Man, Jewish delis are the best.
I’ve had a lot of luck with kosher food, but until now, that luck has been reserved for baked goods. I’d never been able to find a nut-free delicatessen—that is, until I heard about Essen, a glatt kosher deli in Midwood, Brooklyn that happens not to have any nuts in house.
It sounded too good to be true, so I sent Essen an email to double-check. The response I received, in its entirety, was as follows: “Hi, we do not cook with any nuts but we are not a 100% nut free environment. Any questions please call us.” That response could have meant a whole lot of different things, so I did end up calling with a few further questions.
After being transferred a few times, I ended up on the phone with someone who really seemed to know what he was talking about. He explained to me that, while they don’t cook with any nuts at Essen, they don’t like to call their food “nut-free,” as they have no means of controlling what their customers (or employees) bring in with them. They prefer to say that they make food without nuts so as not to mislead anyone with severe allergies. So far, so fair.
Bread’s trouble, though, and I wasn’t about to make a trip to Midwood without the promise of a sandwich, so I was sure to double-check on that, too. With me still on the line, the man on the phone called up his bread supplier, put him on speakerphone, and asked him whether there might be any nut traces in their rye or club breads. The answer was “no,” and that was that. Within 30 minutes, I was riding the Q to Avenue J.
[Before I move on, I’d like to emphasize just how competent and knowledgeable this guy was. I asked what “we are not a 100% nut free environment” meant, and without a second’s hesitation, he jumped into an explanation that demonstrated a degree of allergy awareness that was really refreshing—especially at the tail end of a few hours of restaurant-calling. He was patient, clear, and actually helpful, and I was incredibly grateful. Serious props to the folks at Essen for that one.]
The restaurant’s bigger than I expected it to be, with a few different rooms full of tables. There’s counter service at the front, and it’s easy enough to get food to-go, but Sam and I opted to eat in (mostly because I’m absolutely hopeless when it comes photographing food without a table to help me out). Ourselves excluded, all the patrons were Jewish—and most seemed to know one another, too. We got a lot of funny looks, but such is life in an Orthodox neighborhood for even the most modestly dressed of goyim. In all, everyone was friendly enough.
Essen has two menus: one Chinese and one with traditional deli food. Before I’d even sat down, I knew I’d be ordering the hot pastrami on rye. (How could I have considered anything else? Pastrami’s at the base of my need-hierarchy pyramid.) Sam got the Yitzy’s Favorite Deluxe (fried skirt steak with gravy on a club roll), which came with french fries and onion rings—and as we tend to, we split both sandwiches.
First came the cole slaw and pickles, though. The cole slaw was good, if a bit sweet—though it was much, much better after a few too many bites of pastrami. There were two types of pickles: half-sours, which were all right, and full-sours, which I much preferred. The full-sours tasted inexplicably like salami, but we didn’t care much. We ate them quickly, and our sandwiches arrived soon after.
The pastrami on rye (pictured above) cost $14.95, and it was worth every last penny. Fatty, tender, and juicy, the pastrami itself was really tasty, if a bit thin-cut—and the bread wasn’t half bad, either. It held its integrity, at least. (I tend to hate rye, but how can you hate anything that’s acting as a vehicle for a few inches of freshly-carved meat? You can’t.) As a whole, the sandwich was simple and delicious, and I’d already begun to crave another within an hour of finishing my first. (Unfortunately—or fortunately, perhaps—I was back in Manhattan by then. Oh well.)
The Yitzy’s Favorite ($22.95) wasn’t my favorite, though I didn’t actually dislike it in the slightest. It wasn’t at all bad, but the fried steak just wasn’t anywhere near as good as the pastrami, and the club bread was worse than the rye, too. I loved the gravy, but the sandwich was a little boring overall—and it’d cost $8 more than the pastrami, which just made me feel like I was paying more to miss out. Nothing was wrong, but I’m not exactly in a rush to order the Yitzy’s Favorite again.
The fries it came with were pretty terrible, by the way. (Like, inedibly bad. Neither Sam nor I could get through them, which is sort of saying a lot.) And the onion rings were not onion rings; they were strands of hot onion adorned every few inches with clusters of fried batter. Regardless, they were delicious, though certainly a little strange.
With tax and tip, the meal was on the expensive side, but I maintain that it was absolutely worth its price. Fortunately, Essen is far enough away that I can’t stop by every day, which should go a long way in keeping me from going broke. Their menu’s pretty big, and I’ve only eaten two of its offerings, but you know what? I’m ready to say with confidence that I love this place.
Perhaps one day I’ll let go of the pastrami (yeah, right) and try out the rest of the menu. I’d like to try their knishes, or their matzah ball soup, or maybe some of their other sandwiches, at least. Perhaps I’ll even get around to trying a few things off their Chinese menu—though I think that’ll probably deserve a post of its own. (That’ll be part II—stay tuned.) But for now, it’s pastrami for me.
Find Essen New York Deli at 1359 Coney Island Avenue, between Avenue J and Avenue K. (It’s not that far away, really. From Manhattan, it’s 40 minutes on the Q, tops—way less if you’re starting off downtown.) Beware, though: They are Jewish, so they won’t be open on Shabbat. They close at 2pm on Fridays, and they don’t reopen till 11am Sunday mornings.