If you’re either a Jew or a New Yorker—or both—you probably have strong feelings about lox. If you know what’s good in life, you push aside the starchy noodle kugel at the Yom Kippur break-fast feast and beeline for the smoked salmon platter.
Lox-obsession reaches a fever pitch in the city during the the Jewish High Holidays (for all you goyim out there, that’s right now). But the number of cured salmon options—like so many other things in this city—can be completely overwhelming.
The First We Feast staff took it upon ourselves to try a broad sampling of the so-called “best” lox in New York City, in order to determine the true winner.
A few notes: We bought Nova smoked salmon from five of the purveyors. Why? Today, when people refer to “lox,” as in “bagels and lox,” they are most likely referring to Nova smoked salmon, or salmon that has been wet-brined and lightly cold-smoked. To the Eastern European Jewish immigrants who first came to New York, “lox” meant something different: salmon long-cured in a salt brine and definitely not smoked. This traditional lox can still be found today at throwbacks like Russ & Daughters in the form of belly lox.
We threw Russ & Daughters’ old-school belly lox into the running as a wildcard, along with Mile End’s new-school version of traditional unsmoked lox (made with king salmon), to see how tasters would react—and whether they’d be able to tell the difference. (Spoiler alert: R&D belly lox announces itself loud and proud.)
Check out the results of the FWF Lox Taste Test below. Our six tasters sampled each entry on its own, as well as on a bagel with cream cheese, then rated them on a scale from 0-5.
Barney Greengrass Nova Lox
541 Amsterdam Ave; 212-724-4707, barneygreengrass.com. $42 per lb.
Taste-test superlative: Best in show
This brightly-colored lox had a clean taste, and nuanced flavors that went beyond mere saltiness and brine. The texture was luxurious, and the slices were cut consistently thin. “Nutty and soft,” said one taster. “There were flavors here that none of the other lox had. Kind of perfect.”
Overall rating (out of 5): 4.5
Russ & Daughters Nova Lox
179 E Houston St; 212-475-4880, russanddaughters.com. $40 per lb.
With a pleasantly smoky character and an overall buttery quality, this was our second favorite lox in the tasting. While the saltiness wasn’t excessive, it was very palpable. The group felt this fish had a clean and light flavor, and that it delivered everything you expect from lox without being too in-your-face about it—”the nice Jewish boy of the lox showdown,” if you will.
Overall rating: 4
Sable’s Nova Lox
1489 2nd Ave; 212-249-6177, sablesnyc.com. $40 per lb.
This whitish-pink salmon was not too salty, not too briny—kind of neutral and even in both flavor and texture. Tasters generally agreed that it was a crowd-pleaser, more akin to salmon sashimi than true lox (“like Sushi of Gari [mid-range] sashimi, not Sushi Nakazawa”). One taster said, “It’s really tasty solo, but could get a little lost in a sandwich unless you punch it up with other salty accoutrement like capers.”
Overall rating: 3
Shelsky’s of Brooklyn Nova Lox
141 Court St, Cobble Hill, Brooklyn; 718-855-8817, shelskys.com. $40 per lb.
Taste-test superlative: Best for a sandwich
While this lox “tasted like the sea” and boasted a beautiful orange color, the group thought it was inconsistent. “The best bites were truly great”—optimally salty, with an appealing texture—while some pieces were overly fishy and soft. That being said, the good bites were really good, especially when paired with a bagel and cream cheese.
Overall rating: 3
Mile End Deli Lox (Unsmoked)
53 Bond St, 212-529-2990 • 97 Hoyt St, Boerum Hill, Brooklyn; 718-852-7510, mileenddeli.com. [NOTE: Not available by the pound. Available on the Beauty sandwich.]
This thickly-cut salmon had more fatty chew to it than the others, and many in the group found it less flavorful. One taster detected an overwhelming dill character, though others didn’t notice it. Another noted that it was “saltier than a Jewish grandma—it’s great for a sandwich, but the saltiness just borders on too intense.” [Although, this makes sense, seeing that it comes on the Beauty sandwich, not sliced on its own.]
Overall rating: 3
Russ & Daughters Belly Lox (Unsmoked)
179 E Houston St; 212-475-4880, russanddaughters.com. $36 per lb.
Welcome to the O.G. New York lox. “Belly lox is not smoked salmon; it is salmon that is cured in salt. Unlike smoked salmon, belly lox is very salty, but for those who grew up with this taste, there is no substitute,” says the Russ & Daughters website. Third-generation “Russ” (and owner of Russ & Daughter), Mark Russ Federman, told the Amateur Gourmet, “Every day I still walk down the counter and hanker for a slice of salty belly lox. It’s that old, direct taste.”
The belly lox had the type of super-intense saltiness that smacks you in the face; “it’s almost more akin to the brininess of salmon roe.” While tasters agreed it was a high-grade product, it’s also polarizing in its intensity. The general consensus: “I’m not into belly lox, but if I were, I think I’d probably be super into this.”
Overall rating: 2.5
ACME Smoked Fish
30-56 Gem St, Greenpoint, Brooklyn; 718-383-8585, acmesmokedfish.com. $18 per lb. [Note: this is mad cheap]
This Nova lox had an artificial, supermarket-style appearance and a fishy aftertaste. It was bland and coarsely cut, and it got completely lost when paired with a bagel and cream cheese. “This is grocery-store lox that you’d put out if you were slapping together brunch for some people you don’t care about. There’s a distinct lack of professionalism in this fish.”
Overall rating: 2
Where to Buy Bagels
Whatever you do, make sure to buy some high-quality bagels (and cream cheese) to go with your lox. We recommend Black Seed Bagels, Barney Greengrass, The Bagel Store, Bagel Hole, and Brooklyn Bagel & Coffee Co.
Shanah Tovah, homies!