After graduating high school in the long-gone world of 1998, I took a job a now-defunct kosher Jewish deli in the Plainview Shopping Centre at South Oyster Bay and Woodbury Roads. I worked the counter taking orders, cooking hot dogs and knishes, wrapping sandwiches and lamenting the deli’s musical playlist on constant repeat.
During my months-long stint at the kosher Jewish eatery, I learned heaps from the veteran deli men patrolling the counter and the subterranean prep and storage rooms. For starters, those hot dogs leftover at the end of the day? Throw them in a bucket of water and place the bucket, uncovered, in the refrigerated display case. Another fine lesson regarded the coleslaw. Can’t find a bowl big enough to mix the day’s slaw? Just grab a recycling bucket from the basement, fill it up, dive in up to your shoulders and go to town.
But, it wasn’t all disgusting revelations about what goes on behind the scenes at a deli. In between scoops of kasha and squirts of mustard, I’d often descend into the basement to retrieve a brisket or some half sours. And there, amongst the stuffed cabbages and turkey legs, would be an opaque bucket filled to the brim with a thick, aromatic liquid. And, swimming in that liquid would be mammoth beef tongues, all brined and ready.
The unadulterated beef tongue is a shocking and horrific sight at first. With taste buds still attached, you can smell the barnyard and hear the moo. But, after it’s cleaned, prepared, sliced and placed between rye with some mustard, it is easily some of the best eating anywhere on the cow. Remember, the tongue is a muscle just like any other muscle on the cow. The meat that Americans drool over in steaks, roasts and ribs are also muscle, and yet, people recoil at the mere thought of eating tongue.
The horror is completely unfounded. Tongue is a highly versatile meat. It can be sautéed, deep fried, grilled, roasted, poached, braised and more preparations I’ve probably never heard of. At Ben’s Kosher Delicatessen, the venerable Jewish deli with locations in Manhattan, Queens, Florida and Long Island, the must-have sandwich is cold tongue on rye with mustard. Fatty, rich and satisfying, the sliced tongue is almost creamy in texture and is a far grander eating experience than pastrami, salami or corned beef.
Beef tongue twists beyond Jewish deli preparation and can also be found in Mexican cuisine. At Little Mexico in Westbury (280 Post Ave.), tongue, or la lengua, is found in tacos, tortas and huaraches, in all its braised glory. Browning is the key to great tongue in a taco. Much like the charring of a burger patty, browning the tongue releases newfound flavors and elevates the texture of the meat to a mouthfeel that is crisp on the outside and soft on the inside.
Little Mexico offers a smoky red salsa, as well as a milder, but no less flavorful, green tomatillo salsa. Pro tip: order two tongue tacos and top one with red and the other with green.
While researching for this column, memories of my deli days came rushing back, but along with it was disappointment that, sadly, tongue is a very rare find on Long Island menus. Tongue should be a staple in far more cuisines, and it should have a place on far more menus across the island. As a deli meat, a taco filling and the greatest pot roast you’ve ever tasted, our tongues should be wagging at the utter brilliance of those underused, underappreciated cut of beef.