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In Its Prime

Recalling the heyday of the Romanian-Jewish steakhouse

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With smoke from backyard grills perfuming our cities, the appetite once again turns to steak. This summer’s been extra meaty, thanks to Steak: One Man’s Search for the World’s Tastiest Piece of Beef, by journalist Mark Schatzker. To find out what makes a great steak Schatzker visited ranches and breeders across the United States, Japan, Argentina, and Europe, breaking down the science and culture of cattle rearing for taste with tremendous wit and detail, even going so far as to raise his own cattle. Having lived in Argentina for a few years (where I once ended the Yom Kippur fast with a barbecue), I know my way around a grill and a cut of beef, but I now see that I’m a rank amateur compared to Schatzker.

In the book, Schatzker documents a love of steak that he inherited from his father, a Polish Holocaust survivor who ate his first steak at a small-town northern Ontario restaurant in 1952 and hasn’t tasted anything as good since. The father’s experience was similar to that of many Jewish immigrants: In North America, they found that beef, a seldom-eaten luxury in Eastern Europe, was relatively cheap and readily available at local supermarkets. As newcomers settled into suburban houses with backyard grills, steak became a symbol of prosperity, a way of sharing in the affluence bestowed by citizenship in a new country.

Outside the house, the embrace and consumption of steak as emblematic of the American Dream manifested itself in the popularity of Romanian Jewish steakhouses, a culinary hybrid that’s all but extinct today. According to food writer Arthur Schwartz, whose grandfather was a waiter at Brooklyn’s Little Oriental steakhouse, Romanian steakhouses, many of them kosher, flourished around Delancey Street at the turn of the century, later moving uptown to the garment district (Lou G. Siegel’s was most famous) and out to the suburbs. In New York, he estimates there were a dozen or more at their peak in the 1950s, with several dozen spread out across the country in cities with large Jewish populations. They were a step up from the workingman’s delicatessen, a destination for a night out on the town but still within the reach of families who saved a bit.

Unlike the cooks in Poland, Russia, or Hungary who would prepare boiled, stewed, or even baked steaks, the Romanians knew how to grill, and in the United States they created restaurants where the main course, of flame-grilled marbled rib steaks or juicy skirt steaks (also called Romanian Tenderloin) would be complemented by favorite appetizers including chopped liver, knishes, and gribenes, fried chicken skins, that would be shared by the table along with the ubiquitous buckets of coleslaw and kosher pickles. The closest you got to salad was chopped liver tossed with sliced radish. There would be karnatzelach, a garlicky beef sausage made with baking soda, which gives it a springy texture and delectable crust.

The only establishment of this ilk still standing is Sammy’s Roumanian Steakhouse, on New York’s Lower East Side. Ample shtick is served there along with the food—a keyboardist plays bar mitzvah music, everyone gets a T-shirt—but the setup is genuine: rec-room basement décor, sarcasm-tinged service, bottles of seltzer and jars of liquid schmaltz on the table, some of the finest chopped liver known to man, and flame-broiled cuts of meat loaded with sautéed onions. It is greasy, filling, overpriced. It is a blast.

As Jews climbed the socio-economic ladder, their steakhouses began to emulate those of the WASPs. Out went the cramped, rec-room look, and in came dimly-lit palaces of wood paneling and plush carpeting, often in the suburbs to which Jews moved in increasing numbers. Cocktail bars took a spot by the front, along with coat-check girls. Traditional dishes like p’tcha (jellied calves feet) were replaced by double-baked potatoes and iceberg salads. Kosher concerns faded, and non-kosher cuts like sirloin and filet were added to menus, as well as pork chops and shellfish. At Moishes in Montreal, one of the few high-end Jewish steakhouses still operating, waiters wheel out dessert carts at the end of the meal piled high with profiteroles and hot fudge sundaes.

Whether you visited Seymore Kaye’s in Queens, Duke Zeibert’s in Washington, or dozens of similar joints in Miami, Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, or Toronto, these were the haunts where real-estate machers and garmentos rolled deep in mink and sable and the parking lot overflowed with Cadillacs. This was Jewish dining at its most extravagant—with restaurants that belied their customers’ eagerness to be fully assimilated. Diners got French service, with tuxedo-jacketed waiters in white gloves, but the Yiddish taste remained, and the breadbasket was filled with challah rolls, pumpernickel, and fresh rye. Women in pearls picked at chopped liver, but there was a jovial atmosphere of back-slapping and kibitzing, and it never felt stuffy.

The Romanian-style steakhouse slowly died out, replaced on the low end of Jewish steak consumption by Israeli shish kebab restaurants and at the high end by fancy glatt kosher steakhouses, such as Prime Grill in Manhattan. Both iterations lack Yiddish kitchen flair. One is a multicultural mishmash, with less herring and more miso-glazed black cod, and the other is resolutely Middle Eastern. Fine dining for the younger generations of Jews now means sushi or Italian, and steak no longer means freedom as much as it means fat.

David Sax is a Toronto-based journalist and the author of Save the Deli.

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David, great article. And, I’m reminded of Myron & Phil’s in Chicago. I always thought it felt like a Jewish supper club, but now see it was started as a Romanian steak house. It’s been our go-to family restaurant since I was small. as always, thanks for the education!

Sidman says:

Wow, Great article that brought me back to the early 70′s where I experienced my first Roumanian Steak, in Montreal. I was visiting with my Father, who was of Transylvanian (Hungarian/Roumanian) descent and he brought me to visit a friend of his steakhouse that was somewhere downtown and located below street level. All I recall was this huge amazing beautifully grilled steak with whole cloves of garlic pressed into it. OMG, it was heaven on a plate, seared on the outside, jhuicy on the inside and full of flavour.I can still feel the atmosphere and heady aroma of the place as I type. I ate there 1 more time with him, but alas, like the article states, it too disappeared.

Diane T. says:

While visiting Sammy’s Roumanian many years ago, I asked Sammy ( who was standing nearby watching the room) if he could ask the Piano Player to to play “Roumania” since I was of Roumanian descent. Sammy looked at me and asked “You’re Roumanian?” I answered “Yes” whereon he called to one of the waiters “Irving, count the silverware”

D. Fogel says:

Karnatzlach are still available in Montreal delis.

I ate at Sammy’s about ten years ago and remember that it was the only time in my life when I experienced heartburn DURING a meal.

Jonathan says:

Great article, although my mouth is now salivating for some grilled steak and we’re still in the nine days

Joseph Hayes says:

The comments are almost a better read than the great article. Oy, I could do with some gribenes right now!

Louis Trachtman says:

I, too would love some gribenes right now. I have not eaten them in years. My wife tells me, “No one eats that way anymore!” I can live without steak, but gribenes – that would be a heavenly treat!

Benjamin Entine says:

My beloved, older brother’s favorite restaurant in the world was Sammy’s. From Kansas City, he would schedule flights around NYC just to go there. I thought the menus should be subtitled “Why the Jews die young.” Unfortunately, I was right.

Susan Zuckerman says:

Fran, I experience heartburn just thinking about the meal.

aaron levy says:

Great story. Great article. What we Jews have lost, first the Kosher Delis, now the Romanian Steak house, except for Sammy’s. I must go before it too closes for good. I used to come home from elementary school and my grandmother would have rendered chicken fat on Erve Shabbos. I ate the gribenes on challah for lunch, and so delicious!!!

In Jerusalem on a visit I ate grilled steal and kabos in a Rpmanian restaurant! Delicious there as well.

Thank you for the Memories!!

susan says:

I ate at Sammy’s and loved it. I had a huge skirt steak. It was like a giant Jewish fajita. Delicious!

Michael says:

I ate at Sammy’s it was great although you could feel your arteries congealing with fat by the end of the meal. Also you forgot to mention the vodka bottles in blocks of ice that you could get for the table. By the end of the meal I ended up trading the shirt off my back for the Sammy’s sweatshirt the water was wearing. A few months later the waiter opened a new steakhouse called Triplets.

David says:

Only thing left out was the unborn eggs in the chicken soup and the milk and chocolate syrup to make egg creams at the end of the meal. I once had a veal chop there and so help me it hung over both sides of the plate. My wife used to say that from Sammies, you went straight to the Emergancy Room!!

What better way to celebrate the wedding night of a second marriage than to have dinner at Sammy’s. Of course, the kids grumbled in advance, unlike us having never been, but we, the bride and groom, insisted and persisted and prevailed.
Naturally, they loved it and have been great Sammy’s fans ever since.
Notice please, next time you are fortunate enough to dine there, how on the day after, your entire body – not just your mouth – exudes the delicious aroma of garlic.

Peter Hood says:

As a non-Jew can someone tell me what ‘gribenes’ is or are ? Thanks.

shari says:

i still make gribenes for Rosh Hashonah and Passover. my sons (20 and 23) can’t get enough of it!
Peter – gribenes is sliced onions that is cooked in the hunks of fat taken off a chicken until the are almost, but not quite, burned. you eat the onions (gribenes) and use the rendered fat to cook with or to spread on bread or matzah and then (at least in my family) sprinkle salt and garlic powder on top. terribly unhealthy yet delicious.

Debra says:

no, no, no–the gribenes are the rendered chicken fat pieces—cut into squares, cooked with onions and a bissel water to render the fat–pouring it off into a glass jar as the fat melts (this is the schmaltz) and continuing to cook over a low flame until all the fat is rendered, the onions are almost but not quite burned and the skin squares, the gribenes, are crispy crunchy! (and oh, so delicious . . .)

Deborah Morris says:

Loved the article! I believe it was Mel Brooks who said, “Jewish-Roumanian cooking killed more Jews than Hitler!”

Hyman Peskin says:

An unforgetable moment at Montreal’s late and lamented Brown Derby Deli-
and I remember it well. A poor goy walks in and loudly orders a chopped liver sandwich with – SOUR CREAM. All heads turned, I thought he would be lynched on the spot.

Phil Belkin says:

Great article. I brought back memories for me of Seymour Kaye’s on Queens Blvd.,
which unlike Sammy’s was Kosher.

Thomas Beck says:

Actually, it was Zero Mostel who said of Rumanian-Jewish cooking that it killed more Jews than Hitler. Although I’m sure Mel Brooks wishes he’d said it.

I went to NYU in the seventies — my kosher boyfriend and I would splurge at a steak house in the Lower East Side, but also the kosher chinese joints. He always wanted me to say it was “just like” real Chinese food. Alas, it was not, but it was special in its own way. I can still feel the crunch of a fried veal wonton in my mouth.

Gribenes…if you miss them, make your own. Pull the skin off a chicken or three, along with the subcutaneous fat. Put it in a frying pan with some water and no other fat. Keep adding water as the water boils away, a little at a time. Do not submerge the skin in water, you are not making soup! The water helps the fat to render out of the skin. Cook, over low to medium heat, until the skin is dry and crispy. You can add onions (yum) and you can cut the skin into pieces before you start. Whatever. It takes a long time to make them right, but you will be rewarded for your patience. You know how some people love their fried pork skins? These are the kosher kind. Fatty, salty, crispy…what’s not to love?

Decant the rendered fat into a clean glass jar and you will have delicious schmaltz for…well, whatever you want it for. Refrigerate the schmaltz. You don’t have to refrigerate the gribenes, I don’t think.

I have never made these, but this is how it’s done.

vicki karno says:

On one of my first trips to NY, some local friends took us to Sammy’s.
When the meal was served, I was speechless. The size of the servings, the tableside preparation of mashed potatoes with the pouring of clarified schmaltz from syrup-like dispenser and then the gribenes were added. After many years, I was thrilled to find a bowl of gribenes on the table at the new 2nd Avenue deli. Everyone was watching their
intake except me. I boldly asked for an addition bowl of gribenes.
And then I explained to non-Jewish friends that they were Jewish version of porkrines only better.

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In Its Prime

Recalling the heyday of the Romanian-Jewish steakhouse

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