When Schmulka Bernstein’s Ruled Essex Street

Posted on: December 23rd, 2011 at 6:19 am by

These days, it’s comical commonplace that Jews eat Chinese food on Christmas.  But this marriage of cultures was actually forged long ago in the immigrant society on the Lower East Side.  To many turn-of-the-century Eastern European newcomers, Chinese cuisine was somewhat familiar to their own.  As the Yiddish Book Center points out, both culinary styles favor “chicken broth, lots of garlic and onions, vegetables cooked to a melting softness, and sweet-and-sour flavors reminiscent of those of Ashkenazic cooking.”  Plus, there was a Kosher appeal of sorts.  Since Chinese tend not to use dairy ingredients, there was little threat of mixing milk and meat.

Not until 1959 would there be a specific restaurant that offered Kosher Chinese food, though.

The stage was set two decades earlier, when Solomon Bernstein reportedly left his father’s butcher business on Ludlow Street, where he and his three brothers worked, to start Bernstein’s Deli at 110 Rivington. In 1957, the family opened Bernstein-on-Essex. Schmulka Bernstein’s, as it later became known, operated out of 135 Essex Street. Armed with the slogan “where kashrut is king and quality reigns,” the eatery was first established as a Kosher delicatessen.  But in 1959, Bernstein began offering Cantonese-style favorites alongside the more traditional fare. The above photo is an antiquated advertisement spotted in one of the holiday Nostalgia Trains.

[Photo Credit: Comestiblog]

Schmulka Bernstein’s flourished for over three decades before the owners sold the family business in the early 1990s.  The operation continued, but eventually went the way of Ratner’s a few years later.  Today, the original building is not even there anymore.  The new 135 Essex Street is now occupied by recently-opened Sons of Essex which offers an old school delicatessen counter in the front of the space.

So, if you’re eating Chinese and watching a movie this Christmas Eve, be sure to think of the Bernsteins!

Schmulka was also utilized as a set in the so-bad-it’s-good Berry Gordy film The Last Dragon. We can’t find the exact clip, so this will suffice…

What do you remember of Schmulka?

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  • OWR

    I grew up (in my teen years) a few blocks away on Essex and Delancey.  I remember SB’s being over-priced and a poor excuse for Chinese food. Not too many fond memories of it you would say. However, the Orthodox community would eat there in droves after Shabbos on Sat night

  • guest

    A great reminder of an old jewel. Do you have a pic of the sign? I couldn’t find one after a quick search.

    • http://www.boweryboogie.com Elie

      It proved difficult to find any pics of the sign.  Does anyone out there have one stashed away?

  • Chicken Chow Mein

    His grandson closed our mortgage at our kitchen table.

  • http://www.marjorieingall.com/ marjorie

    No memories, but great post!!

  • Roberta Bernstein

    Schmulka was my husband Harvey’s Grandfather.  We named our son Scott after him.
    Years later our daughter Rebecca, Schmulka’s great granddaughter moved to China for 1 year and developed a love for all things Chinese. Now her sons, Schmulka’s 2 great great grandsons Jake 8 and Oliver 4…speak Chinese.  What goes around, comes around!
    Roberta Bernstein

  • Nkabak

    Ah yes. Those were the days, my friend. Memories were of made of this.  Our father, who is in heaven, (we hope), would take his three children to Shmulka Bernstein a few times a year to have “Deli”.  Dad would order a hard salami sandwich, and a side of “Specials”, which were overstuffed hot-dogs.  Of course Doctor Brown’s Cel-ray tonic was the only acceptable drink.
    As for the Chinese food, we never had it, but I do remember the Chinese waiters would wear shiny hats with a tassel attached on a longish string.  Red Bernstein was a bunk mate of mine at summer camp, and of course one of the benefits was the salami that would come up on visiting day. Now I languish in Wellington, NZ with nary a kosher hot dog in sight, let alone a lean corned beef on rye with  deli mustard.

  • Ike

    I was a regular over there…I used to love the Romanian pastrami…haven’t been able to find anything like it since they closed.

  • pennys herb co.

    i do remember!!!
    very very special place!!

  • Billspector

    ha i used to go there with religious relatives as a kid  

  • Irwin Bernstein

    Your description of Bernstein’s was very nice but there is a correction to be made in the article. Solomon left his fathers butchers shop in the late 1930’s and started Bernstein’s kosher delicatessen at 110 Rivington street until 1957 when we expanded to 135 Essex street and started the kosher Chinese food in 1959 at which time the name was officially changed to “Bernstein’s on Essex Street”.

    Irwin Bernstein
    grandson of Schmulka and son of Solomon Bernstein