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Call me the deli lama.
My temple is the New York deli.
I've downed enough matzo balls, stuffed cabbage and corned beef that I could be hung above the deli counter, next to the Hebrew National salami. Pictures of me as a teenager confirm it: I looked like a knish with glasses.
The prospect of a close encounter with two shrines to heartburn here in the Valley set my salivary glands throbbing with hope and dread. Could pastrami on rye bloom in the desert? Could gefilte fish thrive by the Salt River?
In one sense, a New York landmark like Carnegie Delicatessen & Restaurant can no more be transplanted to the Valley than Yankee Stadium.
You'll get there by car, not subway, taxi or foot. You may be served by a scrubbed, friendly young waiter from Vietnam. You'll see men with bola ties puzzling over pickled herring. When you finish eating, you won't spill out into the honking inferno of Seventh Avenue, but into the chichi elegance of the Galleria.
Ah, but the food. Virtually everything here is flown or trucked in from New York. And it's just as good as in its native habitat.
But those of you who didn't grow up convinced that fresh air naturally smells of bus fumes will need a course to guide you through the offerings. Here's Deli Menu 101.
Stick to food you can't get anyplace else, like the stuffed-cabbage dinner. Two enormous rolls of ground beef, raisins and rice are tightly bound inside a cabbage leaf. It is as good as my mother's. Only it doesn't come, as hers usually does, with a side order of unsolicited advice.
As a kid, I used to beg my father to spring for kishke, a lip-smacking treat made from grains and beef fat. My childhood photos show that he gave in more often than he should have. Carnegie Deli kishke, accompanied by a heavy gravy that reduces blood flow to a trickle, is superb. In a wise concession to the uninitiated, the restaurant removes the kishke's inedible outer casing before serving, something that no New York deli would bother doing. Keep away from Middle American sandwiches like turkey, roast beef or chicken salad. You're here for the corned beef, pastrami and chopped liver, whose flavor cannot be duplicated west of the Hudson River.
On a recent visit, the pastrami was too fatty, but perhaps the countermen haven't yet hit their stride. The meat, though, was so juicy and tasty that I could barely work myself up to a New York state of righteous indignation.
The corned beef, on the other hand, came extremely lean and flavorful, a triumph in the art of curing. Carnegie Deli favors chunky-style chopped liver, thick with egg and fried onion. Sandwiches come on locally baked rye, made from the Carnegie Deli recipe. This is thick, chewy bread, studded with caraway seeds and surrounded by a thin, crunchy crust. For a side order, try a potato knish (the k" isn't silent, by the way). Carnegie's monster-size version is larger than my first New York apartment and infinitely more appetizing. It's a dense, onion-flavored mashed-potato pie enclosed in a thin pastry shell. The only activity that can possibly follow its consumption is napping.
If the knish sounds too daunting, there's always potato pancake, a crisply fried pancake of grated potatoes and onions that came to our table sizzling right out of the skillet.
The only really disappointing dish I had here was the locally prepared chicken in a pot. The matzo ball was too light, the vegetables apparently weren't cooked in the broth (they were the same texture and flavor as those on my stuffed-cabbage plate) and the chicken wasn't simmered long enough to get fall-off-the-bone tender. And, at $14.95, I don't think a kreplach or two-a chewy Jewish version of won tons-would have been out of place. Carnegie's desserts have as much subtlety as a New York cab driver. They're wonderful: calorie-ridden, creamy and buttery, not too sweet. The cheesecake is first class, a smooth, thick slice that practically made us swoon. Also heavenly are the rugalach, little pastry rolls rich with sour cream, nuts and raisins, and the cherry-cheese strudel, oozing with sweetened cherries and cream cheese. These are worth a late-night pilgrimage for coffee and dessert.
To keep your appetite and budget in synch, though, you'll also need a course in Deli Economics.
Carnegie Deli sandwiches are massive. Regular sandwiches are $8.95 and weigh in at 14 ounces, while the combos range from $11.95 to $14.95 and tower with an incredible 22 ounces of meat. Few people could down even the regular sandwich without help. I watched one retiree stare helplessly at his pastrami sandwich, wondering whether it was going to bite him first.
When it first opened in late February, though, Carnegie Deli charged $2 to share a dish.
Valley residents properly interpreted this as a Big Apple mugging. In New York, patrons take the deli's sharing fee with the resignation of Saint Francis of Assisi, accepting it, like potholes, subway knifings and uncollected garbage, as a fixed cost of city living. Clearly, management expected no less from laid-back, deli-starved Southwestern desert dwellers.