Ben's Best in Rego Park, Queens is something that might be out of the Smithsonian, a time capsule deli. Hot dogs on a grill up front, a narrow corridor with a glass case to the side displaying knishes and other deli items, the space opening to a seating area with restaurant supply-functional tables and chairs. New York was once home to an abundance of these neighborhood Jewish delis. In some neighborhoods there were competing delis. They may have been supplied by the same purveyors with little to distinguish between them, but some were more discriminating in their purchasing, the quality delis of their day. Better or ordinary, most are gone, casualties of changing demographics and brutal profit margins.
In Manhattan a few brawny Jewish delis remain -- Katz's, the Stage, the Carnegie, Ben's (no relation), the Second Avenue (no longer on Second Avenue). But they are not really the kind of local neighborhood deli that is Ben's Best. Ambience and size aside, they don't serve the peppery, smokey, old fashioned kosher pastrami you'll find here.
The pastrami is cured to the deli's specifications and served in a manageable sandwich size and it is delicious. In its location for decades, this would have been, as it is today, your quality deli. If you have roots in neighborhood New York, this is the pastrami sandwich you grew up with if you were lucky enough to have an outstanding deli in your neighborhood, and if you don't have New York neighborhood roots, this is the sandwich you missed, the sandwich that once was.
Lately, Mile End in Brooklyn is gathering up publicity as a representative of the Montreal-style deli. With its crisp, cool interior the place is more Nouveau Brooklyn than a traditional deli. They serve a "smoked meat sandwich," a sort of corned beef/brisket prepared pastrami style. It's just okay. It isn't a pastrami sandwich.
Katz's has its pastrami loyalists, but I don't know why. Their huge pastrami sandwich is banal. If you go to Katz's, which is more theater than anything else, buy a hot dog.
Outside of New York, Langer's in downtown L.A. does a wonderful pastrami sandwich and, as with Factor's, located west of Beverly Hills, the rye bread is outstanding, actually better than anything in New York. In Miami, Michael Schwartz, the chef at Genuine Food and Drink, has re-imagined the pastrami sandwich, and it is very good unto itself, although it's not the pastrami sandwich of this discussion because it's, well, re-imagined.
The pastrami sandwich at Ben's Best ($9.95 served with cole slaw that isn't mayo-ed up and pickles) has been praised by such passionate food people as Ed Levine and David Sax. People's backgrounds and tastes vary so widely, I wouldn't presume to say -- this is it, this is the unquestionable Number One pastrami sandwich in New York. What it is, is my personal favorite. In the old days if you went to the next neighborhood for something because it was better than what you could get in your own, it was a big deal. In this time of vanished traditional Jewish delis, we have a rarity here, a destination pastrami sandwich.
Ben's Best, 96-40 Queens Boulevard, Rego Park, N.Y. 718-897-1700.
By car: Midtown Tunnel to 495 East, Queens Boulevard exit, right turn off ramp, three traffic lights.
By subway: R train to 63rd Drive, Rego Park.
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