Opened in 1965 on the Upper East Side by a gentleman of the same name, PJ Bernstein has had its fair share of famous regulars over the decades — and those regulars have all had favorite menu items. Sharon Stone favors chicken soup with a turkey sandwich. Lucille Ball went for kosher hot dogs. And Howard Cosell used to order PJ Bernstein’s open-faced Reuben sandwich and struggled, as most people do, to finish it.
Now owned by Steve Slobodski, who operates the famous Jewish delicatessen with his son Eugene, PJ Bernstein has also catered to its regular customers with non-menu items from time to time, as was the case with a longtime loyalist named Jack who would typically order two latkes with a half-pound of pastrami and make a sandwich with the fried potato pancakes serving as the buns.
According to Eugene, Jack ordered his potato and pastrami combo frequently enough that eventually the deli started making it for him and put a version of it, which is also available with brisket, on the menu. Served with coleslaw and pickles alongside other specialty sandwiches like the Jewish Whopper (fried potato knish stuffed with pastrami and sauerkraut) and the Abe Vigoda (pastrami, turkey and chopped liver), the Lucky Latke has been a hit since going on the menu, particularly with tourists who use it as a way to sample two PJ Bernstein staples in one dish.
At $25 the Lucky Latke isn’t cheap, but you do get what you pay for — just save a couple bucks for some TUMS. “It’s a bigger sandwich that’s very filling,” Eugene says. “You don’t need a soup and you don’t need an appetizer with it. It’s a one-and-done specialty classic. It’s hearty and definitely gives a little heartburn.”
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Crafted from scratch completely in-house just like everything else PJ Bernstein serves, the Lucky Latke is an example of the Slobodski’s ongoing effort to keep updating their menu with new items without veering too far off the beaten path. “If you eat at a deli almost every day like myself, it gets way too repetitive, so it’s nice to try new variations,” Eugene says. “Variations like the Lucky Latke really hit the spot. When you combine the fat from the pastrami with the sweet onions and potato from the latke, it is beyond delicious. It really does some damage.”
Unfortunately for Eugene, that’s not just hyperbole. “I actually don’t eat any red meat or anything fried anymore,” he says. “I’m only 25, but I have really high cholesterol from the years of downing pastrami sandwiches, so I really have to watch out for that stuff. I think I’ve had the Lucky Latke once or twice in my life because of my health.”
If your doctor will allow it, here’s the recipe to make your own Lucky Latke.
PJ Bernstein’s Lucky Latke
Servings: One sandwich
- 2-4 lbs. grated potatoes (adjust as needed)
- 2-4 finely chopped onions
- 4 cups flour
- 3 Tbsp. salt
- 1 Tbsp. pepper
- 12 eggs
- .5 lb. pastrami
In a mixing bowl, combine the grated potato and chopped onion. Add flour, salt, pepper and eggs and mix to create a batter. The flour should be enough to bind the mixture, and the salt and pepper should be to taste.
Heat a skillet with oil over medium-high heat. Spoon the potato mixture into the skillet, forming small pancakes. Flatten them with a spatula to ensure even cooking.
Fry the latkes for about 5 to 10 minutes on each side or until they are golden brown and crispy. Adjust the heat to prevent burning while ensuring they are cooked through.
While the latkes are cooking, warm up the pastrami.
Once the latkes are perfectly golden brown and crispy, place one latke on a plate. Layer the warmed pastrami evenly on top of the first latke. Place the second latke on top of the pastrami and serve the sandwich hot.
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