 2% of the population). In New York City alone, there are 1.1 million Jews and represent 13% of the City’s population.
The long and influential history of Jews on New York City makes for an amazing scavenger hunt of great food in a rapidly changing city. New York’s iconic foods have largely been comprised of pizza, bagels, and “deli.”
This post is a brief guide to the staples of Jewish food culture that continues to define New York City.
I once had a friend from London visit and brought him to H&H Bagels to taste a New York bagel. His response was, “I didn’t realize that bagels could be good.” Why did he say this? Bagels or something resembling bagels exists in much of the world but are rarely worth it.
Circular bread with a hole in the middle is widely what people outside the NYC area consider a bagel. To my friend’s comment, he’s right. They are usually terrible.
Bagels are something New Yorkers are very proud of. The longstanding rumor of New York bagel superiority is attributed to New York water. Bagel bakeries around the US proudly tout importing New York City water to produce the “real thing.” The reality is the cooking process. A real New York bagel is first boiled before baking. Inferior bagels are steamed and never lead to a comparable product.
My friend…..he ate four bagels in his 24 hour visit.
Bagel and Friends Tour
You can start or stop anywhere and not be disappointed. We are celebrating the old in this post. While so much has changed in the last 20 years in New York, a number of the Jewish food establishments continue to thrive.
There are long lines for a reason at the Midtown East institution, Ess-a-Bagel. In operation since 1976, they are still providing some of the best cheap eats in New York. Their bagel style is large and crusty. Pair it with a “schmear” of one of their 18 cream cheese spreads.
One of the most famous neighborhoods for Jewish history is the Lower East Side. It’s where my family made their home when they immigrated to the US.
One of my family’s favorite spots for bagels and all their baked good cousins is Kossar’s Bialys. Their specialties beyond bagels are bialys, similar in shape to a bagel but only baked, and filled with onions and poppy seeds where a bagel has a hole. Don’t forget to try their other old world specialty, the flat bread pletzel.
There are pockets of Jewish history around New York City. The deli culture is well distributed across all neighborhoods and boroughs. Here is a short list of where to begin.
Ben’s Deli opened in 1972 in Midtown Manhattan. Celebrating the classics, pastrami, chopped liver, and matzoh ball soup, the original location is a massive space in the middle of the City to get your deli. They now operate multiple locations in New York and where New York Jews go to retire, southern Florida.
The 2nd Avenue Deli might confuse the modern eater. For starters, if you are looking on 2nd Avenue, you are in the wrong place. Originally a staple in the East Village (located on 1st St. and 2nd Ave.), the kosher deli opened in 1954. The location closed in 2005 and reopened 18 months later in Midtown on 3rd Avenue. and more recently opened a location on the Upper West Side.
The famous of the delis is Katz’s Deli which has been featured in film for many years. The walls are now adorned with memorabilia celebrating their place in pop culture. Right on Houston Street. in the row of great Jewish eateries, the deli has survived it all since 1888.
The Lower East Side’s pickle history is long and starts with competitive push cart vendors in the 1920s. At one time there were more than 80 across the neighborhood. The pickle competition has waned considerably through neighborhood changes and the odd story of the “pickle wars” leading to one of the key pickle shops to move to Brooklyn.
You can still find the Pickle Guys down on Essex Street. Do yourself a favor and find it.
The best food to take out
In existence since 1914, Russ and Daughters has been a favorite for all things Jewish food on the Lower East Side. Now in the fourth generation of family ownership, the shop has expanded the brand to a sit down eatery nearby on Orchard Street along with locations in the Jewish Museum and the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
This is an absolute must visit if you’re in NYC. The shop was memorialized in the PBS documentary, The Sturgeon Queens, in 2014. For smoked fish and the highest quality of traditional Jewish spreads, this is your stop.
Knish is a popular NYC street food. However, what you find from an ordinary street cart is square-shaped dough filled with flavorless mashed potatoes. For real handmade knishes that taste like something you want to eat, head to Yonah Schimmels. This tiny little knish shop has been on Houston Street since 1910. While knishes are extremely filling and potatoes rarely taste good when cold, it is worth getting a few to sample their amazing variety.
Yonah Schimmel’s knishes coming out of the oven
There are no ovens or cooking happening in Economy Candy. It is just a great shrine to the Lower East Side’s past on Rivington Streer. The store is worth a visit because of the chaos of candy you will find. There are candies in there you didn’t know were still made, that you never heard of before, and things you will want to try.
For a very different take on Jewish food there is Sammy’s Roumanian Steakhouse on Chrystie Street. Overpriced and not on the same quality level to the others listed above, Sammy’s offers a wild atmosphere in a small and loud room. The last memory will be the atmosphere where you first tried schmaltz.
Choose your adventure.
You can get lost for weeks exploring New York City’s food culture. As we detailed at the beginning of this post, the Jewish population of the United States is small but not in New York. If you are looking for the historical foods that raised this city, let us take you on a living history tour through Jewish food!
Start your travel story here.
We want to hear about your dream journey. What do you want to see and eat? Are you in the planning stage or nearing takeoff? We want to get to know you and design your trip together to ensure your delight in your travel story.