St. Louis, Mo.
The endless channels of Jesus talk, music, and news on both radio and TV must mean that I am now firmly in the American heartland, moving further away from the core of deli country and into the land that mayo and white bread dominates. That and the biscuits with sausage gravy they had at the breakfast buffet.
Leaving Chicago proved tougher than I imagined, as each day I spent in the city just left me wanting more. I went in hearing and thinking that it was a land bereft of deli, but what I found were people in the delicatessen business making some of the best products I’ve had thus far.
They were dedicated and steadfast, forward thinking and a bit nuts, but not at all united or cohesive. Chicago’s delis are spread far apart, and their owners rarely, if ever talk. Rumors and backstabbing persist, as though the deli owners in the city feel they are in direct competition with each other. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Chicago’s delis are too few in number and too great in need to fight it out. They are competing with the thousands of other restaurants in town, but not each other. I just hope a sense of camaraderie can develop, and Chicago’s Jewish delicatessens can once again be part of a community, and not just remnants of a food scene.
But enough about the philosophy, let’s talk deli.
During the last two days I moved into the city itself, leaving the long drives of suburban Chicago for the concrete towers and $15 an hour parking lots of the city core. Three profiles to tell, so here they are.
No other deli exists in Chicago that can compare to Manny’s. It occupies a special place for the city’s food lovers, and is the defacto association when someone says the word deli. Run by Ken Raskin and his son Danny (Ken’s father Manny used to run this place with his grandfather), it encompases everything a great deli should: informality, bustle, shtick, a well worn sign, a true urban location, and now they even have valet parking. This is where you can come in at lunchtime, get in the cafeteria line and stand sandwiched between Barack Obama on one side and a homeless man on the other. In my two visits last week I met mayoral candidates and cops, lawyers and yummy mommies, black cowboys with huge stetsons and photos of bulls and old Jewish men in outlandish fur coats.
The Raskins have run the place consistently and without much change for half a century, keeping the same cafeteria setup, and employing many of their staff for twenty years at a time. The most known of these is Gino, the sandwich maker with lightning hands, a wry mustachioed smile, and a daring flip that he whips out on plates, knives, forks, and slices of rye. Ken and Danny watch over the place all day, pumping the flesh, helping old ladies carry trays, and more.
During my interview yesterday a longtime customer who was in line began choking (stuffing in his sandwich before he even paid), Ken calmly got up and administered the heimlich maneuver to the guy, who was about 3/4 his height and half his weight. As Ken lifted him into the air and pumped away at his ribs, the food was dislodged. The guy uttered a quick “thanks”, took a sip of his soda, and went happily to his table, the expectant smile on his face literally unbroken. It wasn’t that he was ecstatic to be alive…he just wanted to get to his meal. The food’s that good! People literally risk their lives for it.
While the giant corned beef sandwiches (served with a latke) are the draw, the other dishes at Manny’s are spectacular.
-kishke: by far the best I’ve had, made the traditional way with beef shmaltz, natural casing, and matzo meal. It’s at once moist and chewy, with so much flavor it doesn’t even need gravy and yet you feel light after eating it
-gefilte fish: homemade with a creamy texture that is just divine. they also serve it hot…rare indeed
-chicken soup with kreplach: huge bowls, perfect for the bone cold weather, and gorgeous dumplings filled with tender meat
-chopped liver: one of the finest I’ve had, somewhat wet from the real shmaltz they use, and flecked with enough bits of egg and onion to give you texture, but never sticky in the mouth. amazing.
-Meat and potato knish. I’ve never had one like this…basically a fried softball sized mound of mashed potato with a gorgeous minced meat inside. In a dish of gravy it was heaven sent.
-beef stew: tender, sweet, and hearty…what else do you need in winter?
Enough talk…check out the video.
1141 S. Jefferson, Chicago, IL, 60607
2. The Bagel
I challenge you to find a kinder, more gentle deli owner than Danny Wolf. For over five decades, Danny has worked in and then run his family’s delicatessen The Bagel, along with his uncle, in three locations. Now there are two, one in Skokie and one in Chicago, where I met him one afternoon. The place is a neighborhood spot, up the Gold Coast, and looks like a traditional long and narrow diner complete with art deco decor and Broadway posters.
Danny is the most positive deli owner I’ve met. With a debonair air about him, he looks as though he could be running a five star restaurant. He simply exudes a calm, upbeat outlook on life, food, and his business, which is refreshing and very rare in a business of jaded, sarcastic Yids. For example, he doesn’t see health concerns as a detriment to his business. He’s run the numbers and feels that the anti-carb, anti-fat, anti-deli fad is just that…and is currently petering out. “As long as you eat it in moderation and exercise, what’s the harm?” Given how his food tastes, I’d say none.
The Bagel does a full gamut of foods, which run the scale from a massive uber-airy matzo ball to rarer Ashkenazi specialty dishes that are hard to find like broiled or pickled beef tongue, boiled flanken, meat blintzes (with roast brisket and fried onions inside), and Polish fish (cold whitefish stuffed with gefilte fish on the bone). The gefilte fish is a dead runner with Manny’s for the best in town…but who am I to judge?
3107 N BROADWAY?773-477-0300
3. Brad Rubin: The Blessed Meshugguneh of the 11 City Diner
When I told people that I was going to meet Brad Rubin at his 11 City Diner, a look came over their faces, quickly followed by sentences of warning that inevitably contained the words “crazy”, “wild”, and “off the wall”.
True to form, Rubin was a fireball, zipping around his lofty nouveau-diner/deli with the stamina and speed of a hummingbird. One minute he’d be next to you, talking rapidly about the virtues of Langer’s pastrami, and the next he’d be thirty feet away, glad-handing investment bankers, then off twelve tables over to chat with old ladies, then back joking with his busers in Spanish (the only deli owner I’ve met who can speak his staff’s language).
Rubin talks wielding the fire and passion of a visionary, using his hands, body and face to get the point across. He asks questions with the honest curiosity of a child and shoves food in your face with the aggressiveness of a bubbe. He’s less than 50 years old, looks as though he’s 30, dresses like he’s 25 and exudes the chutzpah of twelve people.
He needs all of it, because Brad Rubin is attempting to resurrect deli culture in Chicago, injecting it into the world of downtown gentrification, mixed in with a diner motif. The space is airy and lofty, with exposed cement pillars, original 50′s leather booths, woodgrain formica, soda fountains and a wooden bar salvaged from a strip club. All the deli details have been faithfully recreated: the counter packed with smoked fish, the black and white tiled floors, stacks of Israeli Bazooka Joe gum in the window, hanging salamis and old family photos on the walls.
Retro delis and diners are nothing new: many have been tried and few have succeeded, but Rubin’s creation mixed with boundless energy has produced what might be the future look of the deli business. Gentrification has generally been the enemy of the Jewish deli…driving up rents…tempting owners to close in order to make way for condos. 11 City Diner is trying to reconcile deli with that reality. It’s hip and old school…revived and genuine…and oh yes very delicious. Because at the end of the day it’s the food that matters, and here Rubin has gotten it right.
-great, thin pastrami (with a recipe he developed) and corned beef make up a stellar reuben sandwich
-heavenly homemade chicken soup, with a mazto ball that is as light and airy as my mother’s
-a huge latke that’s crispy and not even the slightest bit greasy
-some of the best challah french toast I’ve ever had, covered with bananas, strawberries, and toasted coconut
-huge slabs of brisket that fall apart with the fork…sweet but not saucy, meaty and yet oh so tender…it’s worth going just for the brisket!
Make not doubt about it, Eleven City Diner is a bold experiment and big risk. It’s in a costly neighborhood, and relies a lot on tourism. Rubin is trying to resurrect deli culture and bring it to a new audience, who are fickle, short on attention, and have a million other options. I just think it might work. Along the lines of Heeb Magazine and Bar Mitzvah Disco, the Eleven City Diner is trying to tap into the desire to establish a new Jewish culture, at both tied to the past and forward thinking. After talking with Rubin, tasting his food, and watching the reactions of several generations eating there I think and hope he’ll be successful. It’s a crazy experiment, but thankfully Rubin is the man with enough chutzpah to pull it off. Said his friend (who’se last name is Pickleman), “He’s trying to take a 20th century restaurant into the 21st century.” My hat goes off to him, and my stomach thanks him immensely.
1112 S. Wabash Ave., Chicago
Tel: (312) 212-1112