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The once ubiquitous New York City delicatessen is disappearing from the metropolitan landscape. These proud establishments, some owned and operated by the same family for generations, are being replaced by banal fast food chains where the only thing more disturbing than the food is the indifferent glare of the person serving it.
But as those chains came and went, Ben’s Best in Rego Park wove itself into the fabric of the surrounding community by maintaining the same unshakable standards throughout its nearly 70 years on Queens Boulevard.
Now part of a dying breed of traditional kosher Jewish delis, owner Jay Parker keeps his standards — originally set by his father and grandfather before him — because it is the only way he knows.
And because his customers will let him know if he deviates even a little.
“I don’t change anything here. It was meant to be a certain way and that is the way I serve it,” said Parker at Ben’s Best, at 96-40 Queens Blvd. “I once changed the salad dressing to something healthier. They begged me to bring the old stuff back. They’re not here for their health, they’re here to eat.”
Parker took over ownership of the deli in 1984 after his father Benjamin died. A successful municipal bond trader on Wall Street prior to his second life as a deli man, Parker found that running the counter at Ben’s meant he could be his own boss. He could keep the tradition of the neighborhood deli alive and not worry about someone in a three-piece suit and zero knowledge of Jewish heritage compromising the integrity of a good pastrami sandwich.
His attention to detail attracted numerous accolades and praise over the course of 70 years. Parker said besides his valued, everyday customers from the neighborhood, Ben’s Best has become a destination restaurant for anyone who craves the essence of New York in its truest form: ethic cuisine.
To that end, Ben’s Best offers dark and spicy pastrami, cured by hand in barrels. Stacked on custom baked fresh rye bread with mustard, it is the sandwich equivalent of a religious experience. But the tastes of customers are just as diverse as the city itself, so Parker focuses the same amount of attention on his other overstuffed sandwiches, including corned beef, brisket and turkey.
Supplying Ben’s Best with its menu items are some of the same vendors the restaurant has used since it first opened.
“If you asked me how much I spend on brisket or anything else, it’s hard for me to say,” said Parker. “I’m not looking at price. I’m looking at quality.”
And the quality goes beyond sandwiches. Parker’s chicken matzo ball soup is legendary — a steaming bowl packed with tender noodles and a light matzo ball. Some customers claim it has medicinal powers, a myth easily believed after lapping up a bowlful.
Other traditional deli platefuls are also available, including chopped liver, knishes, kasha, stuffed cabbage and kreplach as well as the ever-present hot dog, complete with mustard, sauerkraut and a delightfully enticing snap that brings the eater back for another bite.
A meal at Ben’s Best is a cultural experience worth fighting for and one that continues to dwindle in numbers. Parker said in the 1930s there were more than 1,500 kosher delis in the city’s five boroughs, but today only 150 Jewish delis remain in the whole of North America.
“In the old days, four street corners in the city meant four different kosher delis,” he said. “But the people running those stores, they never wanted their kids running the business. The kids had to go to school and the parents worked 20 hours a days so the kids could go to school and not end up working in a deli.”
Sitting in the back of his restaurant reflecting on his past life as a bond trader, Parker was momentarily interrupted by an older customer who wanted to compliment his food. The quick pleasantry suddenly morphs into a 15-minute sharing of stories between two previously unacquainted people.
A typical scene between a deli man and his community.
“I’m not really in the deli business,” he said. “It’s a community business and everyone who comes in here is my partner.”
Reach reporter Steve Mosco by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 718-260-4546.
©2013 Community Newspaper Group
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