OYS N THE HOOD
Pastrami's, 5930 West Greenway Road, Glendale, 938-5900. Hours: Breakfast and Lunch, Sunday and Monday, 9 a.m to 2 p.m.; Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner, Tuesday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.
For all the sophistication and variety on the Valley eating scene, there is still one huge, gaping hole in the restaurant mix: New York-style delis. In this town, we can get exotic sushi, authentic Persian kebabs and shrimp so fresh they're frolicking in a tank when we order them. We can get foie gras with truffles, homemade pastas and Cajun crayfish ‚touff‚e. We can get paella, wild boar chile and low-fat halibut fajitas. But just try to get a decent corned beef sandwich. It's not as if deli operators aren't aware of the opportunities. They keep opening up. The problem is, they also keep closing down. In just the past two years, for instance, Tradition, Kibitz and Carnegie Deli, solidly good places, have all folded.
Why? Last year, after I gave a less than enthusiastic review to the dinnertime fare at a very successful north Phoenix deli, its proprietor sent me a letter that pointed out the difficulties of doing business in Phoenix. For example, I complained about the cabbage soup, noting it lacked any beefy underpinnings. Well, it turns out that they make it without meat, because Phoenicians "prefer the soup like that." I complained about dry brisket. I learned that "here in Arizona, the trend for meat is lean, lean, lean. When brisket is lean, it tends to be dry." The old-time New York deli of my youth, he insisted, is "a dying breed."
Yes, times have changed. These days, heart-stopping, artery-clogging deli food is so out of favor, I wouldn't be surprised to see it the object of a D.A.R.E.-type campaign in the schools. Instead of cops preaching against the evils of drugs, I foresee the nutrition police telling kids to Just Say No to knishes, pastrami and chopped liver. In fact, the two delis I recently visited have more or less given up on attracting a dinner crowd: Pastrami's closes at 7 p.m.; Scott's Generations folds up at 5. In Phoenix, not only is it hard to track down good deli, you don't have too many hours to do it. Eight-month-old Pastrami's, a self-proclaimed "New York Kosher-Style Deli," is actually the west-side reincarnation of Munch a Bagel, a longtime Phoenix deli landmark. (Munch a Bagel, now owned by Greeks, continues to offer deli-style breakfast and lunch.) Set in a spanking-new shopping center, Pastrami's hasn't had time to develop a well-worn deli look. Posters of New York sights on the walls and stacks of Yoo-Hoo chocolate drink and Dr. Brown's soda do what they can to set the tone. So do the husband-and-wife operators: As far as I could tell, she does the cooking, he does the schmoozing. Don't worry about dealing with rude deli waiters at Pastrami's. After checking out the menu at the table, you head up to the counter and put in your own order. Someone will bring the food out when it's ready. And most of it passes the basic deli test. The ample bowl of matzo-ball soup sports a chickeny broth and lots of carrot and celery. While the matzo balls are somewhat lighter than I like (I prefer them dense enough to displace the same amount of liquid as an aircraft carrier), I recognize that not everyone shares my view. If you're into green, leafy nutrition, keep away from kishke. A combination of grains and chicken fat, it's a typically leaden deli treat, traditionally smothered in a heavy brown mushroom gravy. I'm happy to report that Pastrami's version, which utilizes a kosher brand of kishke, upholds tradition. Just about anything cooked up from scratch in the kitchen hits the target. Potato pancakes, crisp, sizzling and oily, reminded me of Grandma's. Our plate of homemade blintzes, doughy pouches stuffed with farmer cheese, caught the eye of a white-haired yenta at the next table. She wandered by and asked if they were good. Yup, I said, but when I told her to grab a fork to try them for herself, she scampered away. I guess you can't be too careful.
Hefty rolls of stuffed cabbage, an occasional special, have the right look and bulk. To my unusually sensitive palate, though, they seemed perhaps a bit light on flavor--I'm used to models that have a real sweet-and-sour smack. But, in Pastrami's defense, I realize its customer base is the Phoenix west side, not the Manhattan west side.
One pleasant surprise. I asked why kasha varnishkes--buckwheat groats embellished with bow-tie pasta--didn't appear on the menu. A few seconds later, a bowlful suddenly emerged from back in the kitchen. "No one ever asks for it," said the cook, shrugging mournfully. However, deli sandwiches, a key measure of deli quality, don't come off quite so well. Like the stuffed cabbage, the chopped liver seemed toned down for Southwestern consumption. Some more fried onions might provide the necessary punch. Brisket, reasonably moist and reasonably beefy, is probably the best sandwich option. But the pastrami and corned beef are crushingly disappointing. The pastrami lacks the right texture and tongue-tingling zip. The corned beef, chewy and gristly, is simply inedible.
Fortunately, the homemade desserts restored my faith. Rice pudding is creamily luscious--better even than Mom's, because Pastrami's doesn't cut corners and calories by using skim milk. Apple strudel, filled with apples and raisins, is outstanding. But it's housed in a display case that has the temperature gauge turned to "Greenland." We had to wait several minutes for it to thaw out. Best of all, though, is noodle pudding, an anvil-heavy deli sweet. It's tastily thickened with cheese and cherries, and ought to be served with a NordicTrack.
During one visit, I overheard the owner moaning about the difficulty of operating on the west side. Many locals, he complained, think Pastrami's is a sub shop. When they walk in, they take one look at the unfamiliar food and head right back out. Too bad. It's not easy for delis to bloom in our unpromising desert soil. But Pastrami's is making a serious effort to take root.
Scott's Generations, Cinema Park Shopping Center, 5539 North Seventh Street, Phoenix, 277-5662. Hours: Breakfast, Lunch and early Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 6 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday, 6 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Singing along to the '70s music on the radio, the counter person waited on a grandmotherly customer. She: "So tell me, you're a member of the Rolling Stones?" He: "No, I just like getting my stones rolled." I enjoy deli men with old-fashioned attitude, and the team at Scott's Generations has enough to fill a hundred hot dog buns. So do the no-nonsense, what'cha-havin'-hon waitresses. I also enjoy the store's comfortable, old-time feel: hanging salamis, shelves stocked with canned gefilte fish and jars of Fox's U-Bet chocolate syrup, Hebrew National deli mustard on the tables. But Scott's Generations is really a deli manqu‚. It's mostly a breakfast and sandwich kind of place. The time-tested deli dinner staples--stuffed cabbage, chicken in a pot, pot roast--don't make it onto the menu. And some of the essentials that are on the list--kasha varnishkes, barley and mushrooms, noodle pudding--weren't available on either of my visits.
But what does make it onto the menu is generally well-fashioned. Particularly the soups. Dill-flavored chicken soup, swimming with carrots, celery and shredded pieces of chicken, is fragrant and hearty. It's even heartier if you spring for an extra four bits and get three wonderful kreplach thrown in. They're big, doughy, meat-filled dumplings--like won tons on steroids--that take me back to the Brooklyn delis of my youth. Split pea soup is just about as redolent, packing a take-no-prisoners, peppery kick. But the soups should have come with a couple of slices of rye bread, not plastic-wrapped crackers.
Potato pancakes are as good as I could have hoped, big, crisp and sizzling. But the kishke is done in by a flaccid brown gravy whose principal ingredient is salt.
The sandwiches won't remind cold-cut mavens of anything we'd find back in the old neighborhood. On the other hand, if we hadn't wanted to escape the old neighborhood, we wouldn't have come to Phoenix in the first place. The pastrami is probably the best choice, salty and juicy enough to recall its ethnic origins. Brisket is Arizona-lean, which means it's Arizona-dry. The chopped liver is a little creamier than I like, almost a pƒt‚, but it sports an oniony bite. The corned beef, though, is instantly forgettable, innocuous meat lacking fatty richness and deep flavor. The homemade knishes, however, will perk up any sandwich. Both the spinach and potato models offer light, doughy shells and tasty, stick-to-the-ribs fillings. Nostalgia tempted me to try the hot dog with mustard, sauerkraut, onions and relish. I remember one costing a quarter in 1960, and my father telling me it cost him a nickel in 1930. The 1995 price: $1.95. Projected price my grandchildren will pay in 2025: $14.95. It'll still be worth it, if just for the memories.
Don't leave here without dessert, which will furnish new memories. Cheesecake is outstanding, creamy, dense and not too sweet. Rice pudding is less filling but no less satisfying. And the Russian tea cake, pastry dough wrapped around cherries and raisins, makes it easy to linger over a cup of tea. Deli lamas seeking ultimate nirvana won't find it at Scott's Generations. But they will find enough tasty fare to put together a pleasant deli meal.
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