Sometimes you get a hankering for some deli meats. I don’t mean turkey, ham, and tuna salad – I mean some authentic “New Yawk” (since that is the right way to pronounce it) Kosher deli. That craving came to me, and I had the need – the need to nosh!
“Ben’s Kosher Delicatessen” has had a location in Queens that I remember being there back when I was a wee youngling, still suckling on pizza bagels and “Cheerio’s”. Much has changed since those days, for example, I now only eat the more sophisticated “Honey Nut Cheerio’s”. I had never ventured to “Ben’s” before, but thanks to the subconscious succubus that is TV, I had been seeing plenty of commercials for them and it would appear their hypnotic tactics finally worked. So I grabbed my gentile friend who had never had truly had the Kosher deli experience before and trekked out to “Ben’s”.
Run by Ronnie Dragoon, a poli-sci major and community organizer, Ronnie opened the first “Ben’s” location over 40 years ago, naming it after his father. Since his humble beginnings in Long Island, “Ben’s” has expanded to six locations now, and the one I was dining in at Bay Terrace had been there for nearly 20 years. The exterior looks like a tiny butcher shop, but in reality, this is the TARDIS of deli’s – it’s bigger on the inside, as The Doctor’s companions always say. The restaurant has a very classic feel to it, well-lit, clean, and spacious. The photo does not do it justice, as there is also a separate party room to the left, and another elevated dining section to the right.
Ben’s matzoh ball soup is your traditional type of soup, also known as the Jewish cure-all for colds. One gigantic matzoh ball, and strands of chopped spaghetti noodles swimming in chicken broth that prevent you from ever seeing the bottom of your bowl. I do wish the soup had some veggies in it, but not all Kosher deli’s do that and is a matter of preference, so I can not dock them any points for being traditional.
The problem I have with matzoh ball soup that has noodles in it is that they always become overcooked from sitting in the broth too long. The noodles here were soft but not to the point of falling apart on your spoon before it hits your mouth. The gargantuan matzoh ball was consistent in terms of fluffiness from the outside to the center, soft but durable so that you did not have those annoying lost clumps of matzoh meal stuck all over your bowl when the soup was done.
The roast beef was flavorful, sliced thin with a rosy color in the center. Was it the juiciest roast beef I have had? Far from it, but it was still tasty (the lack of juiciness was partly my fault since I ordered it medium instead of rare, the way roast beef really should be). The generous helping of gorgeous caramelized onions helped elevate the roast beef up a notch, as well as the heaping portion of chunky mashed potatoes. Hit your roast beef with a dash of Gold’s mustard, a standby for many NY Kosher deli’s, to add some heat to your meat.
Hot Pastrami is a Kosher deli staple, and “Ben’s” does not mess around when it comes to the classics. This warm half-sandwich on rye bread had that distinct pastrami taste that you must have. Pastrami is brined, cured, and smoked, and has such an unusual flavor from that process that it’s surprisingly difficult to describe. Peppery, mustardy, smoky, briny – I could keep hurling adjectives at you but my sandwich would get cold by the time I was done. This was a juicy sandwich, and the perfect size for me. I have had “Carnegie’s” before (and you will see a review of that soon), and the sandwiches there are beastly in proportion. I can only handle so much pastrami over the course of a few days, but “Ben’s” gives you the perfect amount to satiate that hot pastrami lust.
Speaking of “Carnegie’s”, how do the two compare in terms of pastrami meat? It has been a few months since I last tasted the famed Manhattan deli, but I remember an equally intense flavor, albeit a bit saltier. The meat was a similar color, but the big difference I recall (aside from the monstrous size of “Carnegie’s” sandwiches) was the meat being flakier than it was at “Ben’s”, which I did not like. “Ben’s” has a meatier taste to it, but I think I sense a Pastrami showdown coming up soon to officially settle this.
I had seen many TV commercials for “Ben’s”, but my favorite was the one with a kid who looked like he was a year or two away from Bar Mitzvah time, clamoring for the potato pancakes. “I crave the potato pancakes!” he would say on the screen, his eyes lit up like he just received a million dollar shopping spree at Toys ‘R’ Us. These potato pancakes were like crack to him, and I needed my fix.
It was easy to see why that kid loved these latkes so much. These massive pancakes were formed from shredded potatoes, formed into a thick disc, and deep-fried to golden brown perfection. Maybe it is my lack of Kosher deli experience, but I have never had a potato pancake as crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside like this one was. Just look at that crust!
You can’t have potato pancakes without some apple sauce to slather on top, and “Ben’s” has a wonderful light apple sauce to go with their latkes. I actually ran out of things to say about their pancakes, I just wanted to show you another photo of these beauties. They were the highlight of this great trip around the Kosher deli, and I highly recommend you get some if you visit this place.
I would be remiss if I did not mention the endless pickles and a bottomless bowl of coleslaw that you get through the duration of your meal. Another huge plus – extra bread. If you are a regular at Kosher deli’s, you know the old joke that when you go to one to order a sandwich, you are really getting meat with a side of bread. At “Ben’s”, they give you extra bread right from the start, aware of the dilemma that most of their diners will suffer through at other restaurants.
Kosher deli’s regrettably seem to be a dying breed in New York, especially good ones. How I managed to not go to “Ben’s” this long is truly a mystery, but I am happy I finally did wander in and gorged on salted meats and balls of matzoh meal. The deli has a huge menu, with something for everyone, including lighter fare like salads, and more traditional Kosher items that I will have to come back and try sometime. If you are a fan of “Carnegie’s” and other Manhattan Kosher deli’s, make the trip out to Queens to try “Ben’s” and see how it stacks up compared to your favorite deli.
“Ben’s Kosher Delicatessen” has several locations in NYC, including Manhattan, Long Island, and Florida, but the one I went to for the review is located at 211-37 26th Avenue in Queens.