DILL ME IN
Chompie's Restaurant, Deli, Bagel Factory, Bakery and Caterer, 3202 East Greenway Road, Phoenix, 971-8010. Hours: Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner, Tuesday through Thursday, 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday, 6 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Saturday, 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sunday, 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Monday, 6 a.m. to 3 p.m.
When I was a kid growing up in Brooklyn, I used to wish my dad had chosen a more exciting career. Sure, accounting kept us fed, clothed and sheltered. But I still wanted to switch families with my friend Alan. His father held possibly the world's most enviable position. Supervisor of a sultan's harem? Center fielder for the Yankees? Nope--manager of a neighborhood deli.
When I'd visit Dad's hushed office, I saw pale, bespectacled men poring over sheets of figures. The air was heavy with the musty volumes of the tax code that they consulted from time to time.
But at bustling Sid's Delicatessen, I'd inhale the thick scents of pastrami, knishes and brisket. To me, the heavy aroma hung as redolently as the blooming wisteria does in a Faulkner tale, the perfumed essence of a time and place now long past. From my table, I'd strain to eavesdrop on nearby patrons--hungry, good-time schmoozers--animatedly telling tales of nagging wives, mean bosses and slow racehorses over their deli platters.
A recent trip to my old New York haunts made me wonder if somewhere right here in the Valley that experience could be duplicated.
Chompie's, run by New York refugees, seemed a likely spot to summon up remembrances of corned beef past. Newly located in expanded digs, the place now sports the gleaming, polished look of a modern, suburban deli. Along the length of the far wall, a mural celebrates Big Apple icons: Joe DiMaggio, the Chrysler building and the Rockettes. Hanging salamis, tempting deli-case displays of meat, fish and cheese, and lots of New York accents also add a hometown touch. If you have an uncle from Queens, you're bound to see his double here. But whoever had the vulgar idea of installing two television sets ought to be horsewhipped and fed nothing but pork chops and milk as punishment for his crimes against civility. Chompie's starts dinner off right, with lots of free noshes. A plate of half-sour pickles; sour, green tomatoes; and sauerkraut will induce spasms of involuntary facial puckering until morning. The appealing basket of fresh bread and rolls (Chompie's has its own bakery) will induce involuntary smiles. At the end of a heavy, Jewish-style meal, many words might spring to a diner's lips. "More," however, is not likely to be one of them. And since Chompie's dinners come with soup, dessert and beverage, most folks won't need to make any stops among the appetizers. But I'm genetically wired to order kishke, a uniquely unhealthful blend of grain and fat. If you think a double-parked truck slows down traffic during a New York City rush hour, wait til you see what this does to your arterial blood flow. Still, the version here is authentic enough not to cause any pangs of remorse. Soups, an essential element of Jewish cooking, are a bit disappointing, partly because they look so much better than they taste. I dove into the thick cabbage soup with high expectations, but it tasted all wrong. I got no hint of the contrasting sweet and sour flavors, the hallmark of this dish. And its tomato broth lacked the requisite beefy underpinnings. Hearty mushroom beef barley was an improvement, but it came heavily oversalted. Best was the chickeny, noodle-crammed matzo-ball soup. Personally, I prefer my matzo balls to sink like lead weights, not float like Chompie's airy versions. But this is a contentious subject on which otherwise reasonable people have differed since the Romans sacked Jerusalem. The main dishes are generally enjoyable, but hardly memorable. The brisket plate is well-stocked, but even smothered with indifferent gravy, the meat seemed somewhat dried out. Brisket, if right out of the roasting pan, ought to be gloriously moist. Nor did the limp potato pancake alongside appear to have jumped directly from the skillet. The stuffed cabbage is huge, two immense rolls filled with ground beef. They had some of the sweet and tart oomph the menu promised, but not enough punch for my taste. Perhaps the recipe has been adjusted for local palates. An inefficient microwave oven betrayed the Hungarian goulash, layers of noodles and institutional-looking cubed meat alternately steaming and cold in gloppy brown sauce. It's not a dish deli mavens will get too worked up over. But the chicken in the pot transported me back to Sid's. In a bowl of chicken broth deep enough to come with its own diving board sits a tender half-chicken. Floating alongside are three scrumptious kreplach (meat dumplings), noodles, matzo balls and carrots. This should cure whatever ails you, and it's no more expensive than a trip to the pharmacy.
The quality of Chompie's corned-beef sandwich surprised me--it's one of the few edible versions I've sampled in the Valley. It starts with the bread, thin slices of excellent, home-baked rye. The meat is juicy and flavorful, and generously piled on, considering the $6.25 tag. Wonderful knishes--potato, meat, kasha, veggie--make a heart-stopping accompaniment. Diners can profitably walk off two or three calories by strolling over to the in-store bakery. It's got a real New York feel, from the cherry-cheese strudel to the "take-a-number" ticket machine. The deli dessert staples are first-rate: chocolate horns, cheese Danish, rugalach and cheesecake. Chompie's inconsistent dinner fare doesn't yet match the level of its fine all-day offerings or its bakery--smoked fish platters, omelets, blintzes, bagels. For this exiled Deli Lama, dinnertime at Chompie's is a reminder of, but not a substitute for, home.
Laura's Kitchen, 4818 North Seventh Street, Phoenix, 263-9377. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Inconspicuously tucked within Segal's Kosher Market is one-year-old Laura's Kitchen. The hardworking Laura leases the space at the back of the store. Up front, Segal's retails kosher meat, poultry and canned goods; in the rear, Laura fixes meals for dine-in customers. Aside from the Ritz-Carlton's Sunday-evening buffet, this is the only spot in town to get a full-blown kosher repast--rabbinically inspected meats, no pork, no shellfish and no dairy products. (Valley Kosher Meats and Deli, at 1331 East Northern, has a few tables, but it's not really a restaurant.) Laura's Kitchen registers zero on the excitement scale. We sat on park-style benches around picnic-style tables. Decor consists of a few posters, notices of kosher certification and an absolutely inexplicable set of steer horns nailed above a storeroom. But what Laura's Kitchen lacks in pizzazz, it makes up in homey comfort. The place seems to have its regulars, many of whom wear yarmulkes, the headgear of observant Jews. Under Laura's direction, a young, well-trained nephew provides reasonably efficient service. Laura herself stopped by several times to schmooze and talk about her cooking. After each passing minute, I felt less and less like a paying restaurant customer and more and more like a dinner guest at my Aunt Rose's house in Flatbush in 1963.
And like my Aunt Rose, Laura has her culinary moments. She makes up a mean chopped-liver appetizer plate. None of that light, mousselike, Cuisinarted pƒt‚ here. This stuff is rich, thick, heavy and plentiful, served with lettuce, tomato, onions, pickles and fresh rye. It's also filling--split it two or three ways, or don't order anything else. Dinners come with soup or salad. I'm beginning to think that the preparation of matzo-ball soup is a dying art. Laura's matzo ball meets my specifications: It's as big as a grapefruit and as hard as a landlord's heart. But the broth lacked the distinctive, sublimely intense, homemade-chicken flavor that gives this quintessential Jewish dish character. Laura's Kitchen offers some pretty unusual fare for a kosher deli, such as homemade ravioli and focaccia-bread "pizza" topped with grilled vegetables. Both looked great, but these aren't the tests of a Jewish kitchen. Chicken in a pot is. And because Laura uses kosher chickens, it's a success. Although these birds cost two or three times more than ordinary fowl, they're ten times tastier--tender, meaty, juicy. You get half a chicken in broth here, with little adornment except for matzo ball and carrot. I haven't ordered a deli "chopped steak" since The Man From U.N.C.L.E. went off the air. It's just a thick, oval-shaped hamburger, something for the kids to order. But when done right, it can be worthy of adult attention, too. Laura serves an excellent version, with a delightfully crisp exterior and lots of beefy flavor. And just like at Sid's, it comes properly laden with saut‚ed onions and mushrooms. It's great with a Dr. Brown's cream soda. The too-dry brisket, though, is nothing special. And serving it with ordinary potatoes instead of kasha varnishkes (Laura had neglected to make the groats and bow-tie pasta treat this day) compounded the problem. Cold-cut lovers should steer clear of the corned beef and pastrami, which comes from Segal's part of the store. It's a glatt kosher brand, aimed at extremely religious Jews who require extra levels of kosher purity. But the rabbis' blessing doesn't extend to taste--the meat is salty and dry. To her credit, Laura warned me against it. Everyone knows you can't go home again. But Laura's Kitchen does manage to revive a bit of the old neighborhood in the foreign soil of the desert Southwest.
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