Earlier this month, the owner of Junior’s Restaurant, the renowned cheesecake hotspot of downtown Brooklyn, turned down a $45 million offer from developers, choosing instead to preserve his family history and keep a New York institution alive. To celebrate the decision, my co-worker Louisa (of milkshake column fame) suggested I do a New York cheesecake story. It was a great idea; I just needed to find someone to help me with the research, someone willing to spend a day tasting various cheesecakes in New York City with me. After I begged and pleaded, Louisa reluctantly agreed.
Now because I’m known amongst my friends as “The Cheese Guy,” I suggested we taste not just for outright pleasure, but rather focus on the cheese part of cheesecake. So we didn’t sample any tarted-up styles (no key-lime-pie-with-white-chocolate-icing cheesecake for us); we went as close to plain and simple as we could get.
On the top of our best-of-New-York list, of course, was Junior’s. We went straight to the flagship Brooklyn location (there are now numerous outposts throughout the city) and sampled their Original NY Plain version: no crust, just simple goodness. It was light and airy, with nice notes of vanilla and lemon. The cream cheese tartness was very evident, thankfully not hidden by too much sugar or other flavorings. The mouthfeel was creamy and rich, but not heavy. I could easily eat a slice of this cake daily; a dangerous realization! I ordered two mini-cheesecakes and told Louisa I’d save the second one for later, but after devouring the first, she threatened to quit if I didn’t share the second one with her right then. So I did, of course… in the name of social harmony.
For our next stop we tried a wild card: the goat cheese cheesecake at Murray’s Cheese Bar in downtown Manhattan. It was non-traditional but delicious, boasting an incredibly smooth texture, a nice minerality and a bit of the characteristic tang of goat cheese. It was made with an Effie’s Homemade Cocoa Cake crust that complemented the goaty flavors and added a nice texture to the base. What Louisa and I both loved about this version was that we could really taste the cheese, which means it gets top marks from me!
Our third and final cheesecake stop was Eileen’s Special Cheesecake in Soho. Eileen’s is a tiny shop across the street from La Esquina, my favorite taqueria from my time living in that neighborhood. I used to grab a couple of tacos then cross Kenmare Street and snag one of Eileen’s little cheesecakes as the perfect dessert. I had previously tried their flavored options, but since Louisa and I were focusing on more basic cakes, we split a plain mini-cheesecake, which was creamy, but with subtler cheese flavors than the other two we tried. That said, the incredibly light texture at the end of our epic tasting day ultimately won both of us over.
Naturally, we didn’t have the time — or the appetite — necessary to try all of the amazing cheesecakes in the city. Some cakes we wish we’d been able to try: Lady M’s and Two Little Red Hens (both on the Upper East Side), Mona Lisa Bakery (in Brooklyn) and S&S Cheesecake (in the Bronx). On the bright side, I’m glad I still have those to look forward to as I make the rounds of each icon in the culinary history of cheesecake in New York City.
Long live Junior’s, and long live New York cheesecake!