Steve Safern knew for 20 years that he had a restaurant to open. When he finally teamed up with college roommate and long-time restaurant man Andy Walsh to open Hershel’s East Side Deli four years ago, the story of the restaurant was actually more than 64 years in the making. Hershel’s serves a full Kosher-style menu and makes almost all of its products from scratch, procuring locally delicious breads and pickles. We were overwhelmed by the thick-cut fresh pastrami sandwich, Corned Beef Special and Reuben. Like the fresh-made meats they are famous for, their shop is brined in the tradition of the Jewish people.
Hershel’s stays true to a standard of hearty freshness and quality set by a dying breed of old-American delis. Delis that, like the world famous Katz’ Deli in New York, cure their own Kosher-style meats. Steve’s uncle Hershel, the shop’s namesake, worked over 40 years at Katz’, eventually becoming a partial owner before retiring in 1989. Before his uncle passed away, Steve promised him he was going to open a restaurant to honor the legacy of their family’s meat, “doing it right, from scratch”.
Before Steve’s uncle and father came to America, his family made and sold deli meat at their general merchandise store in Poland. His uncle Hershel, who Steve rightly credits for his own life, rescued his father from the Nazis when they swept through and burned their crowded synagogue to the ground one Sabbath morning, leaving them the only two Jewish survivors of their town of Dynow. To honor him, Steve and Andy have taken generations-old family recipes and refined them until they created a product that rivals, and many argue tops, the famous Katz’ Deli. Andy is personally involved throughout the 10-day process “to ensure perfect quality,” he said, ”after all, I didn’t get into this business just to make my living”.
The pastrami sandwich is the crown jewel, a massive pile of dripping fresh hand cut, 10-day cured, slow-baked, 10 spice rubbed “Kosher navel”: the same traditional, high fat, high flavor meat that less than a half-dozen delis still use. The peppery, garlicky, coriander rub adds a kick and coating to the succulent meat. The sandwich comes on local Kaplan’s New Model Bakery rye “the best rye you can buy anywhere, no comparison”, says Andy.
The thick-stacked Corned Beef Special, their most popular sandwich, is made with slaw, made fresh daily, and a tangy thousand island dressing. The rye bread soaked up the thick dressing and juice from the coleslaw, but remained perfectly spongy and snappy. The thick-cut corned beef allows you to taste the sour and garlicky flavor, while preserving the subtle value of the textural differences between the crisp outer crust and the tender meat.
The Reuben was everything you expect a Reuben to be, if you expect your Reuben to absolutely blow you away. A stockpile of their thick, house-cured and slow-cooked corned beef, sauerkraut that Andy buys “from the Northeast Philly Pickleman” and a sharp Swiss cheese are served on grilled rye.
We highly recommend you stop by Reading Terminal Market and go to Hershel’s. Treat yourselves to a sandwich, soup and Dr. Brown’s soda as you consume your share of the 4,000 pounds of meaty hospitality dished up per week by Andy and Steve. If religious tradition has you soon giving up bread for Passover, and you are swinging by today to get your last leavened-fix, we recommend the pastrami. If you’re feeling generous, we’d love seconds.
Hershel’s East Side Deli
1 North 12th Street – Philadelphia, PA 19107 (Google Map)