Save the Deli

Marvin Saul: RIP an LA Deli Legend

Thursday, December 15th, 2011

It always saddens me when a member of the Jewish deli passes, and today I feel it particularly strongly. Marvin Saul, the beloved owner of Junior’s Delicatessen, in Hollywood, CA, died last week.

Here’s from his obituary in the LA Times:

Marvin Saul was a uranium miner who had gone bust when he flipped a coin in the late 1950s to decide where to strike out next from Utah. Heads meant Los Angeles; tails Dallas.

Heads, and generations of future deli-goers on the Westside, won out.

With 35 cents in his pocket, Saul arrived in Los Angeles, did odd jobs and by 1957 had cobbled together $300 to open a small sandwich shop. Two years later, he established Junior’s, an eight-table delicatessen that grew “into a sort of IBM of the bagel and blintz world,” the Wall Street Journal reported in 1990.

At the time, Saul explained the restaurant’s success by saying, “I try to give people great food and a little schmaltz.”

Saul, who had continued to work three days a week at the Westwood eatery, died of a heart attack Dec. 8 at his home in Encino, said his son David. He was 82.

“He was really an incredible host. It’s a great big restaurant, but he’d treat it like his own dining room at home,” said filmmaker Mel Brooks, who has frequented Junior’s for decades. “He was so sweet and wonderful, albeit a little pushy on the soup. He’d always come to our table with a new soup, and we had to try it or we’d hurt his feelings.”

“Junior” was Saul’s childhood nickname, and he gave it to the restaurant he originally opened on Pico Boulevard. In 1967, he moved the deli several blocks to Westwood Boulevard near the 20th Century Fox studio, where it has long been considered a landmark — and a place to spot the occasional celebrity.

I met Marvin back in 2007, when I was out west, researching Save the Deli. He greeted me with open arms, proudly showing me around Junior’s, lifting the pot on every soup, and pulling up a ladle, to show me the flanken he’d made, or the navy beans he’d personally selected. He was a true host, a man who made his customers feel at home, whether they were old time deli hams like Mel Brooks (whom Marvin arranged an interview with, when I was there), or an unlikely figure like Mr. T, who met Saul when he came to film Rocky 3, and was treated like a son. “I always called him Father,” Mr. T told me a few years ago, out of respect and love.

Junior’s lives on with the Saul family, who have been running the place for several years, and in the hearts of his customers, who will never forget his smile, his firm handshake, and the first kibbitz of the day.

Alef Ha Sholem Marvin. We’ll miss you.

Herring and Deli Revival in DC (and apologies from me)

Wednesday, December 14th, 2011


It’s been a shamefully long time since I’ve written here. Scandalously, really. Hence the sad dog photo.

Two big reasons why:

1. I’ve been away the whole past month in South America. Yes, I had internet access, and yes I could have written something, but it was sunny, and lovely, and there was steak (Argentina), and beach (Brazil), and you can follow the conclusion from there.

2. I’ve become admittedly lazy about the blog. I’ve been writing this for close to five years, based around the research, writing, and promotion of the book, and since then, as my life has moved away from the book, I’ve moved away from the blog. That’s just me, but it doesn’t mean that the community built here is any less passionate. If you want daily updates, conversation, photos, and debate, head over to the Save the Deli facebook page, which is a 1400+ strong group of deli lovers who are keeping the flame alive. This doesn’t mean I won’t be writing here anymore, but I’ll certainly be doing it less than regularly.

Still…some things to discuss today.

First off, the always excellent Joan Nathan writes today about a bit of a herring revival in the Times.

“What used to be food for Jewish grandfathers, particularly on holidays like Hanukkah, which starts next Tuesday night, is showing up on the menus of restaurants both hip and elegant.

Herring with wasabi and yuzu kosho paste is one of the haute Jewish dishes at Kutsher’s Tribeca. Benoit and Brasserie Julien both serve French smoked herring with potatoes. A notable dish at the dearly departed M. Wells in Queens was smoked herring Caesar salad.”

Hells yes! Who doesn’t love herring (a few people, but really they haven’t had the good stuff).

Now, speaking of Mrs. Nathan, she’s consulted on a new deli that’s going to open in DC, which falls into the roots deli movement that’s slowly, sustainably, sweeping across the nation. From DC’s Washingtonian magazine:

Barry Koslow, who was the chef at Mendocino Grille and, more recently, at Tallula, is set to open DGS Delicatessen next summer, just south of Dupont Circle (1317 Connecticut Ave., NW) with his partners, Nick and David Wiseman of Roadside Food Projects. (The name DGS is meant to honor the District Grocery Stores cooperative—a band of Jewish-owned mom ’n’ pops—that thrived in the city at the turn of the 20th century.)

The trio—DC natives all—describes the forthcoming venture in terms that allow for a good bit of wiggle room, lest the culinarily orthodox (and the other kind, as well) accuse them of taking too many liberties.

“We want to evoke nostalgia for the classic delicatessen while bringing technique into the mix to elevate these dishes and take things to another level,” says Koslow.

Technique is a word almost synonymous with Koslow’s name. The classically trained chef worked in a French vein for many years, and his pistachio-studded rabbit pâté, a dish he reprised at Tallula after leaving Mendocino Grille, was among the glories of the area’s food scene.

At DGS, the corned beef and pastrami will be made on the premises, “brined for a week in aromatics and steamed properly,” Koslow says.

Good for DC. Washington may have problems beyond repair (like, the whole stewardship of the nation gambit), but at least it’s likely to get some great deli in the meanwhile.

I’ll be back for Channukah…I promise.

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