Old-Time Kosher Deli Tries to Cut the Fat

By Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska on November 18, 2013 11:47am 

REGO PARK — When Ben’s Best Deli opened in Rego Park seven decades ago, it was a product of its time — offering fatty dishes that were full of flavor, if not nutrition.

Customers stood in long lines to get a taste of such specialties as gribenes (chicken skins fried in fat) and speck (corned beef fat rolled in paprika). Lung and heart stew was also on the menu.

“We had things we can’t sell anymore,” said Jay Parker, whose father Ben opened the deli on Queens Boulevard in 1945. The restaurant’s patrons at that time were risking life and limb, joked Parker, 60, who started helping at the shop when he was 14.

“Based on what we know about nutrition today, they were survivors," Parker said.

Today, Ben’s Best Deli still serves its signature pastrami and corned beef sandwiches. Beef brisket and stuffed cabbage rolls are also among its offerings.

But in an effort to make its menu healthier, the deli keeps adjusting its traditional recipes by using less salt and sugar and frying with the highest grade of vegetable oil, Parker said.

“People don’t come here looking for healthy food, so we have to do it internally, quietly,” he said.

“We come here against doctor’s orders,” chuckled Sara Seiden from Forest Hills, who, with her husband Henry, has been coming to the deli since the 1960s. The couple said they always order the same thing: matzo ball soup, French fries and a corned beef sandwich.

“You come here for old tastes — you come here for home,” said Henry Seiden, 73, a psychologist.

But Parker said people sometimes complain that they would like more flavor, which he said often comes from salt. “But if they want to make it more salty, there is salt on the table,” he said.

He remembers that when decades ago the deli used to make its own corned beef, for a 250-gallon tank they would use 100 pounds of salt, 3 pounds of nitrates and 4 pounds of nitrites.

Today that would be unheard of, he said, “so if anybody says it doesn’t taste like 50 years ago, there is a reason for that.”

In dishes like stuffed cabbage or tzimmes, Parker started using honey and brown sugar instead of white processed sugar, he said.

“We try to have the same nostalgia, the same food, but have it in a healthier sort of way,” Parker said about the deli, which has served and catered for celebrities and and politicians including Ed Koch, George W. Bush, Rudy Giuliani and Martha Stewart, Parker said.

The deli is also known for naming its dishes and sandwiches after local politicians, neighborhood stores and events.

The menu includes the "Lefrak Special," "Congressman Gary Ackerman Special" and "P.C. Richard."

The custom started with Parker's father, as a way of honoring local store owners who would later come to the deli with their friends because “they were on the menu,” Parker said.

In June, the deli named knaidels after Arvind Mahankali, the 13-year-old Queens National Spelling Bee Champion, who correctly spelled the Yiddish word for dumplings.

Parker said that these days the deli sells more chicken and turkey sandwiches, and wraps, introduced a couple of months ago, are also gaining popularity.

He also offers a variety of salads now, and a menu section called “Dieter's Delight,” which includes tuna, turkey or chicken salad served with lettuce and tomato and tossed salad with grilled chicken.

Parker said he is also planning to introduce a new salad with walnuts and cranberries.

“Kosher delis have never been known for salads, but we are branching out into that,” he said.

Even with its menu slowly evolving, the shop’s longtime customers remain loyal.

“It’s still a great old-fashioned Jewish deli,” said Alan Weinstein, 52, an architect from Rego Park, who recently came to Ben’s Best Deli with his son, Jordan, 9, for matzo ball soup, a hot dog and a pastrami sandwich. “The food here is to die for.”

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