What Makes a New York Deli Truly Great?

| July 11, 2011 6:00 AM

Gabrielle Howe and Ben Ryder Howe know what makes a great deli. They used to run one. Photo courtesy of Henry Holt.

What makes a great deli? Who better to ask than Gabrielle and Ben Ryder Howe, a couple who took over a deli in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of Boerum Hill, Brooklyn. The story of how they broke into — and later exited — the deli business is detailed in Ryder Howe’s book, My Korean Deli: Risking It All for a Convenience Store.

No matter where you live in New York, it’s rare not to have a choice of convenience stores, known colloquially here as “the corner deli.” Every apartment that we have ever lived in had at least two delis within a five-minute walk. And every time we ran out of 2 percent milk or, back in the days when we smoked, a steady supply of cigarettes, we had to decide between, say, the deli that smelled badly and was depressing (yet closer) or the deli that could turn you into a drooling, stupefied zombie with its selection of ice cream (yet had a mean owner).

Gabrielle Howe and Ben Ryder Howe's Korean deli. Photo courtesy of Ben Ryder Howe.

At times deciding which deli to patronize might take longer than the trip itself and produce a fight (“Who cares if their cat once gave you the evil eye?”) that could ruin an entire evening. You could suddenly begin to feel like you lived in a “Seinfeld” episode.

(Not surprisingly, according to Larry David, “Seinfeld” originated in a conversation he once had with Jerry Seinfeld while the two men walked through the aisles of a convenience store.) New Yorkers have outsized connections with our delis. We define ourselves by which ones frequent or won’t. Yet, who can say exactly what makes us loyal to this or that deli?

Author: Ben Ryder Howe
Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.
Publication Date: March 2011

Great Deli#1: The Deli of Possibility

To us, the best stores are the ones that have a whiff of possibility to them — you might say an element of risk. On Dekalb Avenue in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, there used to be one of the strangest delis we’ve ever seen. Some days it was open, some days it was closed, with no discernible pattern. Prices seemed to change by the hour, if not by who was asking.

The owner, who was often visibly drunk, would sway back and forth at the cash register, eyes half-closed, clearly oblivious to who was taking what from his shelves and whether they were paying. The only thing you would ever want to eat in this deli was food that had been designed to be buried in a survival kit and consumed decades later.

Yet this deli, as long as it was open, was also the scene of a perpetual gathering of itinerant but sociable men and women who could easily seduce you into an extended dialogue on, say, spitting (necessary, or merely a sport?) or the legal intricacies of the Kobe Bryant sexual assault case. It was the kind of deli you could walk in to for a pack of matches and not exit for hours, and when you did, you might be “in your cups” yourself and swaying just as mightily as the owner — and that made it both irresistible and dangerous.

Great Deli #2: The Deli of Plenty

Another great deli was an East Village institution on 6th Street called Sok’s, run by Korean-Americans, and closed since 1999. Sok’s was not the place for any socializing whatsoever — the place was all business, and its grandmotherly cashiers were the scariest in Manhattan. If you stopped shopping for even a minute to think about what song they were playing on the radio or how much you love Cape Cod potato chips, they would know and dispatch a stock boy wheeling an overloaded dolly to bulldoze you out of the aisle, dislodging you like an idle parasite and sending you hurtling toward the cash register. What made Sok’s great was its bounteous selection of, well, everything. It was impossible to leave Sok’s only carrying what you had intended to purchase. The endorphin blitz of so much variety was overwhelming, and once you had experienced it, so was the temptation to go back, despite those menacing women at the registers.

An illustrated Ben Ryder HoweBen and his mother-in-law in front of the deli. Photo courtesy of Henry Holt.

Great Deli #3: The Deli of Duality

It is possible to combine these two kinds of stores into one superlative deli, but it doesn’t happen very often, especially now that the number of convenience stores in New York is decreasing, thanks to the proliferation of national grocery chains and pharmacies that provide beef jerky as well as hair products. In our neighborhood on Staten Island, there’s a store called Charmar Superette which always seems to dangle the possibility of finding something unexpected on its shelves and where the banter next to the lottery machine can be lively and welcoming. It’s not a hangout store, and it’s not an emporium of every edible product ever made in the history of the world, but it does combine those two elements to a satisfying degree — and, most important, it’s within walking distance. (“Although there’s another store that’s closer, and they have a really nice cat, and . . .”)

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