Most mornings, there’s nowhere I’d rather be than an appetizing store, where a cream cheese-schmeared bagel piled high with smoked fish is an art form. At the turn of the 20th century, immigrant Jews established these temples of lox and herring in American cities as counterparts to meat-kosher delicatessens, where dairy products such as cream cheese were verboten. Stores specializing in the cold appetizers that would have started a meal back home in Eastern Europe—smoked, pickled, and creamed fish and vegetables—were especially popular in New York City, which remains the appetizing epicenter. There, at the Lower East Side’s centenarian Russ & Daughters_ (179 East Houston Street; 212/475-4880)_, I peer into the glimmering carryout case at the myriad treasures from the sea, and place my standard order: a bialy—the bagel’s flat, oniony cousin—with horseradish cream cheese and salt-cured American salmon belly, aka lox, hand-sliced so thin you can see the sun through it. Uptown, at Barney Greengrass _(541 Amsterdam Avenue; 212/724-4707)_, a 106-year-old institution also known as “The Sturgeon King,” I sit at a rickety table and indulge in an egg scramble loaded with the namesake cured lake fish with its briny, buttery flesh, and served with a side of Woody Allen—brand sarcasm. There are even upstart appetizing stores. Brooklyn’s newfangled Shelsky’s__(251 Smith Street; 718/855-8817) sources the smokiest, meatiest whitefish from Wisconsin’s Door County. The hunt for great sable—creamy black cod from cold Pacific waters—has led me to shops in other cities, including** Kaufman’s Deli__**(4905 West Dempster, Skokie, Illinois; 847/677-6190) in the Chicago suburbs, where they bake bagels and cornmeal-dredged rye breads daily. But when I’m home in my own town, Toronto, I head to United Bakers Dairy Restaurant_ (506 Lawrence Avenue West; 416/789-0519)_, where the fatty Nova Scotia smoked salmon is accompanied by a giant twisted poppy seed bagel, cucumber, tomato, a huge scoop of cream cheese, and all the gossip you can stomach.
David Sax is a_SAVEUR___contributing editor.