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Queens is changing. Or so I’ve read. I know little about Queens outside of Hollywood’s occasional treatments (Coming to America, Queens Logic). But now, with a fresh set of in-laws who hail from Queens, it seemed prudent to take a day in my recent NYC visit to delve a little into Queens culture. It’s daunting for certain; Queens is enormous. With luck, I could glean at least a morsel of insight into the behemoth of culture and diversity residing in the borough. The itinerary? Explore a little, and of course, eat as much as I could stand in one day.
We hopped off the F train at 71 Ave. Our first destination was Knish Nosh. My father-in-law had told me that his father stopped at this little corner knish joint in the 1950’s. That, in itself, was enough to warrant a visit. Additionally, a longstanding storefront specializing in one or two products is always a good bet. And who doesn’t like the humble knish?
A range of knishes were offered, from spinach to meat. We ordered one meat and one plain potato. A nicely baked crisp crust accented the light and tender interior. The potato version, with a subtle change in flavor from crust to contents, was layered with pleasing textural variations. The meat knish was even better, flecks of ground meat strewn throughout the filling adding pops of flavor. I could eat this every day. It wasn’t like the bland, heavy poseur knishes I’ve tasted up til now. Simple perhaps, but forcefully simple. To me, these timeless knishes seemed more regal than humble.
We continued up the Boulevard from Forest Hills to Rego Park, ignoring an interloper’s seemingly proselytizing question “Are you Jewish?” along the way. The destination was far more important than metaphysics and religion. Ben’s Best Deli is a fixture in Rego Park, dating back to 1945. The space looked the part with dated, kitschy signs and meats, chopped liver and knishes lining the deli case. A few cooks and food handlers were receiving what I assumed was a Shabbat ablution. The people were genuinely kind, if methodical in service. We were pointed to the medium-sized dining room in back.
The cole slaw and house pickles came out first, with the matzoh ball soup. The broth was pleasantly rich and the matzoh ball perhaps a bit dense. It was about what you can expect from any deli, even here in the midwest. However, I particularly liked the new pickles: resistively snappy and salty with a slight fermented flavor. We ordered the necessities- the famous pastrami sandwich and a hard salami sandwich. This is where Ben’s Best really shines. The pastrami lived up to its billing, unique and peppery with a fair amount of fat strewn throughout. The flavor was bold which allowed a little less meat (1/3 the amount of the absurd Carnegie Deli and its ilk) to do the job perfectly. If the pastrami met expectations, the hard salami far exceeded them. The aging lent a wonderful nuanced funkiness to the salami, not just a bland textural firmness that it so often is the result. These sandwiches set a new bar in my modest deli-eating experiences. My wife and I polished off our Dr. Brown’s and paid. Stuffed from overeating, we waddled to the subway, heading to Flushing to see my mother-in-law’s old high rise, and a Mets game. Queens, I guarantee, will be a stop in all our subsequent trips to Gotham.