As many people reviewing this restaurant have pointed out, the NY kosher deli is, sadly, a dying breed. For someone who grew up eating this stuff and for whom a good pastrami sandwich is about as good as food can get, there’s an extra interest in supporting all those hold-outs who are continuing to serve the classics. Though I am an ardent propagandist on behalf of NY deli, I unfortunately cannot support Ben’s. The poor quality of the food served here is a disgrace to the deli tradition, and only serves to further the view that deli is dying.
As a kid, my parents would regularly take me out to places like the 2nd Ave Deli and Fine & Schapiro, and these places left a deep impression on me. While I remember going out to Ben’s a few times with them as well, I don’t have any particular memory of the food I ate there. I knew that my uncle loves Ben’s, but, while he’s a great guy, he’s from Long Island and consequently is not to be trusted on these matters. In fact, when I recently convinced him to try the newly re-opened 2nd Ave Deli, he only had to take 2 bites out of his pastrami to recognize that he was dealing with a far superior sandwich. He still claims to be a Ben’s fan, but he readily admits that 2nd Ave Deli has better food.
Nevertheless, I was recently in the Garment District with a friend around dinner time and, not having any particular destination in mind and always being in the mood for good deli, I decided to give Ben’s a shot. I was sorely disappointed.
My meal started off with a bowl of chicken noodle soup with kreplach in it. While the broth was perfectly decent, the noodles and kreplach were of shockingly poor quality. The noodles were short and thin – the kind you find in Cup-a-Noodles. This has nothing to do with the noodles served in a real chicken noodle soup, which are more substantial and therefore able to hold their own against the flavorful broth they sit in. Still, this wasn’t as bad as the kreplach, which is hands-down the worst I’ve ever had. It was stuffed with ground beef that was not only unspeakably bland but so dry that it actually crumbled when taken out of the soup. I have no idea how it’s possible for kreplach filling to be dry when it’s literally soaking in broth, but Ben’s found a way to make this happen.
My friend’s matzoh ball soup was much better. The matzoh ball was quite large, but still light and fluffy. It wasn’t the best matzoh ball soup I've ever tasted (it also came with the same noodles as the other soup), but it was perfectly passable.
Next up was a round of appetizers to share. The stuffed cabbage – a traditional deli item that Ben’s proudly promotes – was shameful. The cabbage itself was good and nicely wrapped, and the sauce was fine, though generic, but the filling was packed down as tightly as hot dog filling, which made it rubbery – something I’ve never encountered in stuffed cabbage before. I would have been happier if they had served me the same frozen, pre-made stuffed cabbage they sell at the Gristede’s near my apartment (which I’ve had before, and I would never buy it for myself).
Still, this was better than the stuffed derma we ordered. Unlike any derma I’ve ever had before, the derma casing here was actually impossible to cut, even with the huge steak knife the server brought me upon request. While this made sharing difficult, it was but a minor nuisance. The stuffing, though, was more than a minor nuisance. It was inedible – just a tightly-packed lump of dry starch. I’m stunned that Ben’s even offers this dish when they do such a bad job with it. After all, the only people who are going to order it are presumably familiar enough with it to know that what Ben’s is serving is terrible.
As a final appetizer, my friend ordered the chicken fingers. This non-traditional deli offering was by far the best of the three appetizers we ordered: just straight-up fried chicken. It’s weird that a Jewish deli does better with chicken fingers than with actual deli dishes, but at least it wasn’t as bad as the other dishes were.
The only really good thing to come out of this round of appetizers was that, by ordering three appetizers, we were allowed to get two side dishes of our choosing for free (part of the “Ronnie’s Difficult Decision” deal – a steal at $19.99 given that it’d easily feed two, though, as you can see, it’s hard to choose three appetizers you’d really want to eat).
The square knish was quite good: well-seasoned potatoes mashed to a good consistency with a nice flaky crust. This was probably the best traditional deli item we ate all night.
By contrast, the kashe varnishkas was another dry and bland take on what should be easy for them to do. It was just the kashe mixed in with plain noodles. The dish was just screaming for some sautéed onions to add some flavor and savoriness.
I should also note that these two free side dishes were in addition to the complimentary pickles and cole slaw, which were both what they should be: fresh, crisp, and tasty.
Finally, the sandwiches: the star item on any deli menu. We ordered two sandwiches, one with hard salami and the other with corned beef (we passed on the pastrami knowing that it’d be way inferior to what we’re used to from Katz’s and the 2nd Ave Deli).
The hard salami was basically was basically as advertised. It was good that they sliced the salami as thinly as they did, since it was extremely hard. I prefer my hard salami to be not quite so hard – I like to be able to sink my teeth into it and taste some fat there – but this was OK.
The corned beef was yet another major disappointment. Ben’s proudly advertises that they pickle their own, but I wish they just bought it from someone who could do it better than they do. What they served was dry and bland, the kind of stuff you’d expect from an ordinary corner deli, not a place like this.
Both sandwiches were served on pretty generic bread, not the quality Jewish rye that you’d expect, and neither was really as “overstuffed” as they claim (though I wasn’t looking for any more).
In the end, I have to say there’s no real reason to eat at Ben’s. It’s true that you’d probably walk out of here with a couple more dollars in your pocket than if you had gone to a real deli, but you would be wasting the meal (and the calories) on a far inferior product.
If you absolutely have to eat here, I’d get the matzoh ball soup and the knish; I’d probably forego the sandwich altogether and just get the chicken fingers as a main. It won’t be a great meal, but, with appropriately lowered expectations, at least it won’t be such a disappointing one.
Ben's Kosher Delicatessen
209 W 38th St, New York, NY 10018