Borscht Belt lives on at Sammy’s Roumanian in New York City

Photo: David Zimmerman

By Janet Jourman Protzel, Special to the Jewish Light

After a visit to the Eldridge Synagogue, why not consider a visit to Sammy’s Roumanian Steak House, which is also located on New York’s Lower East Side? When we went, what we found more than delivered on its reputation for great Jewish food and fun: Chopped liver served tableside along with singer/emcee playing synthesizer and belting out Sinatra-era dance tunes and zingers a la Jackie Mason. Photos of jovial crowds, celebrities and dignitaries adorn every square inch of wall space. It is a testament to the good times that must have rolled in the Catskills’ Borscht Belt during its 1950s heyday.

A family affair

After being seated at our table – set with bottles of schmaltz, Seltzer and Kettle One vodka frozen into a block of ice – we were given the low-down by our waiter on the house specialties. Then came the interrogation. “You from New York? Out of town? Visiting or on business?” And the big question: “Are you Jewish?”

When we revealed we were from St. Louis and, yes, Jewish, the response from our emcee, Donny (Dani, an Israeli) was: “What? They have Jews in St. Louis?” Somehow we weren’t offended. Our waiter proudly identified himself as a “pizza bagel” – half Jewish, half Italian. We were all suddenly family, and everyone – staff and customer alike – becomes part of the act.

Decision time

The large and exotic menu of delicacies was startling, offering foods unseen for years (chicken livers with unborn eggs), some that sounded familiar (flanken – beef cut from the short rib), and others we had never heard of (karnqatzlach – garlic sausages), along with standard fare like latkes, home fries and mashed potatoes, with or without greevenes (chicken skin fried in schmaltz with onions).

We decided to plunge right in with a half-order of the chopped chicken liver, described as a must by our waiter. “Only half?” he questioned, but seemed to accept our excuse that we had indulged only an hour before in a Yonah Schimmel knish (“The World’s Finest Knishes Since 1910”).

What arrived was pure showmanship. With a flurry, the table was soon flooded with bowls of pickled condiments, fresh rye bread and the chopped liver fixin’s – raw and caramelized onions and strips of crunchy turnip – to be “tossed” by the waiter into the pâté and doused with a long, tall pour of schmaltz, ergo Sammy’s “Jewish Caesar salad.”

As an entrée, we chose their signature tenderloin (skirt steak), topped with a schmear of garlic. Again, it did not disappoint and probably could have served a family of four. In fact, with entrée prices between $25 and $40, splitting a dish is not a bad idea. Needless to say, we didn’t have room for dessert, although the homemade rugelach (four giant pieces for $7.95) was tempting.

The back story

Sammy’s Roumanian has been a Lower East Side institution for decades. According to owner/operator David Zimmerman, his father, Stan Zimmerman, won the restaurant from the original owner, Sammy Friedman, in a poker game in 1975.

“My father had a coffee shop in Newark and had worked in the Catskills. He honed his skills at egg creams working as a soda jerk at Howard Johnson’s in Times Square. It was his idea to add egg creams to our menu. The Sammy’s sign was already there, so we decided to keep it – and the name.”

Zimmerman noted that no one at Sammy’s today is Roumanian. “The original cuisine was similar to what we have now, but heavier. We made it more Ashkenazi, then added the Jewish music and vodka on every table. We’re all about good food and good times.”

And although the restaurant is not strict “glatt kosher,” a number of items are kosher, including the lamb, tenderloin and the kishka. “We get a lot of Syrian Jews coming in for the vegetarian items,” Zimmerman added.

That’s entertainment

The restaurant is open every day except for Yom Kippur and Super Bowl Sunday, with entertainment nightly. “There are two seatings on Saturday night,” says Zimmerman. “The 6 p.m. show is more family oriented, whereas the 9 p.m. crowd is younger, more hip. We call the late show ‘Jewish Girls Gone Wild.’ We also do a lot of ‘backwards Bar Mitzvahs’ – at 31, now you can drink alcohol,” he chuckled.

Having had as much schmaltz, song and dance as we could take, we stumbled out the door to hail a cab, sorry to be leaving, yet comforted knowing the pungent tastes, smells and sounds of Sammy’s Roumanian would live on in our memories.

Janet Jourman Protzel is a freelance writer and editor. She lives in University City.

If you go

What: Sammy’s Roumanian Steak House

Where: 157 Chrystie Street, near Delancy

Recommended Dishes: Chopped liver, $11.95; karnatzlack, $11.95; single Romanian tenderloin, medium, $36.95

More info: 212-673-0330