The most important thing about a buttered roll and a regular coffee—the unsung, only-in-NYC breakfast—is that you can’t overthink them.
There will never be a list in Time Out New York of “The City’s Top Ten Buttered Rolls.” A Google search for “best buttered roll NYC” turns up a series of bizarre, unrelated results (Hamlin news conference? spacemaster cucumber seeds? tremendous tractors?). You should by no means be taking the subway in search of the most iconic buttered roll at the most authentic, historic deli in the five boroughs. Just walk into the closest deli or bodega—or sidewalk coffee cart—and tell the person behind the counter: “Buttered roll and regular coffee, please,” and they will know exactly what this means. The roll is a round, flat, white-bread kaiser roll, untoasted, sliced almost in half, slathered with butter (more likely a spreadable butter-margarine combo), and wrapped in waxed paper.
A “regular coffee” in New York City means a ten-ounce coffee with milk and two sugars. Say these two words, and a few moments later a paper cup with a flimsy flip-top plastic lid will be handed to you, scalding hot, from behind the Boar’s Head deli case—which is, incidentally, where you place your order: not with the cashier. Even something as basic as a buttered roll has to go through the correct channels. Unfortunately, the default cup is no longer the classic blue-and-white “We Are Happy To Serve You” Anthora but a brown cup herringboned with “Mocha Tasty Cappucino Strong Smooth Espresso Tea Macchiato Latte Sugar Americano Tasty,” like a personals ad for coffee trying to cover all the bases.
You can’t get a buttered roll and a regular coffee at a fancy deli: they’ll ask you too many questions. You won’t find one at delis with “Organic” on their sign; a buttered-roll deli should instead feature the New York Lottery Games logo and a spinning bulletproof window so you can order from the sidewalk. A buttered-roll deli has at least one wall tiled like a disco ball, and a rack of $5 umbrellas alonside the Takis; it’s the kind of deli where if you ask the clerk for a “loosie”—or just hold one finger aloft—they will know what you mean; a place you can dash into with a coat thrown over your pajamas and buy a single uncooked egg for a batch of late-night chocolate-chip cookies; where if you grab a Poland Spring from the fridge and place it on the counter alongside a $1 bill with a conspiratorial if you know, you know smile, the cashier won’t try to charge you any more. The total cost for a buttered roll and regular coffee should not be more than $3.
A regular coffee is a drab shade of beige. Like a dry leaf underfoot on a sidewalk. These beans are not shade-grown, single-origin, bird-friendly, or fair-trade (probably). This is generic coffee.
When you unwrap the roll, the waxed paper snaps at the creases. The kaiser roll itself is almost insubstantial in its weight, pillowy, airy. There’ a dusting of flour on the top, the pinwheel of score marks, and the bottom bears the perforations—and sometimes the char—of an industrial oven. The butter squishes out of the middle when you press down on it.
Two hallmarks of the buttered roll are that it is never sliced all the way through, so you have to pull it apart into two halves, and it is buttered haphazardly, with chunks of butter in the middle and only a scrim around the edges. These are both signs of a reputably harried deli worker who is flipping bacon-egg-and-cheeses with one hand as he’s slathering your roll with the other.
By themselves, neither the roll nor the coffee is remarkable. But somehow, together, an alchemy is born: the dry, foamy bread with a greasy, salty, creamy center, balanced by the sharp kick of coffee, the zing of slightly too much sugar, and the smooth wash of the cream. You have to tear off chewy bites with your teeth and allay the dryness with swigs of coffee. The little plastic lid-tab will tap against your nose with each sip, and sometimes lukewarm coffee will dribble onto your cheek from where it has spilled into the divots of the lid. It’s all about contrast: dry and moist, salty and sweet, bland and sharp—totally unremarkable and totally satisfying. And that’s all it is.