Sorry I’ve been woefully absent as of late. Last week I found myself hunting for new digs in New York, and am proud to say that Save the Deli HQ will soon be moving to Brooklyn, the historic home of Jewish delicatessen in America (current recommendations welcome). And while I have a juicy tidbit from the 2nd Ave Deli in the wings, I must write about my Labor Day trip to the Cleve.
Yes Cleveland…say what you will about the much mocked “Mistake by the Lake”, but anyone who has seen the 30 Rock episode where Liz Lemon visits cannot resist its charms. And on Labor Day weekend, myself, the Ms. and select friends went to go visit the Ponsky Pickle clan in the Cleve.
Which brings me, as always, to deli. Like Detroit, Cleveland is one of those deli towns that hits above its weight class. A large Jewish community has instilled in this city a reverential love of corned beef, which is advertised and served all over the city and the burbs. This is legendary deli man country, including Hot Dog King Bob Schwartz (a Cleveland native).
The first stop we hit was the Vienna Beef store, which is sort of a small factory/shop/delicatessen, although there are no seats. We were greeted by Reagan, the owner, and Steve, the counterman, who proceeded to show off the dizzying selection of deli mustards, wrap some of Chicago’s best hot dogs, and lay out scalding slices of Sy Ginsberg’s legendary corned beef. It’s been nearly a year and a half since I’d last tasted Sy’s corned beef in Motown, and within a bite I was transported back to the cold of a February day in Michigan. That flavor signature–perfectly salted, hitting with garlic, subtly spiced–remains, in my opinion, the finest corned beef in America.
From there we forged on to the grandaddy of Cleveland delis, Corky & Lenny’s. Around for half a century, Corky’s is the biggest, best known, and most expansive of Cleveland’s delicatessens, found in a big shopping plaza. After walking in, you’re greeted by a massive display case packed with every imaginable deli meat and treat, from Wilno salamis drying to spreads and salads.
After we sat, I had a quick chat with current owners Kenny and Earl (what perfect deli names!), who are the most picturesque deli owning duo I’ve ever seen. Kenny’s the tall, lean, sarcastic one with grey hair, and Earl’s the bubbly stout guy with a massive grin.
The immense menu is a wonder of suburban Americana. They’ve got hundreds of items including corned beef on salads, roast kishke, smoked fish up the ying yang, sandwiches galore, and combinations that stretch the bounds of the jaw. I opted for a wonderfully salty bowl of matzo ball soup, with a dense, firm, schmaltz heavy m-ball, and a trio of mini-sandwiches…creamy chopped liver, a sweetly spiced Romanian style NY pastrami (my first in ages), and Sy’s gorgeous corned beef, all served on little challah rolls. Kenny came by after and passed out warm raspberry rugelach…purely sensational. We waddled out of there.
Later that weekend we grilled a salami from the deli in a backyard, fired up the Vienna dogs, and had a second round of deli by the pool. Then we made pickles chez Ponsky as Air Force jets from the air show flew overhead.