While I write frequently here about cheesesteaks – and yes, I do love them deeply – there is another sandwich for which I have had serious affection since an extremely early age. I refer to the Jewish delicatessen stand-by, corned beef on rye.
It was my maternal grandmother, the late-great Mom-Mom Bess, who turned me on to this most delicious of deli sandwiches when I was probably no more than a toddler. My grandparents lived in Northeast Philly, just west of the 12-lane Roosevelt Boulevard – known by Philadelphians simply as “The Boulevard.” This was before supermarkets existed in places like the neighborhood where my grandparents lived. I spent a lot of time there as a child and can still recall the soda truck driving down the alley behind their row-home. My grandmother would run out and buy a case of seltzer in spray bottles for my grandfather and soda for me. According to my mother, fish, meat and produce were also delivered to the house. Shopping out was done at smaller, specialized stores, rather than supermarkets.
The one place I remember going to with her frequently to shop was a place called R&W Delicatessen, which was a couple blocks east of where they lived, at the corner of F Street and The Boulevard. My paternal grandfather owned a food distributorship that specialized in kosher foods. My grandmother must have told that to the guys behind the counter at R&W, because I remember they used to tease me about being the future king of the family food empire when I was too young to understand what they meant.
I don’t think we ever walked out of R&W without corned beef and rye bread; probably barrel pickles too. Other common items were Wise potato chips and Tastykake lemon pies. But the main reason for shopping there was their corned beef. I would guess my grandmother fed it to me nearly every day that I was there. She would even stick a few slices in grilled cheese sandwiches (they didn’t keep kosher).
I drove past F and The Boulevard a few months ago and was pleased to see that R&W is still there, although it hasn’t been a Jewish delicatessen since not long after I stopped going there with my grandmother. I doubt there has been a decent loaf of rye or any Jewish-style corned beef in there since the 1970s.
It’s fair to say I was conditioned to love corned beef at an early age. I spent roughly the rest of the twentieth century eating it on rye bread with mustard – and only mustard – at the delicatessens of Northeast Philadelphia, which used to have a heavy Jewish population and a number of delis. Jack’s Delicatessen, which was on Bustleton Avenue a block south of my grandfather and uncle’s Mobil station, was probably my most frequent corned beef supplier. There was also the Casino Deli, where my grandfather ate lunch daily for many years after having a falling out over business with the owner of Jack’s, whose delivery vans he used to service. And for a few years, there was a gourmet shop in the suburb where I grew up that sold good corned beef and rye bread. So I never went very long without eating the stuff.
What I didn’t realize until around the turn of the century was that I was eating Philadelphia style corned beef and that New York style corned beef was different and, I have to admit, better. I made that discovery when I became friends with a few people who lived in New York. They started taking me around to places like Katz’s, 2nd Avenue and Carnegie Delis.
I was used to corned beef that was sliced thin and served cold or at room temperature. In New York, they sliced the meat thicker – or even hand-carved it in the case of Katz’s – and served it warm. It was like being reborn, at least in the corned beef sense of the word.
I had a nice run of eating good deli in New York City for a few years, but for various reasons, my days of hanging out somewhat regularly in the Big Apple came to an end. However, it was my good fortune that at about that same time, which was also the period during which the delicatessens of Northeast Philly were disappearing, New York style deli was introduced to Philadelphia. A place called Pastrami and Things on 15th Street in Center City was the first local deli to serve it that I can recall. Then there was a series of other places, usually opened by a guy named Russ Cowan, who can fairly be called the guru of Jewish deli in Philadelphia. After opening several delicatessens in the area, Russ purchased and still owns Famous Fourth Street Deli at 4th and Bainbridge Streets. Although Famous has been around for many years, its food was upgraded after he took it over, including the corned beef, which is now New York style.
Another major happening in the Philly corned beef scene was the opening of Hershel’s East Side Deli at the Reading Terminal Market. The Terminal had been a local food gem with many great stands for generations, but their lack of a Jewish deli stuck out like a sore thumb. The opening of Hershel’s cured that issue. It gives Famous Fourth Street a run for its money. They are almost unquestionably the two best delis in Philadelphia.
While Famous Fourth Street can be compared to the now-closed Carnegie Deli of New York in terms of the style of their deli meats, Hershel’s is more like Katz’s in that they hand-carve the corned beef, which results in thicker slices and a different texture. I have developed a definite preference for hand-carved corned beef since first trying it at Katz’s and had it regularly from Hershel’s until COVID got in the way. It helped that my office was around the corner from the Reading Terminal.
While I’ve done almost all of my corned beef-eating in Philly and New York, there was one sandwich of note that I had during 2019 in Indianapolis at Shapiro’s Deli, which doubles as a classic cafeteria. Their corned beef is machine-sliced thick and served warm on the best rye bread I’ve ever had.
There are other Midwestern Jewish delis I read about for years on the roadfood web site: Jake’s in Milwaukee, Manny’s in Chicago, and Slyman’s in Cleveland. Jake’s probably tops the list of delis I want to try, but haven’t been to yet. They hand carve the meat and the photos I’ve seen of their corned beef sandwiches are drool-worthy. I have been to Cleveland a number of times without trying Slyman’s. I thought that dark spot on my record would finally be erased during another 2019 trip, but I was saddened to discover Slyman’s is only open for breakfast and lunch during the week, and I was only in Cleveland from Friday night to Sunday morning. I’m confident I’ll get there eventually. I’m a little less certain about Jake’s and Manny’s, but I haven’t given up hope.
There is also Langer’s in Los Angeles, which has a great reputation. If I ever get back out there, it’s a must-stop.
In the meantime, I’m very content with Hershel’s and Famous Fourth Street. But that didn’t stop me from making corned beef from scratch within the past year. It’s something I had thought about trying for a long time and finally felt the motivation, probably in part because I was looking for food-related projects to work on at home during the pandemic.
Preparing corned beef from scratch is a long process. I began by purchasing a five-pound brisket flat at a local butcher and brining and curing it in a water solution that included pink curing salt, regular salt, sugar, an onion, garlic, bay leaves, and pickling spices. The brisket was fully submerged in the solution inside the refrigerator for eight days, although I took it out to turn it over and resubmerge it once daily. At the end of that period, the rest was simple. I just boiled it for a few hours in water with more pickling spices.
The final result was not what I was hoping for at first sight. The outside of the meat was still brown instead of the pinkish-red I was hoping for. Thankfully, when I cut into it, the color was perfect. It looked like any other corned beef I’ve had over the years. It also tasted great.
The only problem was that my wife is not a corned beef eater, so I had a lot of meat to get through. I found that the best way to reheat it was to carve cold slices and heat them in a steamer. I also used some of the corned beef to make hash, a favorite breakfast dish of mine when it is homemade rather than from a can.
I’m pleased to report that one of my first meals out after COVID restrictions were eased a bit was lunch at Famous Fourth Street with a former colleague. It felt so natural; like getting back on a bike after not riding one for a few years.