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Is there anything as iconic as New York cheesecake? If you’re visiting New York City, I highly recommend visiting Junior’s Cheesecake in Downtown Brooklyn. This Brooklyn diner serving up cheesecake, hearty sandwiches, coffee, and egg creams is famous the world over. I include some tips for visiting Junior’s for the first time–and a bit of history of the New York cheesecake.
Junior’s Cheesecake: The makings of a Brooklyn institution
As much as I’d love to claim that New Yorkers invented the cheesecake, we did not. The ancient Greeks had some versions of cheesecake, which was made with dough, cheese, bay leaves, and honey. Similar recipes were found in England dating back to the 1300s although the recipe changed drastically in the 1700s. Changes to the recipe resulted in more sweetness due to the addition of eggs and the removal of yeast.
In 1872, a dairyman from New York State created modern day cream cheese unintentionally in an attempt at making cheese. Hence, the name. A similar recipe became popularized under the label Philadelphia Cream Cheese, which still exists today. It’s thought that Arnold Reuben, the mind behind the famous Reuben sandwich, created the iconic New York style cheesecake after tasting it. It’s hard to know if this is true, but it’s a fun story.
If you’re wondering what makes New York style cheesecake so special: there’s nothing sweet (e.g. fruit) added to the cheesecake base, extra yolks are added into the mix, heavy cream/sour cream can be added to the mix and on top, and in some cases (as with Junior’s!) the base is a sponge cake. At Junior’s, these cheesecakes are still mixed by hand. (For the cheesecake recipe, you can buy a cookbook with the original cheesecake recipe from the Rosen family!)
Like many New York diners, Junior’s has their own recipe for cheesecake, which had been in their family for three generations. The recipe is widely available, but there’s nothing like sitting in a cozy booth at the original Junior’s location in Downtown Brooklyn. The Rosen family has owned a diner here since 1929 although the name was changed to Junior’s in 1950. The rest is history and the recipe has been the same since the ’50s. When there was a fire at Junior’s in 1981, customers proclaimed: “Save the cheesecake!”
Tips for visiting Junior’s Restaurant & Cheesecake
Although Junior’s is super classic, you might be surprised how empty is around lunch-time on a weekday, especially the original location in Brooklyn! I visited on a quiet weekday and I had a choice of a booth or the bar as I was dining alone. If you’re a bigger group than six, you’ll want to call ahead to make a reservation for a table.
Come super hungry. The portions are fantastic–and I recommend working up a proper appetite by walking across the Brooklyn Bridge (or just walking around New York for an entire day). New York is pretty big and luckily, Junior’s is open fairly late for whenever you find yourself hungry enough for a pastrami sandwich with cheesecake for dessert.
If you’re not sure that you’ll get to the first Junior’s in Downtown Brooklyn, you can visit one of the other Junior’s locations in Manhattan closer to Times Square. There’s one location on 45th & Broadway and another on 49th & Broadway. (I will just simply say that there’s something about the atmosphere in the original Junior’s that makes me feel like I’ve entered the set of a Tarantino film.)
In a rush yet want to try Junior’s? You can also get a slice of cheesecake to-go! I do warn that cheesecake doesn’t keep very well as it needs to be refrigerated, but it is possible to pick up a slice to enjoy sitting in the middle of Times Square. (If you live in the US, they ship Junior’s all over the United States.)
What to order at Junior’s Cheesecake
…Cheesecake. Although the original New York style cheesecake from Junior’s is certainly a classic, I personally ended up ordering the “fancy” cheesecake called Brownie Explosion. The other classic cheesecake flavors include Raspberry Swirl, Brownie Marble Swirl, and Apple Crumb Cheesecake. As a chocolate lover, I like the brownie marble swirl, but you’ll have to decide for yourself.
Even if you’re not a huge cheesecake lover, you might find the other flavors provide a good balance of cheesecake with other flavors. (I personally have issues with lactose and ended up going for the Brownie Explosion (shown above) with the hope that it would have less lactose. It still wasn’t good for me, but it was seriously delicious.)
Junior’s has far more to offer than just cheesecake. Included in the full name of Junior’s is Restaurant & Cheesecake, so you can expect a full meal if you’re pretty hungry. I strongly recommend ordering an egg cream, which surprisingly does not have an egg in it. This classic New York drink is definitely worth a try.
Lunch Special* (to save money)
The lunch special at Junior’s is quite a lot, which includes a cup of soup with a sandwich. I recommend the Matzah Ball Soup with the Corned Beef or Pastrami. It comes with pickles and it’s a full-on feast for the price. Just save room for dessert and work up a proper appetite beforehand.