From the moment that I entered Ben’s Best Kosher Deli in Rego Park, I was gently pushed back to a plainer and simpler time. A time when kosher delicatessens were bountiful in all the five boroughs and eating out for supper was still a very big deal.
Thankfully, a scant remaining few of these beloved dinosaurs still manage to hang on to the original kosher deli model, in continuing the tradition that was started by their ancestors at the turn of the 20th century.
If I had not seen the tell-tale old fashioned deli storefront, the aromas alone would have brought me into this landmark treasure. Smells of heavily brined corned beef and hot pastrami hit me first, followed by other die-hard originals many of us grew up with, from the chubby linked chains of pink knockwurst (coined specials back in the day) to the half sour pickles sharing bin space with their mouth watering sour counterparts, still at battle for which type of pickle is truly the more popular.
As I made my way to the dining space of Ben's Best, the retro atmosphere and furnishings complete the childhood memory for me, when less was more and the food itself was what seemed to matter.
The dining space clearly sets the mood for home style, no frills kosher deli dining, without even meaning to. It is not out to win a beauty pageant, but hopes that you'll fall head over heals in love with the food. About a dozen simple square tables line up in rows of four, all of them appointed with the bare basics and nothing more. Ketchup bottles tower over salt and pepper shakers. The mustard dispenser and bin of sugars flank them on both sides; all the incidentals you need to garnish your food.
Owner Jay Parker abruptly disappeared into the kitchen, and moments later returned with a gargantuan steamy mug of chicken matzo ball soup. The words “Jewish Penicillin” show this signature dish’s reputation as a tried and true remedy. It’s a rainy damp day and I’m happy to oblige; I plunge my soup spoon into the pale golden broth and discover by accident what makes this dish so special and right. Perfectly seasoned, it doesn’t steal its flavor from a chicken soup bouillon base; rather it relies solely on the quality of its ingredients, the plump pullet and its vegetable constituents.
Jay’s father, Ben Parker, opened Ben’s Best in 1945. He learned the business from his father, who was also in the deli industry. In 1984, Ben passed away and Jay took the helm, becoming a third-generation deli owner. He continues to enjoy that title today, and can't picture life without his restaurant.
Jay finishes my visit with a parade of other dishes to sample. I taste the beef goulash, bathed in sweet delectable gravy, the barley to go with, the stuffed cabbage and the kasha varnishkas (bow-time noodles) Jay playfully sits the soft fragrant cabbage on.
Even before I finish these goodies, I find myself plotting out my next jaunt to Rego Park, if only for another chance at Ben's Best dining.
Ben's Best is located at 96-40 Queens Blvd. in Rego Park. Call (718) 897-1700 for more information.
Old-fashioned chicken soup with matzo balls
For The Chicken Soup
1 large kosher chicken (pullet)
cut in quarters
1 large peeled whole Vidalia onion
1 large sprig of fresh dill
1 large sprig of fresh parsley
2-3 large carrots, diced
2-3 celery stalks, diced
1 whole parsnip, peeled
1 gallon of spring water
Salt and pepper to taste
Place chicken pieces and water in a large pot and bring to a boil. Skim off brown foam and large yellow patches. Lower flame and add remaining ingredients. Cover and simmer for 1-1/2 hours.
For The Matzo Balls
1/2 cup club soda
3 tablespoons vegetable oil or chicken fat (schmaltz)
2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
Freshly ground black pepper
1 cup matzo meal
Whisk the eggs until blended. Now add the club soda, vegetable oil or schmaltz, salt and pepper. Easy on the salt — you can always add, but you can’t take away.
Blend in the parsley and matzo meal. Cover and refrigerate this mixture for about 1 hour.
Remove from refrigerator, and form the mix into ping-pong-sized balls.
Boil a large pot of salted water. Drop balls into boiling water, and reduce to a simmer. Cover and let cook for 20 minutes before removing. Add to chicken soup and serve.