Notes from a New York City Foodie Trip

Is Junior’s Cheesecake worth its accolades?

I love cheesecake. My guess is that most people who have tried cheesecake, love cheesecake. But I was a relatively late convert to cheesecake. My first real experience with it did not come until after college. Before, I had been reluctant to try it. In my childhood, my mother made a frozen ricotta cake which I wasn’t terribly fond of, so when Sara Lee frozen cheesecakes hit the Argentine market, I’m going to guess around 1980, the time of a cheap dollar and lots of imports, I refused to even try them. I loved the Sara Lee strawberry shortcake (no longer produced), but the idea of cheesecake seemed, to me, to be an abomination. After that, cheesecake just went into my long last of things I knew I wouldn’t like, so I didn’t.

It wasn’t until I was doing my junior-cum-senior year abroad in Egypt that my interest in cheesecake was awoken. It was all because of Lola, another foreign student at the American University in Cairo who would quickly become my best friend. She craved cheesecake. She talked about it incessantly. So much so, that we spent a fair amount of time looking for cheesecakes in Cairo – never to be found. So when we returned, I had to try it. I actually can’t remember the first time I did, but soon enough I became, like practically everyone else, a cheesecake aficionado. Over the years and decades, I have eaten and baked many a cheesecake. To be honest, most of them taste pretty close to each other. They are made with sweetened Philadelphia-style cream cheese, flour, sugar and eggs. Variations come on the crust – graham cracker is traditional, but I’ve preferred it with vanilla wafers -, and on the toppings. These can be anything: chocolate, fruit, caramel, peanut butter; you name it. But, I keep going back to plain New York cheesecake. Sometimes simpler is better.

It should thus not be surprising that for my first stop in New York City, I chose Junior’s for dinner. Among the myriad of restaurants and bakeries serving cheesecake in NYC, the two most often mentioned as having the best cheesecake in town (and therefore, the world) are Junior’s and Eileen’s Special Cheesecake. Junior’s, which started as a coffee shop-style restaurant in Brooklyn back in 1950, has since opened two other locations in Manhattan (and one in Connecticut), one of which was just a couple of shorts blocks away from our hotel.

There was no wait to be seated, on that Sunday evening in February – but Junior’s offers an online waitlist for those times when it’s busy. The 49th St. & Broadway location where we dined looks like an old-fashioned coffee shop; there are booths, tables and lots of waiters buzzing around. The immense menu has everything you’d expect in a restaurant of that kind and more: burgers, soups and salads, lots of different sandwiches – including four different Reubens -, seafood prepared in a myriad of ways, roasted or fried seafood and meats, BBQ (?!) and a couple of odes to its Eastern European cultural origins: Hungarian beef goulash and Romanian steak. In addition to a myriad of cheesecakes, Junior’s serves other desserts, ice cream sodas, malts and shakes. If you are looking for that 1950’s diner-style experience from so many Hollywood movies, you’ll find it here. Most of the crowd were foreign tourists, however, judged by the myriad of mostly European languages we heard spoke and the location near Times Square.

Junior's Pastrami Cheeseburger

We weren’t particularly hungry, however – I’d brought us a sandwich to share in the plane – so we decided to split a pastrami burger ($23) and two slices of cheesecake. The burger was impressive as far as size went, but not particularly great. It wasn’t as juicy or flavorful as I’d had hoped for. The pastrami itself was very tasty, the slices were fairly thick and had a pleasant smoky flavor. Ordering a pastrami sandwich might be a better call here. The burger was served with steak fries and onion rings, which were remarkably under-seasoned. Their ranch dressing was superb, however.

Junior's classic cheesecake

The cheesecakes, fortunately, were much better. I just loved their “famous No1 original cheesecake,” aka New York cheesecake ($9/slice). It was light and very creamy, and most importantly, had a very different flavor from most cheesecakes. It tasted like it was made from some type of farmer’s cheese, it had a more savory, aged? flavor and was less sweet that most cheesecakes I’ve had. Perhaps they use neufchatel, the French cheese American cream cheese is set to imitate? I don’t think I would have liked it as a kid, but as an older adult, it hit the spot. The cheesecake is made with a thin sponge cake crust, rather than a graham cracker one, which improves the whole experience. In all, I was quite happy and considered bringing one back with me. However, that might have been a disaster and Junior’s ships them country-wide, so I might order one for Thanksgiving or another holiday meal. I think I will also try to recreate it, and I’ll blog about my tries when the time comes.

Junior's Brownie Cheesecake

The “brownie explosion cheesecake” slice ($9.25) we ordered was much less successful. I was envisioning a cheesecake with little pieces of brownie baked in, but instead it consisted of two layers of brownie with some cheesecake in the middle. The brownie was good, but very dense, and too rich a dessert for this stage in my life. Plus, flavor wise, the brownie overwhelmed the cheesecake.

Service was good but hurried. The experience in general was quite positive. I’d go back.

626 Broadway @ 49th Street
Manhattan, NYC

Sunday – Thursday 7am – 12am
Friday – Saturday 7am – 1am
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