Is this place for real?
Short answer: yes & no. Sure, it’s long on schtick. But there’s schtick & then there’s schtick. The one involves a cynical attempt at branding (see here under Schtick), the other a nostalgia so wholehearted, the re-creation mit such fargenign of the way things may have been & should still be, that everybody around you happily suspends all disbelief as to whether that’s how they ever were or actually are.
So perhaps NYDN only hires creaky wisecracking broads as waitstaff to sharpen the image of a decrepit kosher deli on the Lower East Side rather than a Reagan-era diner in the Denver ‘burbs—just as Hooters only hires coeds with D-cups to create a world in which buxom young things pay attention to you. The difference—not to knock (heh, but not heh) Hooters waitresses, real people whose decision to flaunt real (if not necessarily natural) cleavage & flirt their hearts out for hours on end in order to earn very real money isn’t for me or anyone who hasn’t walked in their hot pants to judge—is that the wrinkles on said broads are really real, & so is the world-weariness that comes with them. Unlike most young ladies, old ladies have got nothing to prove.
And the same can be said of the clientele, dominated by klatches of retirees whose penchant for pantsuits & bouffants clearly hasn’t wavered since 1973. As picturesque as they are, they’re not props, not paid advertisements; they didn’t put blue wigs & polyester getups over their fauxhawks & skinny jeans that morning just to lull me into self-satisfaction that I’d come to the right place, to a real Jewish deli.
And the same can also be said of every menu item from the canned tuna & sardines—brazenly labeled as such—to the 6-layer chocolate cake in the Platonic ideal of a revolving display case;
whether it’s homemade (I doubt it) or any good at all after sitting in there, slices unwrapped, all day (I doubt it), it’s not just for show. It’s just enough for show.
And the same, therefore, goes for the specific menu items I & my mom—who as a 68-year-old JewBu living in the Bible Belt knows from nothing to prove—tried over the course of 2 visits.
Like the mix & match salad with giant ice cream scoops of chopped liver & egg salad
atop, I swear, half a head of torn iceberg, palm-length discs of cuke & carrot, tomatoes, radishes—& hilariously, more egg, accompanied by
part of a loaf of rye “trucked in from New York” with butter pats & a soup cup’s worth of blue cheese dressing. How was it? Does it matter?
Well, to the extent that it does—mixed. Not surprisingly, neither scoop exactly emanated just-made freshness, & the egg salad, like any egg salad lacking trimmings (paprika, curry, chopped pickles, capers, what have you), was bland. But the liver was subtly spiced, nice & smooth. That’s the gist of the grub here: some of it’s pretty awful, some of it’s awesome—but ultimately it’s all awesome because it is what it is so unapologetically.
The combination fish platter comes with smoked sable (better known these days in its fresh form as black cod), lox & whitefish; scoops of potato salad, sour cream & cream cheese; a shower of capers & red onion rings; & 2 bagels—even if only 1 person (mom, who can’t get sable in Oklahoma) orders it. Atop another half-head of torn iceberg. Plus the plate of rye bread & butter.
The exterior of the sable looked like pink dye, not like the traditional dusting of paprika you see here. Still, it was unmistakably sable, lusciously mild & edged by that slight sour tang it shares with white anchovies. The lox came from a package; the potato salad was plain. Sure enough, it was what it was—& fun to plow through for all that.
The chicken noodle soup with a matzoh ball was a joke, literally—that old one Woody Allen recalls in Annie Hall: “Two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, & one of ’em says, ‘Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.’ The other one says, ‘Yeah, I know; & such small portions.'” Except here the terrible portion is lovably huge.
In all fairness, I’ve really never had a matzoh ball, & I’ve eased down my share, that tasted like anything other than nothing. Surely there’s more to them than mush? Is salt & pepper too much to ask, or is a matzoh ball another one of those things that’s supposed to serve as an eternal symbol of eating handfuls of sand in the desert for 40 years? As for the soup, I’ll be damned if it wasn’t from a can; that paradoxically simultaneous bland & oversalted broth laden with mushy noodles & veggies is pretty telltale.
But then a pastrami sandwich comes along that, in its own plainness, hits the spot.
The meat’s moist, characteristically peppery & funky, & sliced thin, of course, but not so thin it’s virtually shredded (I mean, this is ridiculous). It comes with a side of coleslaw, simple & sweet, but no condiments; brown mustard’s on the table, welcome if not necessary.
Speaking of the unnecessary,
our waitress assured us we were overdoing it with the stuffed cabbage until we assured her we’d be taking some stuff home. She cheerfully pronounced us “scary” anyway.
The thing’s a sea monster rising from the watery depths of a thin, underseasoned tomato sauce, requiring all available utensils & every ounce of determination you’ve got to make a dent in it. Once you saw through the tough outer leaves to reach the ground-beef-and-rice filling, though, it’s all right, at its best all chopped up & eaten with a spoon like soup, when everything can compensate for everything else.
On its heels came the BBQ chicken salad I ordered for a change of pace. The waitress wasn’t sure I wanted blue cheese dressing on the side, but I was, until I saw what she was meant.
This isn’t really barbecued chicken, of course; it’s roasted chicken drenched in barbecue sauce & tossed with tomatoes, cukes, corn, black beans & tortilla strips (atop—surprise!—a half-head of iceberg). Dressing just added insult to injury. But again, what’s the point of going to a deli if not to get on the receiving end of indigestion & insults?
On that note—I hope it’s clear that the load of insults I’ve just leveled at the food here are all in good fun, not unlike the food itself. You’ve just gotta love this place, even if you don’t, because—to return to the question I started with—it’s for real, even if it isn’t.
As for Zaidy’s: in a nutshell, ditto.
I’ve said so before, but a back-to-back comparison served as confirmation that NYDN’s Cherry Creek counterpart is likewise a mixed bag of good food & bad, kosher & treyf, New York–style brashness & Southwestern sweetness.
Case in point: the Israeli salad,
which I’d never have ordered if our waitress wasn’t pushing me toward a choice in her heavy Russian accent, charming to a point, annoying past it. (“What’s it between? Just tell me what it’s between,” she kept saying, then shaking her head at my every suggestion up until this total fluke.)
Actually, the bowlful of chopped tomatoes, cukes, radishes & onion with balsamic vinaigrette was rather refreshing, but the hummus was a bummer, grainy & bland.
Unexpectedly, it came with a giant, garlic-sprinkled, crunchy baked pita chip, mooting the point of the latke I got on the side; but then, the potato pancake wasn’t what I expected either, being much thinner than most (including those I’ve had here before) & accompanied by a fresh strawberry salsa as well as sour cream, a neat touch.
It was cheaper for mom to order whitefish & smoked sable à la carte rather than a combo platter, so that’s what she did. And here’s where there’s no comparison. While the whitefish was roughly equivalent to NYDN’s—both good—Zaidy’s sable was the real deal.
Still, the deli duel isn’t over in my mind. Maybe I’ll do a matzoh brei marathon as a tiebreaker when I’ve finally finished digesting, in a month or so.