Blintzkrieg

Arnie's Deli, 5114 North Seventh Street, Phoenix, 264-1975. Hours: Breakfast and Lunch, 6 a.m. to 3 p.m., seven days a week.

Call me the Deli Lama.
For seven lean years now, I've been wandering in the desert, a deli-starved exile, far from the native dishes of my youth. Where are the corned beef sandwiches of yesteryear? Where is the stuffed cabbage, the pot roast, the kishke, the Hebrew National salami, the kugel, the chopped liver, the Dr. Brown's cream soda, the matzo brei, the hot dog and sauerkraut, the chicken-and-matzo-ball soup, the kasha varnitchkes and pastrami on rye that gave life meaning in a 1960s Brooklyn neighborhood? Where are the kreplach, the blintzes, the potato pancakes and mashed potatoes topped with onions fried in chicken fat that turned the boy into a size-38 "Husky" by the age of 11?

Incredibly enough, the Valley actually had a world-class deli once, briefly, in 1992. That's when the proprietors of New York's famed Carnegie Deli, perhaps unbalanced from years of sniffing pastrami fumes, got the crackpot notion that our piece of the Southwest was ready for the genuine Big Apple Jewish-deli experience. They took over a ground-floor spot at the Galleria and duplicated their Seventh Avenue menu: 22-ounce sandwiches, knishes larger than my first apartment and massively rich cheesecake that should have been declared a federally controlled substance. Locals stayed away in droves. The enterprise was a disaster, collapsing within six months.

Over the years, my Valley deli expeditions haven't been very rewarding. Occasionally, I'd have a decent meal--Tradition, Laura's Kitchen, Pastrami's, the Hollywood Deli and Kibitz all had at least a few redeeming features. But they've passed on, and now must face the judgment of a Higher Authority.

And my quest for deli nirvana continues. First stop this time around: Arnie's Deli, the former Munch a Bagel. Since last year, it's been run by the family behind Karsh's, the fine Jewish bakery just up the street. But the name change isn't quite complete: The "Munch a Bagel" name still adorns the front door and awning.

Inside, the setting hasn't changed much, either. It's still somewhat sterile, with a few whirling fans and potted greenery. The walls are lined with sketches, and newspapers sit in a jumbled heap across several chairs by the dining-room entrance. The best decor touch: the wonderful "Hi, darlin', what're you havin'?" wait staffers, who fuss over you with almost maternal affection.

I also had a delightful discussion with the counterman, a man who takes enormous pride in his work. "I see you ordered the potato latkes," he said as I waited for my takeout order. "I make them from scratch every day." He brought his fingers to his lips and kissed them. "Mmmm," he purred.

"I also make the brisket," he volunteered. "Really?" I asked. He walked over to the meat and cut off a piece for me to taste. "The secret is cooking--three and a half hours, at 325 degrees. And you have to make sure to wait to slice it until it cools down.

"I also make the knishes from scratch every day," he continued, warming to the conversation. "I put onion in it to give it some extra flavor."

"You know, I'm not Jewish," he said with a grin. "But my boss says he's going to buy me one of those little caps--what do you call them?" "Yarmulkes," I replied. "That's right, he's going to get me a yarmulke because I cook like a Jew." The guy wouldn't stop talking or smiling. I felt like giving him a hug.

He reminded me of a character in one of my father's old jokes that I heard as a kid. A Jewish immigrant sits down at a table in a Lower East Side deli. A Chinese waiter appears and converses with him in flawless Yiddish. After the meal, the customer calls the owner over. "How did you ever manage to find a Chinese waiter who speaks Yiddish?" he inquires. "Shh," the proprietor answers, "he thinks I've been teaching him English."

Nobody has to teach Arnie's Deli how to make matzo-ball soup. The two hefty matzo balls aren't too light (a common failing), and the bowl is heaped with carrots, celery, shredded chicken and onion. The broth has just the right salt-and-pepper tang, too.

The cold cuts at Arnie's Deli are serviceable enough. But in this town, where there's so much lousy corned beef and pastrami, even this kind of mediocrity is practically cause for celebration. And don't worry about your cholesterol--you won't see any overstuffed 22-ounce sandwiches here. I doubt if either the corned beef or pastrami in my sandwiches weighed in at a quarter of a pound.

Your best sandwich bet by far is the brisket. Yes, the counterman really does know what he's doing. The beef is optimally moist, juicy and flavorful, perfect on the crusty rye bread.

He also gets high marks for the potato latkes, thick and oniony, which are sizzled up fresh to order. Experts like myself prefer them with sour cream; those who are faint of artery might choose applesauce. The potato knish, meanwhile--spuds in a crust--is as good as advertised, and appropriately leaden.

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