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.
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.
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.
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When it comes to deli fare, Segal's follows the letter of the Law. But it's not the answer to my deli prayers.
Smoked fish salad
Segal's Kosher Foods:
Chicken soup (bowl)