At the Mobil Mart on the corner of Avenue I and Coney Island Avenue in Midwood, Brooklyn, a small coffee costs 50¢. The operation is pour-your-own—a glass pot on a burner beside a stack of paper cups—but it’s the cheapest cup of coffee I’ve ever paid for. There is a unique pleasure that comes with paying less than you’d expect to for something, particularly in New York, even when a $0.50 coffee tastes like just what you’d expect a $0.50 coffee to taste like anywhere: dark, burnt water with coffee grounds at the bottom. But at that price, it’s hard to complain.
For all its shortcomings, my Mobil Mart coffee is part of the grand, unsung New York institution of deli coffee. In this city, you can get a cup of coffee almost literally anywhere, from the corner bodega to a coffee cart—the original food truck. It’s all more or less the same cup of coffee, from its price (~$1.50) to its flavor (thoroughly Just OK), and in this sense the New York deli is like the city’s largest chain coffee shop.
Deli coffee is simple and ubiquitous, without provenance or multiple-choice questions. It comes in two sizes, and can be judged on three criteria: price, flavor, and heat. (If you’re drinking iced deli coffee you’re playing yourself.) Flavor and price are difficult to parse—$1 coffee tastes better than $2 coffee just by virtue of saving a dollar. (Similarly, free coffee is impossible to evaluate objectively because nothing tastes as good as free, no matter what it tastes like.) Heat is important—too hot and you’ll have to double-cup it, which usually costs between $0.10 and $0.25 unless you’re on good terms with the establishment; not hot enough and by the time you’ve drunk an inch it’s hand-temperature and tastes two days old. The deli coffee heat principle is similar to the cheap beer cold principle, in that temperature is a necessary condition of flavor.
Black coffee flavor exists on a bell curve with respect to price. The best-tasting coffee, from delis and coffee shops combined, costs around $2, give or take. The flavor doesn’t change significantly in my opinion until you get below $1, or above $3.00. Black coffee doesn’t cost $3; It just doesn’t. In 2016 USD, the acceptable range for a small, no-frills deli coffee is between $1.25 and $2. Life is too short, and New York is too large, to pay more than $2 for 12 oz. of coffee at a place that also sells Ajax and cat food.
My coffee habits were not always so fatalistic. In high school, I spent countless hours and dollars at Starbucks with friends—the same hours and dollars I now spend in Brooklyn bars—drinking caramel macchiatos and triple-grande white chocolate mochas, trying to invent the most complex concoction and then adding whip cream. In college, as my habit became more addiction than affectation, I pared back my tastes. It was cumbersome to keep fresh milk in my mini-fridge, so I started drinking coffee black, albeit from a French press in my dorm room. (Some affectation is tough to shake.)
But it’s in this same general spirit of low-maintenance dependence that I came to deli coffee. Now more than a decade out from my heaviest Starbucks days, I find that complexity is a liability when it comes to satisfaction—a coworker going on a coffee run isn’t burdened with the task of Pantone color-matching my milk quantity. Without the flavor-masking buffer of milk or sugar, my taste buds have no defense against the true nature of any coffee, whether it cost $0.50 or $5, and I happily take what I can get. There is little gastronomy in cheapness.
The gospel of deli coffee is built from the values of scrappy urban living, the knowledge that heirloom tomatoes don’t taste any different from other tomatoes in a caprese salad, and that cocktails are 15 percent liquor and 85 percent posture. Deli coffee is the great equalizer of New York food culture. It costs between the price of a weekday Times and a Daily News, and it covers the city as completely. If a shiny new Starbucks is the death knell of a neighborhood, a deli is its still-beating pulse—steady, constant, 24 hours a day. Deli coffee is deli coffee, on 31st or 131st.