The Vanishing Delis of The Bronx
Winter 2011 • Vol. XX, Issue LXXI
The story of the Kosher deli is the story of the Jewish experience in the United States. It is easy, with some background information, to see the direct parallels between the history and development of the American Jew and that of the Kosher deli. And no place is a better indicator of this phenomenon than The Bronx. . . .
But you needn’t be Jewish to enjoy a pastrami on rye in the same way that you needn’t be Italian to enjoy a meatball hero, or Irish to enjoy corn beef and cabbage.
Since the opening of the first deli in 1871 by a man named Isaac Gellis of Berlin, Germany, the deli’s story has continued to evolve to where we are now. From the humble beginnings of a single store on the Lower East Side came an explosion of culture that rivals the arrival of the Quakers to what is present-day Virginia. Throughout the latter quarter of the 19th century, all the way through the early 1930s, delis opened up with amazing rapidity as more and more Jews emigrated from their homelands to pursue, like many others, the American dream in New York City.
At first the majority of delis were situated near the “original” on the Lower East Side. Eventually, when that area began to brim over with activity and people, Jews started spreading out into the five boroughs. Outside of New York, delis began opening up in other major cultural hubs: Miami, Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and even as far as Canadian cities like Toronto and Montreal. By 1931, sixty years from a time before Americans had even heard the word, there were 1,550 Kosher delis in the five boroughs alone. That number rose to over 2,000 throughout the decade, many of them in The Bronx. For a time, it seemed that Jews had realized their own American Dream without ever breaking ties to their roots. The world was smiling down on the deli’s humble existence, and business was sweet: from 1 to 2,000 in no time at all. And now, tragically, that statistic has reversed direction to a frightening new low:
Three. There are three Kosher delis remaining in The Bronx.
Why the decline, we all wonder? Well, beginning shortly after World Ware II when many Jewish Americans began feeling disillusioned with their place in the “New World” due (of course) to the fallout from the Holocaust, memories of the “Old Country” began to fade as ties to their origins became too painful or too distant for many Jews to reconcile. Generations had gone by since many of their families had moved to America, and while the war did indeed bring an influx of immigrants to The Bronx (and New York as a whole), many of them came here specifically to escape from the old and start fresh. And for those reasons, the idea of the traditional Kosher deli began to lose steam. By 1960, only 150 delis remained in the city, less than a tenth of what there had been only 25 years prior. This Deli Downfall continued for an additional 50 years, bringing us to the depressing state we see today. Dozens of delis were either closing or accepting what they perceived to be the inevitable: there was just no money to be had in exclusively Kosher delicatessens. The times were changing, the people were changing, and the world itself was changing, and to not keep up with that change meant certain bankruptcy.
Let us backtrack for a bit and take a few minutes to reminisce about the good old days, when you could go into a Kosher deli (or any deli) in The Bronx and order a frank on a bun with mustard and sauerkraut for 15 cents (coincidentally, the same price that it would cost to ride the bus or the train). So, if you were more hungry than tired, and had the extra 15 cents in your pocket, chances were good that your stomach would trump your feet. If you knew in advance and decided to save a whopping thirty cents, you might add a knish to that order. Back in the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s, the knish of choice in the Kosher or Kosher-style deli were those yellow square fried ones that we called “sinkers.” We would slice that sinker sideways, spread Gulden’s mustard across the entire square, and eat it like a hot sandwich. Round potato or kasha knishes may have been around during those decades, but they were about as popular as a vanilla egg cream.
But we won’t stop there! What if you had a buck, or a buck-fifty? Now you would no longer be relegated to the bleachers; now you were in the grandstand and mezzanine levels, ready to up the ante to that succulent pastrami on rye or mouth-watering corn beef on club with a side order of French Fries. You would drink Hires Root Beer, Mission Orange, Cel-Ray Tonic, or Dr. Brown’s Cream Soda. Unlike the frank or knish, both of which you could take out or eat on the run, the pastrami, corn beef, brisket, and even the tongue sandwich had to be eaten at a table and leisurely enjoyed. A more classy deli would have a large bowl of sour and half sour pickles waiting for you when you were seated at your table. Back then, mustard was the condiment of choice, usually rolled by hand by the owner in a cellophane paper contraption. Later, mustard (dark yellow) came in a jar, dispensed by a wooden-looking tongue depressor. Russian dressing was usually preferred by those ordering turkey sandwiches.
Every neighborhood usually had one or more Kosher delis. In general, the greater the Jewish density, the greather the likelihood that it would have multiple Kosher delis. Predominantly Italian, Irish and Hispanic neighborhoods usually wouldn’t have a Kosher deli. However, since they were usually surrounded by a Jewish neighborhood, it wouldn’t be too difficult to travel a few extra blocks for a good Kosher deli sandwich if one was so inclined.
Usually, Bronxites traveling to popular Bronx venues would find Kosher delis within shouting distance -Yankee Stadium; the Court Deli, Roxy, and Goldman’s Deli, Alexander’s; Levine’s on Creston and East 188th Street, Pelham Parkway; Levine’s Deli, Mosholu Parkway, Schweller’s and Epstein’s Deli, Parkchester; Parkchester Kosher Deli, Kingsbridge; Tower Delicatessen, Mt. Eden; Moscov’s Deli, and Riverdale where the last of the three (Loeser’s Deli, Liebman’s Deli and Skyview Deli) will be highlighted.
That was then. Nowadays the Kosher deli is going the way of the dodo, more quickly than we would like to believe. Yet there are three among them who have held out, stood the test of time, and kept the proud traditions of their ancestors alive. The three last exclusively Kosher delis in all of The Bronx, the ones who continue to serve us the classic Kosher corn beef, pastrami, and franks that we grew up with, that our parents grew up with, and perhaps even that their parents grew up with.
Loeser’s, Liebman’s, & Skyview.
Thanks to these three Mentshes of Meat, Purveyors of Pastrami, and Kings of Corn Beef, the Kosher tradition is alive and well and a new generation of Bronxites can experience the wonderment of finely sliced, tender, succulent, marbled deli meats. For fifty-plus years, all three of these delis have catered to (literally and figuratively) the needs of their respective neighborhoods, and continue to do so today.
* * * * *
Loeser’s Deli, the first stop on our nostalgic tour, just celebrated its 50th anniversary on January 4th, and to celebrate, owner Fredy Loeser sold his traditional Hebrew National Franks at their original 1961 price of fifty cents! The celebratory occasion also included discounted sandwiches, free soft pretzels, and a ceremony featuring famous Bronx politicians and dignitaries, all paying homage to the man who kept the spirit of this store alive for half a century.
Loeser (DeWitt Clinton ‘59) opened the deli at seventeen with his father, Ernest, with money he had saved from his Bar Mitzvah. Originally a donut shop, located at West 231st Street near Broadway, the deli soon became a hub for potato and meat knishes, and, of course, traditional franks. While Loeser managed the day-to-day operations from that young age, his father, the chef, prepared the delicious foods which delighted the loyal patrons of Kingsbridge…and beyond. It’s no surprise that the store’s satisfying smorgasbord attracted customers from all over The Bronx and, in fact, the rest of the five boroughs and Westchester.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Mr. Loeser and getting his take on what has become a true story of survival. According to him, holding on to the traditions he grew up with was “the right thing” to do and he wouldn’t want to change a thing. In fact, the only changes made since the ‘60s has been the addition of even more Kosher knishes for some of their more health-conscious patrons: kasha, spinach, and baked, as well as the world-famous Coney Island Squares (sinkers) – the only item prepared outside the deli.
It’s been that dedication to the homemade, carefully-crafted Kosher-style sandwiches and franks that has kept Loeser in business for so long…and has brought in some of the most famous figures both inside The Bronx and outside: icons like former Mayor Ed Koch and first lady Hilary Clinton, whose photos are framed alongside dozens of others on the walls of the deli.
Yet famous folk aren’t the only ones who grace the walls of this Bronx landmark; the bulk of the clientele comes from Conservative Jews living in and around Kingsbridge, or just loyal customers from the neighborhood who have fallen in love with the food. Loyal customers like Mrs. Carol Brumley, who called Loeser’s her “second home.” She has lived in the area since the ‘90s and has been coming to the deli almost at long.
“I would be totally lost without Loeser’s,” Mrs. Brumley told us. “Whatever problems I have, they’re forgotten when I sit down here.” She noted the excellent quality of the service, the fresh food, and the relaxed, friendly atmosphere exemplified by the store’s staff, namely its owner, Fredy Loeser. “We all love Fredy. I’ve been coming here since his dad was alive and would sit and talk with them. People come in here all the time who I know from way back. It’s beautiful.”
Thankfully, and unlike owners of many restaurants in New York nowadays, Loeser hasn’t allowed the hustle-and-bustle of city life affect how he runs his store. One look inside and you will agree with Mrs. Brumley about the relaxed atmosphere, a sentiment echoed by another loyal Loeser-ite, Aida Perez, who has been frequenting her favorite deli since the 1980s. “The service is very nice; the people that help [Fredy] are very cordial. They don’t rush you out or anything like that.”
Lloyd Ultan, famed Bronx historian, shared similar views about both Fredy and the food he prepares. “Fredy…is always very friendly, very accommodating. He takes care of a lot of things all at the same time. He’s very adept. The food that he purveys is top notch.”
And despite its excellent quality, Loeser’s also boasts some of the most reasonable prices for deli food in the city: $7.95 for all of its hearty-sized sandwiches, and similarly sweet deals on all sides, franks, and knishes.
“We try our best,” Loeser told me, “to give our customers the best products at the most reasonable prices. We haven’t raised them in approximately 10 years.”
Interestingly enough, the changes in Loeser’s deli have not been anything Mr. Loeser has anything to do with. In addition to the ever-changing clientele (as well as their army of loyalists), the types of food being ordered, and the methods in which it is being delivered, have altered slightly. We no longer live in a world where pastrami, corn beef, and potato knishes are the only things on the menu. While those are still the most popular choices, items like turkey, brisket, and egg salad have become more prominent sellers. And while business has generally been good for sandwiches and the like, sales of hot dogs are down from what they were in the ‘60s, according to Loeser.
Catering and takeout trends have also shifted, with the bulk of catering affairs changing from individuals or smaller groups to larger events such as Bar Mitzvahs, Brises (circumcision), Chanukah or other High Holiday parties, and (sadly) Shiva calls. Takeout is less popular nowadays, even though, says Loeser, “people are rushing around a lot more.”
And while he has kept up with these latest trends, updating his menu to accommodate for the health-conscious eater and making it more streamlined, Loeser has held true to his values of providing great food at affordable prices, even in today’s economy. “We live in a very tough society right now,” he reminded me. “Money is tight for people. That’s why we keep our prices very low, and we try very hard to make people happy.”
And if the people we talked to were any indication, he has indeed done just that.
* * * * *
We bring you next to 552 West 235th Street in Riverdale, where Liebman’s Deli has made its long-lasting home. Opened eight years before Loeser’s in 1953 by Joseph Liebman, Liebman’s Deli was eventually sold to a series of buyers until it wound up, in 1981, in the caring and capable hands of Joe Dekel, whose son Yuval now sits at the helm of this delicious ship.
Called “a beautiful sight” for deli-lovers by The New York Times, Liebman’s prides itself on the same savory Kosher foods that make Loeser’s such a success. Located in Riverdale, this deli has faced the extra challenge of being Kosher-style as opposed to the much more stringent “Glatt Kosher” (more on that to come) in a community which is becoming increasingly Orthodox.
So instead of trying to appeal to only the strictest of the strict, Liebman’s smartly went in the other direction when the Dekels took ownership in the ‘80s and expanded its menu to include more accessible foods: baba ganoush, hummus, pita, and the like. All the while, they have kept up with their Kosher traditions with the old classics like knishes (which, like Loeser’s, range from the standard round potato to the fried squares, spinach, meat, and kasha varieties), franks (displayed for decades out front), and Kosher sandwiches. Along with these menu additions, Liebman’s also includes a kids’ menu and several kinds of soup (most notably matzoh ball and chicken soup).
It is these adaptations, according to Liebman worker Art Rabin, which have allowed business to remain viable and strong. Now more than ever, different ethnicities are taking seats at the table, and this widening sphere of people have been some of the deli’s most faithful (and satisfied) customers. And they know they’re always going to get the same quality of meat time and time again, thanks, in part, to the fact that the Liebman’s chef has been around for years.
“It gives us some consistency,” Rabin joked.
This sort of open-minded business ethic and go-with-the-flow attitude has imbued Yuval Dekel with the ability to adeptly follow the trends of the day, at times preparing his meat in a “healthier” way for those who cringe at the sight of a fat, marbled pastrami sandwich. Now, said Rabin, more people are ordering their meat “lean” as opposed to “juicy,” and asking for plain old mustard rather than Russian dressing. Still, in my mind, you’ll never be able to beat those gigantic, flavorful corn beef sandwiches overflowing with fat!
Liebman’s always has – and still does – catered events like Bar Mitzvah after-parties, Brises, and the like, and they also deliver far and wide. They will even make that frightening leap to Manhattan, especially during the High Holidays, and much of Lower Westchester. And if you’re a local, better news still: delivery is free to residents of Riverdale, Kingsbridge, and southern Yonkers! So if you’re suddenly struck with the flu during these painfully frigid and snow-filled winter months, a chicken soup from Liebman’s might be just the trick! It’s no wonder soup takeout and deliveries are so high this time of year.
The meat at Liebman’s is machine-sliced and delivered from suppliers with a bit of pre-preparation, but the final touches, the little modifications that make this meat so good, are all done in-store. “We like to cook it further and add some other things to [our meat] to make it really tasty.” One bite of a Liebman’s sandwich and you’ll agree whole-stomachly…or at least you would if your mouth wasn’t full of pastrami!
* * * * *
Last, but certainly not least, comes Skyview Deli on Riverdale Avenue right near West 258th Street. The longest-lasting deli in The Bronx (opened in 1950!), Skyview has also had the most recent change in management. In 2007, Danny Salamat took over and added what he felt to be some much-needed items to the menu, like kebabs, Mediterranean-style cuisine, and even steak. Most notable among these, however, is the traditional Persian fare served up by the chefs of this establishment. Skyview is, in fact, the only deli in The Bronx to feature Kosher Persian food.
Still, this is not necessarily what makes Skyview different from, say, a Loeser’s or a Liebman’s. No, what separates this deli from most others (in New York and all over the world) is its adherence to the rules of Glatt Kosher…See? Told you we’d get back to this!
Glatt, in its modernized sense, has taken to mean “Kosher to the highest degree.” At Skyview, for example, a rabbi (from Riverdale) is present and on hand at all hours that the store is open, supervising with strict attention every slice of meat that is served up. The deli is also closed on Shabbat, unlike most non-Glatt Kosher delis, and all meat is bought from the most Orthodox suppliers (ie, NOT Hebrew National).
Most non-Glatt delis are considered “Kosher” although, for many, the difference is negligible. Kosher-style restaurants still follow the main Kosher laws like no pork, shellfish, or milk-meat combinations, but don’t necessarily have a rabbi literally present like Skyview does. And while today most don’t bat an eye at Glatt versus Halav Yisrael or Lubovich (two other styles of Kosher), those within these strictest sects of Judaism still hold a historical grudge, all of them thinking that their method is superior.
This split came in the 1930s when Kosher policies were being heavily scrutinized by rabbis throughout the States. Some, like our friends at Loeser’s and Liebman’s, decided that a less literal appropriation of the Bible was sufficient, while others felt that more exacting methods had to be taken to ensure the “cleanliness” of the meat. Glatt developed out of this schism and is still very much alive today in places like Skyview Deli.
And it’s good that it is, too, as the shift represents yet another extremely important facet of the American-Jewish historical record.
But it’s not only the massive Orthodox contingent of Riverdale that enjoys the fine dining of Skyview. According to Salamat, all sorts of people, Jewish and otherwise, eat there because “they just like the food.”
With a delicious selection of traditional sandwiches and knishes (many provided by Gabila’s – the U.S.’s “original” knish-maker), as well as the aforementioned extended menu items, Skyview continues to delight its customers to come back time and time again, and to tell their friends to do the same. Square knishes, according to Salamat, are right now their most popular type of knish, followed by round potato, then spinach, then kasha. Their biggest side is sauerkraut, but cole slaw and potato salad have quickly been moving up in the rankings. Chili is another newish side gaining some popularity in recent years. As far as sandwiches go, corn beef wins top seller, trailed closely by pastrami, with turkey and brisket behind that (not by as much as you might think!)
But while Bronxite’s taste inclinations are ever-evolving, one thing is for sure: The Bronx’s only remaining Glatt Kosher deli is hanging in there, and for good reason. Just sink your teeth in and try to argue.
* * * * *
With all this talk about the enduring nature of the New York Kosher Deli, it is easy to assume that they will always be around no matter what. But, as we nostalgic types know, things will always fade if we don’t keep them alive in our hearts, or in this case, our stomachs. The sad truth is that the demand for Kosher cuisine is on the decline in The Bronx and outer boroughs due to changes in cultural trends and clientele (and let’s face it: many Bronxites of our generation have moved to Florida by now), and the Day of the Deli is at its twilight.
Hope is not lost, however, as long as Loeser’s, Liebman’s, and Skyview remain prominent beacons of their communities, as they have for decades, and New Yorkers from all walks of life continue to embrace the classic Kosher rarities that have allured our taste buds and delighted our tongues for so many years. After all, like I said before, you really cannot beat the aroma or taste of a finely-crafted corn beef on rye, with its mouthfuls of flavor and moist tenderness. I for one hope that I can share Kosher franks, knishes, and pastrami sandwiches with my grandkids someday, and that they can do the same with theirs.
So…hungry yet? I know I am. Maybe I’ll spot you at one of these three Kings of Kosher (or, better yet, all of them) filling your stomach and soul with the rich, tradition-stuffed knishes you remember from the good old days!