Sorry, I probably didn't make it to your bodega
“So is this just how it is?” “Yeah, this is just how it is.” The bewildered, but amused patron of Eisenberg’s Sandwich Shop on 5th Avenue just north of the Flatiron’s prow was referring to the mass of bodies bottlenecked in the entrance of the narrow restaurant. Of the dozen-or-so customers waiting to pay, order, be seated, leave the premises (Who knows? Are you in line? Are you? Did you order yet?), no one was fussing, swearing, or attempting to jockey ahead—just sussing out their place in the scheme of things. None of the aggression or bravado with which non-residents like to lacquer their image of New Yorkers was on display. Everyone in Eisenberg’s knows the drill, and they know what’s worth waiting for. In this case: the best egg and cheese sandwich in New York City.
Yes, of course, this is highly subjective. Every deli, bodega, corner store, and diner in the five boroughs has a competent-to-excellent egg and cheese on a roll, and if they didn’t, they’d have been drummed outta business long ago. Even higher-end brunchporiums are getting in on the act, with artisanally-crafted buns, small-batch cheese, Ivy League-educated bacon, and heirloom eggs—which is great—but not the same thing at all.
The hallmarks of a proper egg and cheese are as follows: It must be built on a mildly-lubricated and squishy kaiser or poppy seed roll that may or may not have spent a moment on a grill (your choice), contain one or two freshly-scrambled eggs (no pre-formed egg patties, what the hell?), have one or more slices of unfancy yellow cheese melted in, and should be offered with options of saltpepperketchup—all of which are highly personal choices. Many people get bacon—a.k.a. a B.E.C.—and they’re perfectly allowed.
The sandwich much also must be relatively affordable—a quick poll indicated it should be between $3.50 and $5 for an egg and cheese, ideally with a small coffee included. (For the record, that combo will run you $8.06 with tax at Trump Tower’s Trump Cafe.)
Unless you’re ordering it to hunch over and eat on premises, the egg and cheese sandwich should be swaddled in a prophylactic layer of deli paper and another of foil, so it’s still warm and oozing once you toddle back to your (or someone’s) darkened apartment and let it soak up whatever is sloshing around from the night before. New Yorkers use egg sandwiches in lieu of aspirin. I have publicly suggested that egg and cheese on a roll should be declared the official state flower of New York. For no readily apparent reason, no one outside of New York gets this sandwich right. (Is it the bread? It might be the bread.)
So why does Eisenberg’s Sandwich Shop serve the best egg and cheese on a roll in New York City? Because you have to fight for it. Eisenberg’s has been slinging borscht, egg creams, chopped liver, and all-day breakfast since 1929. It’s the kind of endangered NYC joint where framed celebrity pictures line the walls, there’s a non-apparent system for ordering, sitting, and paying, patrons are jammed into the entryway like so many whitefish—yet everyone gets fed in a timely, friendly fashion. It just works in that way that the city itself does. There may indeed be a technically more proficient egg and cheese on a roll somewhere—ideally at your closest bodega—and that’s great. I hope that’s the case.
But you owe yourself a trip to Eisenberg’s at least once, while you still can. So far as I know, it’s not in any danger of disappearing like other New York City treasures, but I take little for granted these days. The staff wears shirts bearing the restaurant’s slogan: “Either you get it, or you don’t.” I do, and I’ll get it again and again for as long as I can.