Everyone Loves a Good Deli: What Are They Eating There?

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A deli or delicatessen has come to mean a lot of different eating experiences over the years.  Originally it was a combination grocery store and fast food restaurant or coffee shop type of restaurant.  Now major grocery stores have deli sections.  If you want to order from a deli online, you can do that.  There are Korean Delis, Middle East Delis, New York Delis, Jewish Delis, Jewish Kosher Delis, Italian Delis, German Delis,  and don’t forget the Delis of Montreal and London.   This article will focus on what foods are commonly found at New York and New York Jewish Delis, as they are what people think of first when thinking of delis.

First, think foot-high sandwiches using exquisite cuts of corned beef, pastrami, turkey, beef and chicken.   Add crunchy kosher garlicky or sour pickles, crispy non-greasy potato pancakes with a little side of sour cream and another little side of applesauce; some huge hand-battered onion rings; and for dessert, a creamy half-foot-high New York-style cheesecake that you will dream about that night.  This is a New York Deli meal you will tell your grandkids about.

Let’s take a quick detour a pay homage to the Italian delicatessens.  True Italian delis, found mostly in New York and New Jersey and scattered around San Francisco, serves Italian cuisine and imported items from the old country.  It serves as the cultural center for the patrons.  It is a social center where local news and gossip are shared.  These delis are part of the neighborhoods they reside in.  

Here you will be able to chow down on hero sandwiches, grilled paninis, prosciutto cotto, hot capicollo, dry salami, provolone and hot cherry peppers.  There will be mozzarella, roasted peppers, olive oils galore, pepperoni, Italian herbs, seafood salads, marinated calamari, baby octopus and mussels.  Of course you can meatballs in a sandwich or with spaghetti, and  cannolis.  Arancini di riso are rice croquettes filled with a ground-meat mixture, then rolled in bread crumbs and fried.  They’re a common snack food at kiosks throughout Sicily.  You’ll find them at the Italian delis, and don’t forget the garlic bread.  I almost forgot the beef sandwiches.

Okay, back to New York and New York Jewish and Jewish Kosher delis.  You walk in and you see crisp, half sour pickle spears on the table waiting for you, you know you’re in the right place, okay.  

You must make an art form of the corned beef.  This is not just any old meat.  That brisket needs lots of care and attention to survive in a New York deli, Jewish deli or kosher deli.  Flavorful corned beef is a long-standing traditional art and cutting corners just won’t cut it.  The customers will leave in droves.  The requirements are heating it up, holding it and trimming it.  If you trim the fat first, it ruins the process.  If you cook it lean, you lose the flavor.  The flavor is in the fat.  If you trim it first, the flavor is washed out.  You trim it right before you serve.  But every good deli owner knows you have to have the right people who know how to do that.   A lot of guys just want to pre-trim everything.   And if you serve a lot of corned beef, you’re going to be serving better corned beef because you’re going to be going through it.  Corned beef is not a good dish as a leftover.

These are all things the savvy deli patron know about their corned beef and they demand this perfection.  If they don’t find it, they move on.  You might get away with using Thousand Island on the Reuben instead of Russian, but you won’t get away with using dry, flavorless corned beef.  

Deli patrons like turkey, but they like it spiced and cured the same way pastrami is.  Today’s emphasis on health has more customers ordering salads with fat-free dressings.   Or sometimes the diet conscious just want a nice cup of homemade chicken noodle soup, or soup with kreplach, the Jewish won-ton.  Or why not matzo ball soup?   Deli customers like their chicken salad sandwiches, preferably with bacon, looming largely over the plate.  Don’t forget the coleslaw or traditional potato salad.  Potato knish, large onion-laced hash brown-like mashers, surrounded by a flaky crust, meant to be a side order, are almost a meal unto themselves.  They are true Jewish soul food that warms the heart.

Some say you always remember your first kishkas.  Call it “stuffed derma” or whatever you will, but these slices of what looks like grilled sausage in gravy taste like your mom’s favorite chicken stuffing.  The skin is actually stuffed with matzo cracker meal mixed with bits of carrot and onion generously flavored with pepper and schmaltz (chicken fat).  

And chopped liver must be on the menu somewhere.  That tradition will never die.  It shouldn’t taste too livery and it should be creamy.  It should be served with plenty of onions.  

A good deli dinner is the beef brisket with thick, dark mushroom gravy, boiled potatoes and crunchy green beans.   That’s a meal you could take your best girl out for.  But whatever you order, remember to order a Reuben for take out for later.  And don’t let it be on any bread but a good, soft New York Jewish rye.  

And you really must have that barley, mushroom and pasta mix known as kasha varnishkas or maybe a couple of latkes.  What about some cholent,  that stew referred to as “Lower East Side cassoulet?”

Stuffed cabbage is a good bet.  Two huge rolls of seasoned ground meat wrapped in tender cabbage leaves in a spiced tomato broth that usually comes with boiled potato and caraway-seeded Jewish rye bread.  To drink?  A nice Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray, maybe a childhood favorite of yours.  Or would you prefer an egg cream or a chocolate Coke?

Everybody likes going to a deli for the cheese blintzes.  They may be listed as an entree, but they go down like little desserts.  Think of all that warm, freshly griddled eggy crepes wrapped around that sweet cottage cheese.  Then you get to dip pieces of it into blueberry and cherry topping and even more sour cream.  Is it any wonder that grown men get tears in their eyes just reminiscing about deli memories?

And before you go, get your bag of bagels for the morning.  They will no doubt be the real thing:  small, chewy, New York-made H&H Bagels and bialys.  

And, by the way, stop at the drugstore on your way home and pick up those Tums because you’re going to need them tonight.

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