“If you had 24 hours left in New York, and you could only eat one thing, where would you want to go before you took off?” I said.
“Do you like kosher food?” the cabbie asked.
Before Saliou Seck became a yellow taxi driver four years ago, he sold jewelry on 47th Street, in New York’s Diamond District. Born in Dakar, Senegal, he emigrated to New York in 1998 and started driving a taxi when the U.S. economy took a nose dive. When people could no longer afford to buy jewelry, he could no longer make a living, he said.
Coming from a long line of jewelers, Mr. Seck – who speaks English, French and Wolof – still keeps a finger in the family business. Every year, he returns to Dakar to sell silver that he buys in the States. Every week, he eats the kosher food that he now craves thanks to his ex-colleagues on 47th Street, most of whom were Jewish.
From Yassa to Matzo Balls
As we fought the traffic in Midtown Manhattan on the way to the restaurant he had in mind, Mr. Seck told me that his wife – a Senegalese woman he’d met in New York – was a great cook. Her specialty is yassa, Senegalese-style chicken marinated in balsamic vinegar and lime and stir-fried with onions. No restaurant could match it, he said.
When he’s hungry for kosher chicken, the cabbie stops at Ben’s, which is where he delivered me when our ride came to an end, assuring me that this was his favorite Jewish deli in New York.
A restaurant of ballroom dimensions in the middle of New York’s Garment District, Ben’s opened in 1996, taking over what was once Lou G. Siegel, a high-class kosher restaurant founded in 1917.
With the blessing of the original Siegel’s builder’s son, Ben’s owner Ronnie Dragoon redesigned the space, installing Art Deco sconces, a ceiling mural with Jewish dancers and a mustard jar in marble on the floor. Booths line the walls in the full-scale dining room, and a glass-enclosed deli counter spans the entire western wall of the restaurant.
“We have an agreement with the bank,” the sign behind Ben’s cash register reads, “They don’t sell pastrami sandwiches, and we don’t cash checks.”
After I slid into a booth and scanned the menu for the chicken Mr. Seck had recommended, a server brought a dish of half-sour pickles (cured in-house) and a plate of cole slaw (crunchy, refreshing and lightly dressed).
Ben’s menu is a collection of Eastern European classics that make up owner Ronnie Dragoon’s family legacy: pastrami and corned beef, Romanian-style kosher steaks with fried onions, chopped liver, and kasha varnishkes. Venturing out of Jewish deli territory are wraps, Hawaiian chicken, and rotelle primavera. Unlike most delis, Ben’s bakes all its rolls, cakes, pastries and knishes in-house.
“To some, delicatessen is something you put between two slices of bread,” Mr. Dragoon writes on the Ben’s Deli website, “To me, it’s a calling.”
I was tempted to try ‘The Stuffed Cabbage that Made Us Famous’ (with beef, rice, and ‘a touch of seasoning’), but I decided to follow Mr. Seck’s recommendation and stick with chicken.
Ben’s ‘Chicken in the Pot’ – half a chicken stewed with a matzo ball, noodles, kreplach [a thick-skinned dumpling with ground beef], peas and carrots – was advertised as ‘a real nostalgia trip to the days of your youth!’ At $17.99, it was more expensive than most dishes that cabbies recommend, but when the server brought the pot to the table, I realized I was getting a bargain: the soup could have easily fed three people.
Abundance wasn’t the only thing going for the dish: the broth had the intensity of flavor that comes with slow cooking, the chicken fell off the bone, peas and carrots were crispy, and the matzo ball was so delicate it almost disintegrated in my mouth. The tough dough on the kreplach was the only unimpressive ingredient in a soup with the power to heal – and earn fans from as far away as Africa.
Ben’s Kosher Deli
209 W 38th St, New York, NY 10018, Phone: 212-398-2367
Hours: Dining Room Daily 11am-9pm; Take Out Daily 9am-9pm
Average Main Course Price $15.00