“We’re on a mission from God” – The Blues Brothers
It dawned on me while pumping gas the other night in painfully cold weather that a road trip starting at the beginning of February might not have been the best timed idea. Yet, aside from the sleet covered roads and the twelve times I brushed snow off my car yesterday, there’s a warmth to this town that I’ve seen in few cities.
I’ve come searching for the elusive Chicago deli. Elusive because in a city of big eaters (Belushi and Farley, Ditka and the rest), and loads of meat, sandwiches, and fatty foods, great Jewish delis are few and far between. This wasn’t always the case. My first day I was taken around the historic Jewish neighborhoods by Prof. Irving Cutler, author of two books on the history of Jewish Chicago. As we drove by the facades of once grand synagogues which now house Black baptist churches, he pointed to boarded up shops or liquor stores that were once Chicago’s great delis: Braverman’s, Ada’s, Carl’s, Zweig’s, Silverstein’s, etc… But time had not been kind, and what remained were only fading memories.
Such is the case in Chicago, where the deli still remains in a precarious state. Just last week Chaim’s Kosher Bakery & Deli closed down. Weeks before, Barnum & Bagel closed just down the street, after it was sold to a Greek owner who then never returned from Greece (he supposedly had debts that Zeus couldn’t even pay). Both sit empty…stark reminders that Chicago’s delis are in need of some serious salvation.
And yet, the Jewish food business is huge in this town. Sausages, hot dogs, salamis, meats, blintzes… you name it, there’s a factory that is making it, and selling it at delis all over the country, likely more than they do in this city.
The first one I visited was King Kold, a maker of frozen kosher dairy foods such as latkes, knishes, matzo balls, and soups. It’s been around for many years and still remains in Jewish hands, a rare thing in this industry. On the topic of deli salvation, King Kold purchased the rights to produce Ratner’s brand blintzes, which they make in the Chicago plant and sell all over. Ratner’s, as some of you might remember, was the famous dairy palace of the Lower East Sice, which fully closed in 2004. Michael Hahn, the owner, took me around and showed me how some of the products are made. Check out the video below to see some of the footage, it was truly amazing. The blintz machine had a Willy Wonka feel to it, and aside from the massive pieces of equipment, the volume of the product and ingredients, and the substitution of Spanish for Yiddish from those prepping it, it wasn’t that different from momma’s kitchen.
There’s no words in the video, so I let old Blue Eyes do the talking.
Then I met with Bob Schwartz, the sausage king of Chicago (Ok, he’s not really called that, but if Abe Froman were a real person, he’d be like Bob). Schwartz is a happy meat man, he sounds and looks a bit like Danny DeVito, and he works at Vienna Beef, one of the largest meat purveyors in Chicago and the country. After a quick bite in the company cafeteria of Vienna’s pastrami, smoked brisket, and stellar hot dog (stuffed into a steamed bun with onions, relish, mustard, tomato and a slice of pickle), we hit the factory floor with Charlie Jurkovic. Compared to other facilities I’ve seen this was mind blowing. The sheer scale of it was simply massive. This is an operation that can sell half a million pounds of corned beef in the weeks leading up to St. Patrick’s day.
The cutting tables were 3x the size of Sy Ginsberg’s operation. There were 64 massive ovens where hot dogs and pastramis were being cooked…wheeled in on overhead rails. Steam belched from huge vats, while forklifts zipped around us amidst the deafening noise. Every station had new smells: hickory smoke from the ovens…a sweet carmel glaze on their NY style pastrami…the heady scent of raw meat permeating the air.
It wasn’t haymish or family owned, it didn’t have soul or love or the feeling that Bubbe was working in the back. It was a factory for meat and they did it on an incredible scale, which makes you appreciate the logistics and exhausting labor needed to go into a hot dog or smoked turkey. This is a factory that runs around the clock, churning out millions of pounds of meat for the country to eat. It’s easy to see how the small operations have trouble staying in business…Costco was right next door.
It’s a shame I didn’t get any pictures, though I did snag this great one of Bob Schwartz’s car. He’s a deli man to the core, actually from Cleveland (I’ll be going there in the summer), and he lives for his corned beef. Any time you bite into a Vienna hot dog or meat product, look at this picture, at this man’s punim and his license plate and know that he’s putting love into that product.
Which brings us to delis.
For a city not known for its delicatessens, my first two experiences couldn’t have been better.
1. Kaufman Bagel and Delicatessen – Skokie, Il
As I sit typing this my teeth are sinking into the most perfect raspberry rugelach i’ve ever eaten, closer in consistency to a bun or strudel than anything else. Such was my experience at Kaufman’s with the wonderful Dworkin family (Arnold, wife Judy, and daughter Bette) and their baker Herb Fingerhut. Kaufman’s is a takeout store, divided into a bakery which traffics in bagels, mandelbrot, challahs, and a variety of stellar ryes ranging from corn rye (rolled in heavy cornmeal with double caraway) to an uber-dense Russian rye. At the other side there’s a delicatessen, which features soups, sandwiches, and a bevy on incredible dishes that are all made in the basement of this tiny store. The countermen are old deli types, with Eastern European accents and the shtick to match. Judy Dworkin, the lovely matriarch of the clan, fed me sublime gefilte fish that truly tasted homemade (with a grainy texture), and the best rice pudding I’ve had (creamy and then baked).
Her noodle kugel was out of this world, but the best surprise lay with a recent item that Herb created.
A word on Herb:
He only recently came to Kaufman’s after working with his now closed family bakery and other jobs. He is the perfect baker. If you were making a film, or commercial, or photo shoot and needed a baker no casting agent could find a finer specimen. Robust, swift, and armed with a smile that could light up the darkest alley Herb Fingerhut instantly stood out as a man who loved what he did. And what he did was create a deliciously decadent item called Reuben Strudel.
Basically this is a Reuben sandwich baked into pastry dough. It looks almost better than it tastes, and for someone like me who loves pastry more than he loves deli…well…it’s deadly. But don’t take my word for it, check out the video…
When I left Bette and Herb were testing out personal sized Reuben Strudels, made like bourekas. It was history in the making, and I wouldn’t be surprised if in a few months you’ll see Reuben Strudels everywhere. Pay a visit to this place, the Dworkins are grade-A people and their food is simply incredible. It is old-school in the best way possible, where the flavor is baked into the 40 year old oven and original spice trays. Give them all a big hug for me.
Kaufman Bagel and Delicatessen
4905 W. Dempster Ave.
2. Max and Benny’s – Northbrook
I initially hesitated when told about Max and Benny’s, partly because I abhor shopping malls, and mostly because the delis that are found in said malls tend to be watered down. They are the lands of the salad and low fat items, and their true deli foods are often disappearing. Not here! Lester Schlan (whose kids Max and Ben lent the deli their name), is a tour de force. Along with longtime manager Bob Eisenstein (himself a man of fish stores and delicatessens), his big suburban deli offers an astounding array of fantastic and very unique items. As we sat and talked Lester kept swinging in and out of the kitchen, filling the table with plates of food:
-a deliciously creamy and sweet chopped liver
-bagels baked in the store that were crisp, chewy, and held the cream cheese wonderfully
- a reuben of such ideal consistency and size that I had to restrain myself from devouring it
-lovely light matzo ball soup
- a blueberry!!! noodle kugel which was creamy, fruity, and altogether a revolution in yid dessert
- bagel wrapped hot dogs
-green and red dyed bagels (for St. Patty’s and Valentines respectively)
-splendid poppy seed hamentashen
-challah and onion rolls that were as good as I’ve tasted; glazed, shiny, somewhat sweet, and airy but still moist
- little bear shaped rice crispy men with Chicago Bears helmets
I could go on but my stomach had limits.
Max and Benny’s opened my eyes to the suburban deli. It could be big, bold, and still have amazing taste without sacrificing any of the tradition while constantly innovating. They bake and make everything in the store. Hell, there were women playing mah jong in the back room!
Max and Benny’s
461 Waukegan Rd.