Kvetcher in the Rye

I'm with a friend in the new Hollywood Deli & Bar and our sandwich platters are brought to the table. As promised--both by the friend and several other informants who have recommended this place--the sandwiches are deli-Goliaths, each a mouth-wide mound of meaty magnificence. I'm enjoying the sight when I observe a frown on my friend's face. "This is a much smaller portion of fries, and they're a lot limper than last time," he says disconsolately.

Now my friend is one of the great French-fry lovers of all time, and he happens to have a point. The beautiful, thick, long, skin-on potatoes on his plate do have the wilt associated with fresh French fries that have been held too long. They're still quite tasty, however, and the portion is not really as skimpy as he seems to be making out.

What my friend is doing, I suddenly realize, is paying an especially sincere compliment to the restaurant by performing a rite as indispensable to the ethnic deli experience as overeating. By qualifying his enthusiasm for something he clearly likes, he is establishing a mood of connoisseurship. In short, he is legitimizing this deli in the most time-honored of manners, by kvetching.

It's a behavior that drives the uninitiated crazy: the wail of the complainers, often ex-New Yorkers, who can't find any decent deli fare (or Chinese food or pizza for that matter, but let's stick to the topic) anywhere in the Valley. Well, I'm here to ask all these people to shaddup. The Hollywood Deli & Bar is far better than you deserve.

Frankly I'm an ex-Brooklyn boy myself, and for me the moment of truth comes when I order an egg cream. Although this fountain drink stopped containing its namesake ingredients many decades ago, it's still a rich refreshment, a chocolate milk extra heavy on the syrup with a shot of seltzer for fizz. I take a first sip and my taste buds travel thirty years into the past.

"Did you make this with Fox's U-Bet?" I ask the waitress, hardly believing that this personally sacred and easily identifiable chocolate syrup can be vended in the Valley.

"Of course," is her smooth reply.

Admittedly this is a fairly glib response, especially coming from a self-proclaimed Texan who can't be much older than twenty. This extremely pleasant person will of course be another cause for complaint among the deli cognoscenti, who will glumly point out the inauthenticity of courtesy, responsiveness or youth in a deli staff. In addition to the lack of crotchety old servers, the Hollywood Deli will also disappoint on the basis of pleasant surroundings, cleanliness and conscientiously plated foods, all of which are in abundance.

As its name and its resort-ish coffee- shop decor indicate, the Hollywood Deli & Bar sees itself as an uptown sort of joint. Sure the name's a bit idiosyncratic, but nearby establishments run the geographical gamut from Houston to Tuscany, and at least Hollywood is a lot closer than either of those places. Besides, call it what they will and dress it up however they like, the place is pure Brooklyn in the belly.

Still exulting over my egg cream, I opt for an appetizer of stuffed cabbage. The Hollywood Deli version is exactly to my liking, particularly the rich sweet-and-sour tomato sauce studded with raisins. This restaurant also understands the textural requirements of the superior cabbage roll, using plenty of rice in the ground-meat filling and refraining from the overmixing that toughens some interpretations of this dish. From the appetizer listings, we also sample stuffed kishke and gefilte fish. Here, too, the primary virtue of each of these dishes is perfect texture, particularly that of the fork-tender gefilte fish. The kishke (sort of a grain sausage) is savory, but a more fluid and darker gravy would be more appealing than the pasty beige sauce served here. Regretfully postponing cheese blintzes, creamed herring, potato knishes, pastrami and eggs and something called a bagel dip (sort of a battered French toast made from bagels) for another day, we turn our attention to the "main attractions," i.e. sandwiches. More than fifty are listed, some two thirds of which are imaginative combinations like: Stan's Delight (brisket of beef served open-faced on a potato latke with red onion and Russian dressing); Headliner (chopped liver, pastrami and corned beef with Thousand Island dressing); and Jeff's Jumbo (turkey, hard salami, meunster cheese and Thousand Island dressing). Kosher cuisine purists will complain (oh boy!) that the mixtures of meat, cheese and pork products are violations of the dietary laws, but the Hollywood Deli makes no claim in this regard (stars are used as a menu design element, but they're clearly Tinseltown--not temple.)

With a half-pound of meat per sandwich, there's no denying the eye-popping impact of these creations. Happily, satisfaction is more than sustained by the excellent quality of the ingredients. I'm particularly impressed by the pastrami, which is lean and flavorful without being oversalted, and the chopped liver, which is moist and creamy and an excellent counterpoint to the turkey and bacon in a sandwich called Big Al's Special.

Prices are high at the Hollywood Deli, about $6.95 to $8.75 for a sandwich and two side dishes. Considering the portion size, though, these prices are not unreasonable. Many people will make two meals out of one of these sandwiches, and reduced-price half-sandwich options are available.

So as not to lose cachet with the complainers, allow me to point out that the Hollywood Deli's potato salad is too salty (although, once again, the texture is superb) and its cole slaw is nothing special. Rice pudding is creamy and generously topped with cinnamon but it could use some of the raisins so liberally distributed in the stuffed cabbage. Not acceptable at all is the rugelach, a miniature danish-type pastry which upon this occasion is just flat-out stale.

In all, though, the Hollywood Deli & Bar is just too delightful to dismiss with a kvetch. With its excellent edibles, its clean and bright surroundings, its pleasant servers, and its convenient nearly round-the-clock serving hours, there's enough here to make your average New Yorker as nervous as a roadrunner. What could be better than that?

Far less ethnic but also quite enticing is J. Philips Gourmet Deli & Restaurant. Part of the splendiferous scene at Scottsdale's El Pueblo shopping center, this charming and comfortable spot combines an arrestingly eclectic menu with casual contemporary upscale ambiance. If you like posh people-watching with your pastrami, this place will please you.

While few sandwiches can stack up to the Hollywood Deli's, J. Philips can still boast a pretty well-bred selection. These folks broil up a juicy half-pound burger topped with grilled onions and served on a soft kaiser roll, and their rendition of a club sandwich, called the J. Philips Clubhouse, derives special appeal from its use of a good chunky chicken salad. Best of all is their New York Reuben, an expert moist rendering of lean corned beef, kraut and melted Swiss on grilled rye.

Sandwiches, though, are just a fraction of the menu mix at J. Philips. Grilled specialties, fajitas, pasta dishes, salads and an assortment of vegetarian dishes are all prominently featured. Appetizers ("from Heaven," reads the menu) include hot wings, stuffed potato skins and blue corn chips with guacamole.

Perhaps the most exciting portion of the J. Philips menu is "gourmet pizza." From a toppings list that includes the likes of Thai Chicken, Cajun, and Shrimp, we select the vegetarian Four Seasons. This is a powerfully appealing pizza with an attractive assortment of upscale veggies, luscious butter and cheese and exceptional hearth-baked flavor in a chewy crust.

Even though the pizza is great, the single best dish we sample at J. Philips is the tomato vegetable soup. This is an extremely hearty and herbal concoction, almost more like a garden stew than a soup. Unfortunately, this precious potage plays a part in my one severe criticism of J. Philips, a propensity for running out of various soups, appetizers and desserts that manifests itself over three different visits to the restaurant.

In all, though, this place is a winner. With its good food, generous portions, earnest on-site ownership, bright and airy indoor and outdoor seating areas and its generally enthusiastic service, I'll be happy to fill up at J. Philips again.

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