KIBITZ AND BITS

But easygoing locals showed more moxie than anyone could have imagined. Complaints, and empty tables, have forced Carnegie Deli to back down. Now, as long as two people order more than one item, they can escape the sharing gouge.

So unless you want lots of leftovers or can shrug off a large tab, share. And enjoy. Unlike the sleek, Galleria-centered Carnegie operation, Tradition deli is a mom-and-pop enterprise in a northeast Phoenix minimall. Run by Long Island refugees, it has the down-home feel New Yorkers associate with neighborhood delis in Brooklyn and Queens. Here you can schmooze with the owners, discuss the fine points of matzo-ball preparation and gossip about the local restaurant scene.

There's none of Carnegie Deli's high-tech, black-and-white-tiled glitziness here. Instead, there are dark institutional carpeting, pink chairs, plants in baskets and table cards for Ben & Jerry's ice cream. Tradition's smaller size and ambitions give it a few advantages over its rival. Its prices average out to a bit more than half those at Carnegie Deli, and human-size portions make it much easier to sample many of the homemade goodies on the menu. And most everything here is homemade by a mom back in the kitchen, and this mom can cook.

(Two doors down is a Jenny Craig diet center. No need to troll for clients-they get them right at the source.)

Tradition's chicken-in-a-pot, in contrast to Carnegie's, is dead-on perfect. First, the cooks use kosher chickens, which cost about twice as much as the nonkosher variety, and taste about twice as good. (Before they're ritually slaughtered, kosher chickens are smothered with guilt.)

Simmered for a long time to create an intense chicken broth, the dish comes with half a chicken, egg noodles, kasha (buckwheat), carrots, two heavy matzo balls, and a big kreplach. I was almost tempted to peek in the kitchen to see if my mother was there.

Also lovely was the oven-roasted brisket, a good half-pound of lean, thin-sliced beef with a light tomato sauce. But what made this dish soar was the side of chunky mashed potatoes topped with gribenes. That's fried-chicken fat, the Jewish equivalent of pork rinds. It's what George Bush would be eating had he grown up in Canarsie, the last subway stop in Brooklyn.

The appetizers here cost less than two bucks, and they're a good way to get a small sampling of the cuisine.

Tradition's kishke can hold its own with Carnegie's. I should apply it directly to my hips. The stuffed cabbage, while nowhere near the size of Carnegie's, is no slouch in the flavor department.

Where Tradition does not measure up is in the quality of its corned beef and pastrami, neither of which is made in-house. While the size and price of the sandwich won't scare anybody off, the taste won't win any converts. If you line up Tradition's and Carnegie's meat sandwiches and take alternating samples, as I did, the decision jumps out at you. It's a first-bite TKO.

On the other hand, over sandwich material it controls, like chopped liver, Tradition is a contender. The mixture is smooth and creamy, close to pate-just as tasty as Carnegie's chunky version. Desserts here are good enough to save room for, if not quite as tempting (and as pricey) as the competition's. No apologies are necessary for this cheesecake, a dense creation that properly requires at least two cups of coffee to wash down. Less successful are the rugalach, which tasted too much of sugar and cinnamon and too little of butter and sour cream.

Tradition does whip up a dessert, though, that Carnegie has neglected, and it's a winner. Killer kugel" is a baked noodle pudding, crisp on top and bottom, with soft noodles inside sweetened with pieces of dried apricot. Noodles for dessert? Why not? It's vintage deli food. And with dishes like that, Carnegie and Tradition are making this deli lama feel like he no longer lives in exile.

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