Grub Street never needs a reason to celebrate our city’s esteemed roster of delicatessens, but since this week marks the New York release of the new documentary Deli Man, we’re going all in on the subject today.
There’s an elaborate backstory behind every venerable deli in New York City, but the story behind David’s Brisket House, which has been serving brisket and pastrami sandwiches to the good people of Bedford-Stuyvesant for more than half a century now, is more elaborate and convoluted than most. The original Dave was a Russian Jew who sold the deli to a Romanian Jew, who inherited the name. The new owner “gambled and liked the ladies,” Sami the counterman explains as I’m waiting for my pastrami on rye along with a regular customer from the neighborhood named Ruthie. Eventually, “He met a nice Colombian girl and took off with her, so then two partners took the place over,” Sami explains. “One of the partners was a Yemenite, which is a Jew from the country of Yemen, and the other was a Yemenite Muslim. The Yemenite Jew, he had a heart attack some years ago and passed away. The Yemenite Muslim owns the place now, but his real name isn’t Dave, it’s Hamood.” (He also has two partners: RIyadh, his nephew, and a friend, Ameen.)
Like all of the countermen at David’s Brisket House, Sami is originally from Yemen too, although he grew up in Bed-Stuy, speaks English with a pronounced Brooklyn honk, and remembers when Mike Tyson used to roam the neighborhood during the bad old days. The original Dave ran a kosher operation, but under the current Yemeni regime, Sam says, the meat is treated according to the halal tradition. Not that Ruthie, who grew up in Bed-Stuy too, notices any difference. She’s been coming to David’s every Friday since the original place opened up the street from its current space on a bustling stretch of Nostrand Avenue. Like lots of people in the neighborhood, she favors the pastrami, which you can get beginning at 9 a.m. with your breakfast eggs, or stuffed into two sizes of sandwich: a hefty regular for $12, or a messy large number for $15 that’s the size of a small football.
The brisket we sampled tasted like it had been sitting in a braise for a couple of days too long. But the corned beef had a classic, salty bite to it, and in this critic’s humble opinion, the pastrami, which is steamed at a high temperature for two hours and continues to slowly cook as it sits throughout the day, stands up to any of the more fabled (and expensive) deli pastramis in town.
To taste the fatty, aromatic pleasures of a classic deckle cut, we suggest the regular-size sandwich on rye, although like several other regulars lining up for their lunch, Ruthie recommends the club roll, which she usually gets to go like today, instead of rye, with plenty of mustard and a can of Dr. Brown’s Black Cherry on the side, and also the classic deli pickles. Ruthie enjoys the fries, too, although only in moderation, and not every single week. “Don’t forget the pickle, honey,” she calls out to Sam, as she gathers up her order and walks out the door.