Chicken Soup for el Sol

Knish Knack: LEO the delicatessen gets a ryes out of its regulars

LEO the Delicatessen, 5101 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 480-941-4477. Hours: Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner, Tuesday through Sunday, 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Call me the Deli Lama.

Like my Tibetan counterpart, I've spent a long time in exile, far from the native foods of the Brooklyn streets of my youth. Where are the pastrami sandwiches, the pot roast, the stuffed cabbage, the chopped liver, the pickled herring and hot dogs with sauerkraut that kept me in pants with elastic waistbands until I moved away in 1972?

They certainly haven't made much headway in Phoenix, and who could be surprised? In the first place, until very recently, the only ethnic group that local deli worshipers outnumbered here were the long-vanished Anasazi. Second, heavy, out-of-fashion East European foods aren't likely to win over many converts in the calorie-obsessed, sauce-on-the-side, fat-gram-crazed 1990s.

Oh, some brave entrepreneurs have tried to plant delis in the unpromising Southwestern desert soil. Many have since gone to their reward at the big knish house in the sky: Remember Kibitz, Tradition, Mustard's and Hollywood Deli?

The most spectacular failure of all was the Carnegie Deli. In 1992, the proprietor of this famed Big Apple shrine to arteriosclerosis decided the Valley was just the place to open a second branch. Perhaps his judgment had been pickled by years of inhaling corned beef fumes. How else could you account for his decision to set up shop in the hulking white elephant called the Scottsdale Galleria? People stayed away as if it were radioactive.

Carnegie Deli misjudged more than location. Someone forgot that Phoenix isn't New York. I remember the look on one local's face when his order arrived -- a jaw-breaking, 22-ounce pastrami sandwich and a mutantly massive knish that Del Webb could have subdivided into one-acre lots. Bewildered and terrified, the poor guy didn't know whether to eat his dinner or call in a B-52 air strike. He took a few ineffectual passes at it, then bolted. No wonder Carnegie Deli folded in less than a year.

When I think of delis, it's not only the sight and smell of the food I conjure up -- it's my childhood. It's family dinners at Grabstein's, where my father moaned that his 95-cent corned beef sandwich cost only a quarter when he was a kid. (And it was bigger then, too, he sighed.) It's downing hot dogs and a Dr. Brown's cream soda with my friends after a game of stickball. It's hearing my mother shriek when she discovered I had scarfed down all two dozen kreplach earmarked for 12 guests' bowls of chicken soup that evening. (When he got home, Dad made sure I would remember the event by massaging my rear with an even 24 whacks of his belt. He was right -- I remembered.)

So when I went to the new LEO the Delicatessen, I may have carried along some unrealistic expectations. I wanted the New York deli experience. I wanted tasty, authentic food. Heck, I wanted it to be 1963.

Well, no amount of wishing is going to turn back the clock. And no amount of Hebrew National salami dangling over the counter can give LEO on Scottsdale Road the feel of a Seventh Avenue deli. But for the most part, to my happy surprise, the food is a blast from the past.

The look is as evocative as the fare. The walls are hung with striking, black-and-white photos of New York deli scenes, set in their high holy temples: Ratner's, Zabar's, 2nd Avenue Deli. Piped-in big-band '40s music reinforces the nostalgia, as does most of the clientele, who look like they were sent over by Central Casting, old neighborhood division.

The good vibes continue at the table, where old-time seltzer bottles (empty, unfortunately) tugged at my memories.

So did the freebie plate of pickles, sour tomatoes and pickled hot peppers set down as soon as we unfurled our napkins. But where, I wondered, was the basket of rye bread?

There's no reason to consider appetizers. If you truly adore chopped liver or stuffed cabbage, you can order them as entrees. Otherwise, ordered as appetizers, they'll not only take the edge off dinner, they'll also take the edge off tomorrow's breakfast.

Soups, though, are another story. And LEO's are seriously good. Hearty and intense, the thick mushroom barley is properly boosted with beef. I predict it will taste even better when the temperature outside drops below triple digits.

Chicken soup, of course, is a key measure of deli prowess, and LEO's almost aces the test. In fact, I'd advise skipping the starter bowl of matzoh ball soup altogether and going directly to the larger version, the main-dish chicken-in-the-pot. It's cheaper than a trip to Lourdes, and there's more than enough to cure whatever ails you and several of your closest friends, as well. Housed in a huge ceramic tureen, the soup is stocked with a half chicken, noodles, matzoh balls and kreplach (think of them as East European won tons, doughy, meat-filled pouches). The kitchen has the good sense not to overload the broth with salt, a common defect. Once the cook learns to add a bit of dill and parsley, and throw in some thick-cut carrots and celery, Jewish moms everywhere will face real competition.  

Among the entrees, one in particular knocked me out. That's the Roumanian tenderloin, the likes of which you rarely see west of the Hudson. It's a luscious strip of tender beef, done up with a bit of char and coated with a thick schmeer of garlic. If this is how my ancestors ate in the Old Country, I'm surprised they ever left. The wonderful side of thick mashed potatoes, laced with sautéed onions, is another plus. The only drawback: dull mixed veggies, the kind I left on my plate as a kid, and that I also left untouched at LEO.

Mom will be glad to know the stuffed cabbage can't match hers, but nobody's ever could. I found the flavor profile a bit weaker than it ought to be -- not enough cabbage, beef and tomato sauce oomph. But no one can complain about the side of potato pancakes, thick, crisp and spudly.

I have a minor quarrel with the meat loaf. The taste is all there, and I appreciate the crisp edge. But I prefer my meat loaf more coarsely ground than LEO's version. This meat loaf is so fine and smooth you could mistake it for pâté.

I entered the sandwich portion of the menu filled with dread. That's because most of the deli sandwiches I've eaten in Phoenix have been so embarrassingly awful that I sometimes wish my grandparents had come from Norway.

LEO, however, has restored my ethnic pride. The pastrami comes from New York, and it's hands-down the best in town: moist, peppery and with just the right amount of juicy fat providing taste and texture. First-rate New York-style rye bread, with a fresh, crisp crust, contributes to the experience. The homemade brisket, a powerful dose of animal protein, is also superb. It's gilded with a yummy dipping "jus" alongside, which tasted as if it were just poured out of the roasting pan. Chopped liver, meanwhile, is rich and heavy -- none of that creamy, lightweight, moussey stuff for LEO. But Mom always added lots of fried onions to the mix, and LEO's chopped liver, good as it is, would benefit from that same treatment. Even the quarter-pound kosher hot dog made me smile, although at six bucks, it's $5.85 more than it was when I was a kid. Pleasantly plump, it's heaped with sauerkraut, onions, relish and mustard, and served on a fresh, non-mushy poppy seed bun.

The corned beef, though, fails to rise above ordinary. It's a tad dry and doesn't make nearly the same flavor impact as its pastrami and brisket rivals.

Sandwiches come with unexceptional coleslaw, potato salad, Claremont salad or fries. So you may want to spring an extra three bucks for a homemade knish. The vegetarian model, filled with broccoli, is highly untraditional. But it demonstrates that maybe this kind of food has a future as well as a past. The anvil-heavy potato knish doesn't so much improve the past as bring it to life. Do not operate heavy machinery after eating one. The noodle pudding is a little more problematic. LEO makes a sweet version, flecked with fruit and adorned with a streusel-like topping. But though quite good, it doesn't work as an accompaniment to main dishes.

At dessert time, just say "rugalach." They're little stuffed pastry crescents, and LEO's two types, raspberry and chocolate, are good enough to compete on the Lower East Side. The cheesecake, though incredibly rich and creamy, is somewhat lacking in cheesy intensity. Still, the caramel drizzle and candied nuts almost make that shortcoming moot. Chocolate blackout cake and apple strudel, however, don't move my dessert needle. And even though the sour cream coffee cake was served warm, the heat couldn't disguise the fact that my piece tasted as if it had been sitting out on the counter about 48 hours too long.

Along with lunch and dinner, breakfast is another essential meal to us deli devotees. (The two others: the late afternoon nosh and the midnight snack.) LEO gets breakfast mostly right, both in the variety and the quality of the offerings.

Smoked fish, flown in from New York, is a dream: silky Nova lox, pungent whitefish, sushi-like sable and meaty sturgeon. But you'll pay for your thrills -- the sable and sturgeon go for $30 a pound. Homemade pickled herring in cream sauce is worth every caloric bite. The whitefish salad, though, doesn't pass muster -- it tasted old and tired, not fresh and vibrant.  

I'm happy to report that LEO carries a.m. staples like well-crafted matzoh brei (it's a matzoh omelet) and hefty cheese blintzes. The salami and eggs platter hits all the right buttons, too. And while I would have preferred thick-cut wedges of challah (egg bread) French toast to the thin slices LEO offers, I have no quibble with the taste. The real maple syrup doesn't hurt, either.

What does hurt, however, is the single most important deli breakfast component -- bagels. The bagels here aren't in the same league with Chompie's, the Valley's best. I can understand LEO relying on another supplier: Chompie's and LEO are competing for the same customers. Nevertheless, despite all the other positives, the bagel gap is going to have to be addressed before I bring my picky Big Apple visitors here for breakfast.

Worried about New York deli attitude? Fuhgeddaboudit. LEO's staff is very young, very sweet and very green. When I told my waiter I enjoyed the chicken-in-the-pot, he raised a clenched fish and joyfully exclaimed, "Right on!" When I ordered a pastrami sandwich to go, the gal behind the takeout counter asked if I wanted mayonnaise on it. Mayonnaise? Hey, do I look like Annie Hall? On the other hand, she also plied me with freebie tastes of just about everything in stock.

Everyone knows you can't go home again. So give LEO credit for giving deli fans a chance to drop in, if only vicariously, on the old neighborhood.

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Leo the Delicatessen

5101 N Scottsdale Road
Scottsdale, AZ 85250-7003


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