KIBITZ AND BITS
Call me the deli lama.
My temple is the New York deli.
I've downed enough matzo balls, stuffed cabbage and corned beef that I could be hung above the deli counter, next to the Hebrew National salami. Pictures of me as a teenager confirm it: I looked like a knish with glasses.
The prospect of a close encounter with two shrines to heartburn here in the Valley set my salivary glands throbbing with hope and dread. Could pastrami on rye bloom in the desert? Could gefilte fish thrive by the Salt River?
In one sense, a New York landmark like Carnegie Delicatessen & Restaurant can no more be transplanted to the Valley than Yankee Stadium.
You'll get there by car, not subway, taxi or foot. You may be served by a scrubbed, friendly young waiter from Vietnam. You'll see men with bola ties puzzling over pickled herring. When you finish eating, you won't spill out into the honking inferno of Seventh Avenue, but into the chichi elegance of the Galleria.
Ah, but the food. Virtually everything here is flown or trucked in from New York. And it's just as good as in its native habitat.
But those of you who didn't grow up convinced that fresh air naturally smells of bus fumes will need a course to guide you through the offerings. Here's Deli Menu 101.
Stick to food you can't get anyplace else, like the stuffed-cabbage dinner. Two enormous rolls of ground beef, raisins and rice are tightly bound inside a cabbage leaf. It is as good as my mother's. Only it doesn't come, as hers usually does, with a side order of unsolicited advice.
As a kid, I used to beg my father to spring for kishke, a lip-smacking treat made from grains and beef fat. My childhood photos show that he gave in more often than he should have. Carnegie Deli kishke, accompanied by a heavy gravy that reduces blood flow to a trickle, is superb. In a wise concession to the uninitiated, the restaurant removes the kishke's inedible outer casing before serving, something that no New York deli would bother doing. Keep away from Middle American sandwiches like turkey, roast beef or chicken salad. You're here for the corned beef, pastrami and chopped liver, whose flavor cannot be duplicated west of the Hudson River.
On a recent visit, the pastrami was too fatty, but perhaps the countermen haven't yet hit their stride. The meat, though, was so juicy and tasty that I could barely work myself up to a New York state of righteous indignation.
The corned beef, on the other hand, came extremely lean and flavorful, a triumph in the art of curing. Carnegie Deli favors chunky-style chopped liver, thick with egg and fried onion. Sandwiches come on locally baked rye, made from the Carnegie Deli recipe. This is thick, chewy bread, studded with caraway seeds and surrounded by a thin, crunchy crust. For a side order, try a potato knish (the k" isn't silent, by the way). Carnegie's monster-size version is larger than my first New York apartment and infinitely more appetizing. It's a dense, onion-flavored mashed-potato pie enclosed in a thin pastry shell. The only activity that can possibly follow its consumption is napping.
If the knish sounds too daunting, there's always potato pancake, a crisply fried pancake of grated potatoes and onions that came to our table sizzling right out of the skillet.
The only really disappointing dish I had here was the locally prepared chicken in a pot. The matzo ball was too light, the vegetables apparently weren't cooked in the broth (they were the same texture and flavor as those on my stuffed-cabbage plate) and the chicken wasn't simmered long enough to get fall-off-the-bone tender. And, at $14.95, I don't think a kreplach or two-a chewy Jewish version of won tons-would have been out of place. Carnegie's desserts have as much subtlety as a New York cab driver. They're wonderful: calorie-ridden, creamy and buttery, not too sweet. The cheesecake is first class, a smooth, thick slice that practically made us swoon. Also heavenly are the rugalach, little pastry rolls rich with sour cream, nuts and raisins, and the cherry-cheese strudel, oozing with sweetened cherries and cream cheese. These are worth a late-night pilgrimage for coffee and dessert.
To keep your appetite and budget in synch, though, you'll also need a course in Deli Economics.
Carnegie Deli sandwiches are massive. Regular sandwiches are $8.95 and weigh in at 14 ounces, while the combos range from $11.95 to $14.95 and tower with an incredible 22 ounces of meat. Few people could down even the regular sandwich without help. I watched one retiree stare helplessly at his pastrami sandwich, wondering whether it was going to bite him first.
When it first opened in late February, though, Carnegie Deli charged $2 to share a dish.
Valley residents properly interpreted this as a Big Apple mugging. In New York, patrons take the deli's sharing fee with the resignation of Saint Francis of Assisi, accepting it, like potholes, subway knifings and uncollected garbage, as a fixed cost of city living. Clearly, management expected no less from laid-back, deli-starved Southwestern desert dwellers.
But easygoing locals showed more moxie than anyone could have imagined. Complaints, and empty tables, have forced Carnegie Deli to back down. Now, as long as two people order more than one item, they can escape the sharing gouge.
So unless you want lots of leftovers or can shrug off a large tab, share. And enjoy. Unlike the sleek, Galleria-centered Carnegie operation, Tradition deli is a mom-and-pop enterprise in a northeast Phoenix minimall. Run by Long Island refugees, it has the down-home feel New Yorkers associate with neighborhood delis in Brooklyn and Queens. Here you can schmooze with the owners, discuss the fine points of matzo-ball preparation and gossip about the local restaurant scene.
There's none of Carnegie Deli's high-tech, black-and-white-tiled glitziness here. Instead, there are dark institutional carpeting, pink chairs, plants in baskets and table cards for Ben & Jerry's ice cream. Tradition's smaller size and ambitions give it a few advantages over its rival. Its prices average out to a bit more than half those at Carnegie Deli, and human-size portions make it much easier to sample many of the homemade goodies on the menu. And most everything here is homemade by a mom back in the kitchen, and this mom can cook.
(Two doors down is a Jenny Craig diet center. No need to troll for clients-they get them right at the source.)
Tradition's chicken-in-a-pot, in contrast to Carnegie's, is dead-on perfect. First, the cooks use kosher chickens, which cost about twice as much as the nonkosher variety, and taste about twice as good. (Before they're ritually slaughtered, kosher chickens are smothered with guilt.)
Simmered for a long time to create an intense chicken broth, the dish comes with half a chicken, egg noodles, kasha (buckwheat), carrots, two heavy matzo balls, and a big kreplach. I was almost tempted to peek in the kitchen to see if my mother was there.
Also lovely was the oven-roasted brisket, a good half-pound of lean, thin-sliced beef with a light tomato sauce. But what made this dish soar was the side of chunky mashed potatoes topped with gribenes. That's fried-chicken fat, the Jewish equivalent of pork rinds. It's what George Bush would be eating had he grown up in Canarsie, the last subway stop in Brooklyn.
The appetizers here cost less than two bucks, and they're a good way to get a small sampling of the cuisine.
Tradition's kishke can hold its own with Carnegie's. I should apply it directly to my hips. The stuffed cabbage, while nowhere near the size of Carnegie's, is no slouch in the flavor department.
Where Tradition does not measure up is in the quality of its corned beef and pastrami, neither of which is made in-house. While the size and price of the sandwich won't scare anybody off, the taste won't win any converts. If you line up Tradition's and Carnegie's meat sandwiches and take alternating samples, as I did, the decision jumps out at you. It's a first-bite TKO.
On the other hand, over sandwich material it controls, like chopped liver, Tradition is a contender. The mixture is smooth and creamy, close to pate-just as tasty as Carnegie's chunky version. Desserts here are good enough to save room for, if not quite as tempting (and as pricey) as the competition's. No apologies are necessary for this cheesecake, a dense creation that properly requires at least two cups of coffee to wash down. Less successful are the rugalach, which tasted too much of sugar and cinnamon and too little of butter and sour cream.
Tradition does whip up a dessert, though, that Carnegie has neglected, and it's a winner. Killer kugel" is a baked noodle pudding, crisp on top and bottom, with soft noodles inside sweetened with pieces of dried apricot. Noodles for dessert? Why not? It's vintage deli food. And with dishes like that, Carnegie and Tradition are making this deli lama feel like he no longer lives in exile.
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