Culinary delights of the Lower East Side: Russ & Daughters

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:

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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?

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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:

16 Comments

  1. Hempenstein
    Posted October 28, 2010 at 6:33 am | Permalink

    There’s Mordecai! I never get tired of watching that one. Or this one:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pewILmqHZ3I

    Interesting that fish connect my two favorite funny videos.

    Is there a typical Yiddish term for barrel pickles?

    • Posted November 2, 2010 at 8:26 am | Permalink

      @Hempenstein

      “Is there a typical Yiddish term for barrel pickles?”

      I think it’s just “pickl-berls.” Be sure to roll the r in berls, though.

  2. Dominic
    Posted October 28, 2010 at 6:36 am | Permalink

    If you look at the far right of the picture you will see someone has eaten all the Norwegian salmon!

  3. Posted October 28, 2010 at 6:38 am | Permalink

    “Keeping it Kippered” should be the name of a folk ensemble featuring non-stop klezmer clarinet solos.

    I hope that bagel was saddled with kosher capers.

  4. Zoe
    Posted October 28, 2010 at 7:10 am | Permalink

    The bagal so closely resembles a dividing cell that it must be a miracle! Well, that is enough for me! I am converted! I believe in Evolution!

  5. yesmyliege
    Posted October 28, 2010 at 7:49 am | Permalink

    Those NYC prices – Oy veh! But the best is worth it.

    Up here in Vermont the best deal on lox is – handsdown – at CostCo. A pound and a half for about $19 and it is the freshest fish I have seen in the State. It may or may not be up to NY standards, but it is pretty darned tasty.

    Our local supermarket is a Price Chopper – a regional chain owned by a Jewish family – and they make good bagels. They also just put in a Jewish deli with about the best pastrami and corned beef sandwiches in town – it’s the real deal.

  6. NewEnglandBob
    Posted October 28, 2010 at 8:24 am | Permalink

    Ahhhh, belly lox! I can’t get that anywhere around here, I have to go to NYC.

  7. Kevin
    Posted October 28, 2010 at 8:58 am | Permalink

    Down here in Possum Holler, we smoke the mountain trout.

    Nobody does a decent bagel, though. The residents of the hills named William call them “city donuts”.

    No kidding.

  8. Posted October 28, 2010 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    Enough with the Jew food!

    …you’re making me jealous. I used to live in NYC, and I can still imagine the bagels and lox if I close my eyes long enough. Damn. Damn damn damn.

  9. Posted October 28, 2010 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

    Crikey, Prof! With your reviews, last night’s edition of “Food Safari” concentrating on Jewish food (on Aussie TV station SBS, the best station ever) and the city’s best bagelry up the street from me (“Huff” in Carnegie, SE of Melbourne and next to a big Jewish & Russian part of town) I’m a drooling goyim mess. Reckon I might convert, just for the nosh.

    • Posted October 28, 2010 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

      Seriously, if any of you ever make it Oz, Melbourne’s inner south-east has fabulous Jewish culture & food. The delis, fishmongers, bakeries, butchers – trust me, you’ll have to pay extra luggage allowance to fly your newly-expanded arse home!

      • Posted October 28, 2010 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

        Dang, now you’ve got me thinking about the soul food I was raised on: roast chicken with chestnut stuffing, boiled fruit cake, oat & golden syrup biscuits, roast leg of lamb with roast parsnips, self-saucing chocolate pudding …

        *sniff*

        I gotta go call my ma …

  10. Posted October 28, 2010 at 8:34 pm | Permalink

    I have a love/hate relationship with lox.

    I LOVE IT. LOOOOOOVE IT.

    So whenever I have the opportunity to eat it, I gorge myself.

    Then, within 12 hours, I have a *massive* migraine.

    If I just have a little, Im fine.

    But I can never have just a little 🙁

    • Adey
      Posted October 29, 2010 at 9:14 am | Permalink

      Only a migraine? In my case a single mouthful of any smoked fish and projectile vomitting is guaranteed. It seems to be a reaction to some component of the smoking.

  11. Daniel Murphy
    Posted October 29, 2010 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

    So you made it to Russ & Daughters! Sorry to hear Ben’s Dairy has closed.

    I used to go to Russ & Daughters and have the same conversation every time — I’d want 3 chopped herring with the onions and the cream sauce, and no, I didn’t want 4 in the larger container with more cream sauce and more onions.

    On the way home back along Houston Street, I’d make a second stop at Yonah Schimmel’s for a kasha knish or two … ;-


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