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Editor’s note: We regret to report that Ben’s Best has closed.

Jay Parker, the owner of Ben’s Best in Rego Park, is a third-generation deli man. Born in 1951 and raised in the nearby Queens neighborhood of Fresh Meadows, he first worked at the family business in the early 1960s. Since 1984, when he took the reins, he’s clocked 60 to 70 hours a week. Yet “this is my dad’s store,” Jay tells us. “His name is still on it.”

Not far from where we sit in the dining room, a portrait of Ben Parker looks on, as if in agreement.

Ben’s Best is a kosher delicatessen, an increasingly rare business model even in New York. A kosher deli adheres to Jewish dietary laws (by serving, say, corned beef on rye but not ham on rye) and operates under rabbinical supervision (otherwise it would be merely “kosher-style”). Simply serving some pastrami does not make for a true Jewish deli – foods of the Eastern European diaspora must be central to the menu.

To be sure, the roots of Ben’s Best reach back to Russia and Poland, via the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where Ben Parker (Jay’s father) was born to immigrant parents in the early years of the 20th century. Not long after, the family moved to the South Bronx, where Ben’s father (Jay’s paternal grandfather) opened a small delicatessen.

Small family delis were once much more common in New York; many were not so much an occupation as a way of life. Often the owners would reside in the back room and would set the table with meals prepared from the stock in trade. Even when business was poor, the deli provided shelter and food.

Ben Parker was only 12 when his father died. With his mother – a “tough woman” from Russia, Jay recalls – Ben worked excruciating hours to keep the deli afloat, then to help it prosper. In time the family moved to Queens; in 1945, Ben transformed a shuttered, unsuccessful deli on Queens Boulevard into a business that he proudly named after himself.

The neighborhood, which already was home to a large Jewish population when Ben’s Best first opened its doors, offered a new life to many Holocaust survivors in the years after the Second World War. In 1948, the Rego Park Jewish Center built a synagogue, now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, just a block down the boulevard.

Jay remembers Rego Park of the early 1960s – when he “used to walk deliveries” throughout the neighborhood – as a haven for locally owned businesses. Among them: Phelp’s, the corner pharmacy with its soda fountain; Scott’s and White’s, a pair of seafood houses; Churchill Stereo; Smiler’s Supermarket; Little Royalty, a Hungarian-American-owned children’s clothing store; Shelly’s Bake Shop; the Boulevard Nightclub – and, notably, a kosher butcher next door to Ben’s Best, and “a half-dozen more delis.” All these are gone; chains and big-box stores, though not omnipresent, are abundant.

The neighborhood was also livelier well into the evening. When Jay was growing up, he recalls today, his father typically worked from 7:00 in the morning till 11:00 at night. Those might seem like long hours, Jay adds, but back in the day, Ben’s Best was regularly open past the midnight hour. Nowadays, closing time comes at 8 p.m., on weekends, at 9 p.m.

“You think my menu’s big?” Jay asks us. “It used to be an encyclopedia.”

During the decades that followed – as Jay earned his bachelor’s in philosophy and an MBA, then embarked on a Wall Street career – newly affluent Rego Park residents began moving to the suburbs. (Eventually, so too did Jay and his wife.) Although the neighborhood is still home to many observant Jews, an increasing number trace their ancestry not to Eastern Europe but to Central Asia, especially to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Restaurants serving food from Latin America and East Asia are also common – not to mention the fast-food chains that have displaced many local mom-and-pop businesses.

Even in 1984, when Ben handed down the family business to Jay, it was already unclear whether the neighborhood could still supply sufficient customers for an old-school kosher delicatessen. In response, Jay expanded the deli’s private and corporate catering efforts, established an online presence, and embraced the outreach of food writers and television personalities who have designated Ben’s Best as a destination restaurant.

Those efforts don’t clash with the vision of a business built on trust and familiarity; Jay still circulates through the dining room to check in with regular customers. But he’s also alert to the telltale signs of first-time visitors, especially when they catch sight of a pushpin-studded map of the United States, which asks: “You’ve been to our home. Where is yours?”

Alas, the thinning out of the core Rego Park clientele has led to a thinning out of the bill of fare, too. “You think my menu’s big?” Jay asks us. “It used to be an encyclopedia.” No longer does Ben’s Best serve baked carp, stuffed veal, the calves’ feet jelly called p’tcha, and ayerlach, the unborn eggs of chickens. “We used to have gefilte fish all the time,” says Jay, “now, only for the holidays.” Many of the bygone recipes were handed down from his maternal grandmother, who came from Poland (continual commentary by her six sisters likely helped to fine-tune those dishes).

Many food tourists who make the pilgrimage to Ben’s Best order – what else? – the pastrami; Jay’s classic rendition is long-cured, deeply seasoned and best washed down, we maintain, with black cherry soda. But, we ask, what’s on the menu that his grandmother might recommend? Jay suggests the stuffed cabbage, made fat with rice and beef, and a potato pancake paired with applesauce. Applesauce made in-house, of course – “anyone can open a can,” Jay interjects – from apples procured from the greengrocer two doors down.

Soon after we tuck in, a waitress carefully sets down a jumbo cup, branded “Rx Jewish penicillin,” of matzo ball soup. Tradition divides matzo balls into two schools, “floaters” and “sinkers,” but we thought of ours – which rested atop a submerged heap of noodles and shredded chicken – as a “sitter.” Ben Parker, we’d like to imagine, would give his approval.

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Dave Cook

Published on April 27, 2018

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