OYS N THE HOOD

Pastrami's, 5930 West Greenway Road, Glendale, 938-5900. Hours: Breakfast and Lunch, Sunday and Monday, 9 a.m to 2 p.m.; Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner, Tuesday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.

For all the sophistication and variety on the Valley eating scene, there is still one huge, gaping hole in the restaurant mix: New York-style delis. In this town, we can get exotic sushi, authentic Persian kebabs and shrimp so fresh they're frolicking in a tank when we order them. We can get foie gras with truffles, homemade pastas and Cajun crayfish ‚touff‚e. We can get paella, wild boar chile and low-fat halibut fajitas. But just try to get a decent corned beef sandwich. It's not as if deli operators aren't aware of the opportunities. They keep opening up. The problem is, they also keep closing down. In just the past two years, for instance, Tradition, Kibitz and Carnegie Deli, solidly good places, have all folded.

Why? Last year, after I gave a less than enthusiastic review to the dinnertime fare at a very successful north Phoenix deli, its proprietor sent me a letter that pointed out the difficulties of doing business in Phoenix. For example, I complained about the cabbage soup, noting it lacked any beefy underpinnings. Well, it turns out that they make it without meat, because Phoenicians "prefer the soup like that." I complained about dry brisket. I learned that "here in Arizona, the trend for meat is lean, lean, lean. When brisket is lean, it tends to be dry." The old-time New York deli of my youth, he insisted, is "a dying breed."

Yes, times have changed. These days, heart-stopping, artery-clogging deli food is so out of favor, I wouldn't be surprised to see it the object of a D.A.R.E.-type campaign in the schools. Instead of cops preaching against the evils of drugs, I foresee the nutrition police telling kids to Just Say No to knishes, pastrami and chopped liver. In fact, the two delis I recently visited have more or less given up on attracting a dinner crowd: Pastrami's closes at 7 p.m.; Scott's Generations folds up at 5. In Phoenix, not only is it hard to track down good deli, you don't have too many hours to do it. Eight-month-old Pastrami's, a self-proclaimed "New York Kosher-Style Deli," is actually the west-side reincarnation of Munch a Bagel, a longtime Phoenix deli landmark. (Munch a Bagel, now owned by Greeks, continues to offer deli-style breakfast and lunch.) Set in a spanking-new shopping center, Pastrami's hasn't had time to develop a well-worn deli look. Posters of New York sights on the walls and stacks of Yoo-Hoo chocolate drink and Dr. Brown's soda do what they can to set the tone. So do the husband-and-wife operators: As far as I could tell, she does the cooking, he does the schmoozing. Don't worry about dealing with rude deli waiters at Pastrami's. After checking out the menu at the table, you head up to the counter and put in your own order. Someone will bring the food out when it's ready. And most of it passes the basic deli test. The ample bowl of matzo-ball soup sports a chickeny broth and lots of carrot and celery. While the matzo balls are somewhat lighter than I like (I prefer them dense enough to displace the same amount of liquid as an aircraft carrier), I recognize that not everyone shares my view. If you're into green, leafy nutrition, keep away from kishke. A combination of grains and chicken fat, it's a typically leaden deli treat, traditionally smothered in a heavy brown mushroom gravy. I'm happy to report that Pastrami's version, which utilizes a kosher brand of kishke, upholds tradition. Just about anything cooked up from scratch in the kitchen hits the target. Potato pancakes, crisp, sizzling and oily, reminded me of Grandma's. Our plate of homemade blintzes, doughy pouches stuffed with farmer cheese, caught the eye of a white-haired yenta at the next table. She wandered by and asked if they were good. Yup, I said, but when I told her to grab a fork to try them for herself, she scampered away. I guess you can't be too careful.

Hefty rolls of stuffed cabbage, an occasional special, have the right look and bulk. To my unusually sensitive palate, though, they seemed perhaps a bit light on flavor--I'm used to models that have a real sweet-and-sour smack. But, in Pastrami's defense, I realize its customer base is the Phoenix west side, not the Manhattan west side.

One pleasant surprise. I asked why kasha varnishkes--buckwheat groats embellished with bow-tie pasta--didn't appear on the menu. A few seconds later, a bowlful suddenly emerged from back in the kitchen. "No one ever asks for it," said the cook, shrugging mournfully. However, deli sandwiches, a key measure of deli quality, don't come off quite so well. Like the stuffed cabbage, the chopped liver seemed toned down for Southwestern consumption. Some more fried onions might provide the necessary punch. Brisket, reasonably moist and reasonably beefy, is probably the best sandwich option. But the pastrami and corned beef are crushingly disappointing. The pastrami lacks the right texture and tongue-tingling zip. The corned beef, chewy and gristly, is simply inedible.

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