Blintzkrieg

Chopped chicken liver is a deli staple, and the kitchen here gives it the proper respect. For $3.25 you get a mound of liver--creamy, oniony, heavy and bound with a bit of hard-boiled egg.

The homemade blintzes are also well-fashioned, four doughy pouches filled with sweetened cheese, then lightly skillet-fried. Matzo brei isn't quite as successful. (Think of it as a matzo omelet.) The model here is a little too eggy for my taste, with not enough matzo crunch.

Fish is an integral part of the deli experience: You'd always see whitefish, herring and lox in the deli case, and sometimes there'd be expensive delicacies like cod and sable. Arnie's Deli puts together its own appealing smoked fish salad, a blend of whitefish and salmon. It's served the right way, with a bagel and fat slices of tomato and red onion.

For all its pleasures, however, Arnie's Deli is really a deli manque. Look at what it doesn't serve: kishke, kreplach, kasha, kugel, tongue, chicken in a pot, stuffed cabbage. The place doesn't even stay open for dinner.

Still, I'm aware that we're in Phoenix, not New York. And I'd rather live here and make do with the limited choices at Arnie's Deli than live in New York and clog my arteries with the Carnegie Deli's bounty. I just wish that, someday, I could have my corned beef, and eat it, too.

Segal's Kosher Foods, 4818 North Seventh Street, Phoenix, 285-1515. Hours: Monday through Thursday, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Friday, 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Sunday 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.

As far as I know, Segal's is the Valley's sole kosher restaurant, the only place observant Jews can dine out in rabbinically certified confidence.

The laws of kashruth are detailed and complex. Shellfish, pork and birds of prey are forbidden. So are creatures that crawl. Biblically approved meat, like beef and poultry, must be slaughtered according to ritual, under religious supervision. Meat and dairy may not be mixed. (There's no such thing, for instance, as a kosher cheeseburger.) And meat and dairy products must have their own set of cooking vessels, utensils and plates.

Though the sacred ancient texts are quite explicit about what is permitted and what is proscribed, they have nothing to say about what's dearer to my pagan heart: taste. Segal's fare passes the religious test, but otherwise doesn't make the deli grade.

The corned beef is horrendous, with an odd taste, odd texture and even odder look. Eating it is a true test of faith. The pastrami is better, but only in comparison.

The chicken soup also won't make any converts. You'd assume just about everyone eating and working here grew up believing in its supernatural properties. But there's nothing terribly magical about this rather dull broth. Why have chicken soup at all, if you can't remind people of what came out of Mama's kitchen?

When I was a kid, Ruby the Knish Man would station his pushcart outside my elementary school at the three o'clock bell. (There were vendors selling Chinese food, ice cream, pizza, soft pretzels and jelly apples, too--a food court on wheels.) Ruby's potato knishes looked just like the ones now at Segal's. And the proprietor confirms his come from New York. The only problem is, the one I ate tasted like it set out by pushcart from New York 35 years ago and just pulled up. It was way past its prime, with a crumbly potato interior and tough, chewy exterior.

What Segal's does best is barbecued beef ribs, a feature on Wednesday and Thursday nights. These meaty bones are remarkably good, laden with tooth-tender beef tarted up by a sweet, almost fruity barbecue glaze. Just about everyone here on one Wednesday-night visit ordered them.

You can also order them as part of a ribs-chicken combo. Don't. Kosher chickens are far superior to supermarket birds--they're juicier and more flavorful (and about twice the price). But there's no benefit to serving kosher poultry that's been cooked to death. Whatever advantages Segal's chicken once possessed were snuffed out by prolonged exposure to heat and flames.

Other entree options include a hefty chopped steak, about a half-pound of innocuous ground beef coated with onions and peppers. My joy at having it accompanied by kasha varnitchkes (buckwheat groats with bow-tie pasta) faded after one bite. The kasha is bland and dry--why not try adding some fried onions and mushrooms to liven it up? Chicken concassa, meanwhile, proved to be nothing more than a snoozy whole grilled breast heaped with tomato and a Transylvanian amount of garlic, teamed with linguini.

For dessert, there's an intriguing pareve cheesecake, made with nondairy cream cheese. (Pareve foods are dietetically neutral--neither meat nor dairy. Think eggs, fish, fruit and vegetables.) I imagine my fellow diners did not mind the simulated taste. If they did, the rugalach (small pastries filled with cinnamon sugar or fruit) and chocolate chip cookies make a satisfactory alternative.

When it comes to deli fare, Segal's follows the letter of the Law. But it's not the answer to my deli prayers.

Arnie's Deli:
Matzo-ball soup
$3.50
Smoked fish salad
6.75
Cheese blintzes
6.95

Segal's Kosher Foods:
Chicken soup (bowl)
$3.00
Pastrami sandwich
8.95

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