NEW YORK — Just out of reach of a halo of boutique doughnut shops and yuppie-centric taco stands is David’s Brisket House – sandwiched, as it were, between the gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhoods of Crown Heights and Bed-Stuy.
You’d walk right past the unassuming storefront if you weren’t looking for it, but inside sits a tasty lesson in deceiving appearances.
The restaurant’s name itself is somewhat of a misnomer: For one thing, it’s not owned by a David, and the brisket itself, while good, is nothing to write home about. In fact, the deli belongs to Riyadh Gazali, a Yemeni Muslim, and it’s the corned beef and pastrami that are the stars — arguably as good as New York’s famous deli meccas, Katz’s or Ben’s.
The early-20th century gem of a greasy spoon is seemingly unaware of the cult-like buzz that sends some of the more intrepid Yelpers out like scout ants probing an otherwise desolate culinary landscape. There’s been little, if any, tweaking to the original recipe over the last 50 years since its second owner, a Romanian Jew, left the restaurant to the family of the current management. The same might be said of the décor.
But while the closet-sized restaurant continues to pump out the Jewish classics as it has for decades, the once-kosher meat is now hallal.
The Jewish-Muslim collaboration doesn’t end there. On Thursday evening, David’s Brisket House is hosting a fundraiser in partnership with Breaking Bread NYC to benefit HIAS, an organization founded in 1881 to help Jews fleeing Russian pogroms, but which now is at the fore fighting an increasingly bleak situation for new immigrants to the United States, many of whom are Muslim.
It’s no coincidence they’re working with the charity — the restaurant gives off the sort of warm, neighborhood-oriented vibe often attributed to this type of family-run business. One might even call it heimish.
While sitting with new partner and acting manager Mustafa over a fatty but extremely delicate steamed pastrami on rye (full disclosure, he insisted the sandwich be on the house), we are interrupted by a hungry-looking young man asking for help — a not uncommon occurrence in this part of Brooklyn. Without skipping a beat, Mustafa pulls out his wallet and makes a generous contribution — but he also doesn’t let the kid go without giving him a sandwich.
When it comes to verifying the mythology behind the fabled Muslim-owned deli, though, Mustafa doesn’t offer much.
“You probably know more about that stuff than I do just from looking online,” he demurs.
Rumor has it that the original David sold the business in the 1970s to another Jew with a gambling addiction. The new owner eventually took off for Las Vegas, and when he left, a duo who ran a bagel store across the street took over, both of them Yemeni — one Jewish, one Muslim. Eventually, the Yemeni Jew left the business and his partner took full ownership, and the business stayed in the family until today, when his nephew runs it.
The restaurant’s clientele is as diverse as its history — between the narrow bare-brick walls, hunched over greasy tables, a sampling of the neighborhood’s many inhabitants nosh quietly together: African and Caribbean Americans next to whites, Muslims of Middle Eastern and Asian descent next to the occasional deli-savvy Jew. It’s a standby for those in the know and those who don’t know better.
While he won’t speculate about the original owners, Mustafa is keen to offer an unsolicited discourse of the laws of hallal.
“It means the animal is killed as humanely as possible,” he says in a thick Brooklyn accent. “We use an extremely sharp knife so the animal feels less pain.”
Whether he offers this information as a preemption against the daily xenophobia penetrating even this friendly Brooklyn enclave, or whether it’s for my benefit as a journalist from Israel, I don’t know. What I do know is that I’m more interested in the melt-in-your-mouth pastrami in front of me than in the religion of its proprietor.
Already familiar with the principles behind ritual slaughter from my kosher years, I wave my hand dismissively and go in for another bite.