I can’t believe that there was a time when the thought of smoked fish disgusted me. It was fish—and raw! Fortunately, as I grew up, so did my palate, and now I consume smoked fish with relish—or, preferably, cream cheese. And so I join the ranks of my ancestors who knew the delights of lox.
There is one and only one source for smoked fish on the Lower East Side: Russ & Daughters, founded in 1914 by Joel Russ, who began by selling herring from a pushcart. The store has been at its present location—179 East Houston Street—for 90 years. Besides over a dozen varieties of lox, it sells whitefish, sturgeon, herring, gefilte fish, and other essential accoutrements of the Sunday New York Times.
Here’s their selection of lox—be sure to click the picture twice in succession to make it real big.
When I lived in New York in the 70s, we all followed writer Calvin Trillin’s advice for assembling the perfect Sunday trifecta: get an onion bagel at Moshe’s bakery nearby, pick up some cream cheese at Ben’s Dairy, next door, and then to Russ & Daughters for the lox. Oy, what a treat that was! Tragically, Moshe’s and Ben’s are no longer with us, but Russ & Daughters now sells bagels and cream cheese. Food writer Adam Roberts describes the store-made product (it’s his photo, too):
I meant business, both in a speed sense and a hunger sense, and I asked a man behind the counter for an onion bagel with smoked salmon and tomato. This is the traditional Sunday bagel combo (maybe throw in some raw onions too, if stinky breath’s your game) and I awaited it greedily. Time passed and I kept looking at my watch but the man making my bagel wasn’t dawdling. He was sharpening his knife, then he was choosing the fish, and then he was cutting thick slices, and then he found a fresh tomato and cut slices from that, and then he slowly spread cream cheese on a soft looking onion bagel. He did everythign with great care and focus and that was great. I grabbed a fresh squeezed orange juice and the grand total was $10.25. That’s almost the same as it would be at Murray’s where I go all the time.
Here’s the bagel as it appeared on my lap as I sat on a bench outside, ready to scarf it down:
Now let me tell you something. That bagel? It was pretty good. Soft, oniony, very nice. And the cream cheese? Creamy and fresh, just right. But that fish? Oh, that fish.
I’ve never had fresher smoked fish in my life. It really seemed like a salmon had crawled out of the sea, walked through a smoker like a car might go through a car wash, and then laid itself down on Russ’s slicing board ready for my guy to slice big thick slices. If the bagel in my lap were a Broadway show, that fish was Ethel Merman. It was fantastic.
This video shows the inside of the store and the variety of fish. I’ve never had the pastrami-cured salmon—why mess with perfection?
And I couldn’t resist adding this comedy ad for whitefish. Remember the old Budweiser “wazzup?” commercials? Here’s the Jewish equivalent, written by David Berenbaum as an entry for the HBO comedy film contest in 2001: