When I pulled into Denver a few nights ago I felt blessed. The drive from Kansas City had been a brutal 9 hour ordeal through the centre of the United States. At first it drizzled, and then poured sheets of rain. I passed time listening to right wing talk radio “…the homosexual agenda in the public schools wants to expose our children to…”, counted the anti-abortion bilboards, and weighed them against the equally numbered sex shop bilboards. By the time I was halfway the freezing rain kicked in, which soon turned to slush, which then turned to snow, and then just mixed back and forth. Accidents were everywhere, the road was a skating rink, but I finally arrived in Denver with my car encased in a cocoon of ice. Amen.
During those days between Chicago and here I met two deli men who operate in areas where owning a Jewish delicatessen is a lonely business. Middle America is the gravy belt. Aside from some outstanding Bar-B-Q it is the home of white bread, white folks, and spiceless meat. Hardly a place where deli can thrive. And yet….
Protzel’s Delicatessen – St. Louis, Missouri
In the chic suburb of Clayton lies the finest deli in the city of rivers, arches, and Blues. Protzel’s is less a restaurant than a chaotic store, with a small counter and tables tossed in among the boxes and shelves of packaged foods. In business for nearly half a century, and now on it’s third generation of Protzel ownership, the place exudes old school, beaten up, unpolished charm. 27 year old Max has recently taken over from his father, Alan, who once took over from his father Bob. Alan still hangs around, and being the big, gregarious guy he is, his presence never goes unnoticed.
It’s a neighborhood place, where familiar faces drop in to shoot the shit, grab some lox and bagels for brunch, or have a reuben with their terrific corned beef (which they cure themselves with a very secret recipee). It’s a family affair, and when I was there old men were calling Alan names, while kids still in their hockey gear (with pads) came in for a post game meal with their parents of hot dogs and half sandwiches.
The food’s great, especially the corned beef, which is always served cold (“St. Louis is a cold corned beef town”, said Alan). They sell about 600 pounds of it a week, and considering that the average sandwich holds five to six ounces, that’s a boatload of briskets.
They also sell an outstanding cool and creamy chopped liver, wonderful roast turkey, and a nice deep red tongue.
Their sweet coleslaw needs to be tried…it really whacks the mouth with a bomb of acid and sugars in the right mix.
Alan says their potato salad is a huge hit though “I don’t have the faintest clue why”.
Other delis have come and gone in St. Louis over the years, and there’s even one five blocks away called Posh Nosh, but I checked it out and it is pretty much a solidly goyish operation…very little of the love and homey feel that Protzel’s exudes.
7608 Wydown Blvd
St Louis, MO 63105
New York Bakery and Delicatessen – Kansas City, Missouri
I’d found New York Bakery and Delicatessen via google search, but when I asked people in other cities about it they either shrugged or said it wasn’t a real deli. I expected some suburbanized wannabe bagel store where the bagels tasted of doughnuts…once again I was more than pleasantly surprised.
New York Bakery and Delicatessen happens to be the oldest such establishment in Kansas City, having opened in 1905. This makes it one of the oldest in the Midwest, and puts it up there amongst the oldest delicatessens worldwide (younger than Katz’s…tied with Shapiro’s). Yet, due to its location in the dead centre of America, with a very small Jewish population, it has remained unknown and relatively forgotten.
Jim Holzmark has been running the place for years, after the previous owner got nabbed for art theft. The mainstay of the business is the bakery, which supplies Jewish breads, cakes, and pastry to the region. They make a cakey bagel (more like round challah), outsanding cinamon raisin bread, splendid ryes, gorgeous challah, but the kicker isn’t baked goods or pickled and steamed deli meats…it’s the smoked brisket.
Kansas City is a Bar-B-Q town, where the soul food of the Black community is synonymous with mesquite, slow cooking, and well spiced rubs on fatty cuts of meat.
Deli is all about slow cooking fatty cuts of meat rubbed with spicy rubs…and so the connection was made by a man named Sonny Taborn, an African-American baker and fan of the grill “Yep, I done some Bar-B-Q in my day”. The briskets are smoked in a small metal box, and the vapor rises through a greasy pipe into the ceiling (it used to just go into the air, infusing everything in the bakery with the heavenly smell of this concoction).
The result…a smoky, meaty, taste of KC heaven which fuses the best elements of the two cultures into one heavenly product. This is a prime example of what to do right when tinkering or experimenting with Jewish delicatessen fare. Dressing it up with chipotle oil and fancy focaccia only dulls the product, distracting from the taste of the pure meat. But creations like Sonny’s smoked brisket are the real deal: authentically Jewish with the help of another food culture’s best. Bless you Sonny, Jim, and New York Bakery and Delicatessen. May you see another century and more of good eats in Kansas City.
7016 Troost Ave
Kansas City, MO 64131