THE LOX WEEKEND
Chompie's, 10858 North 32nd Street, Phoenix, 971-8010. Hours: Sunday, 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Monday, 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Tuesday, 7 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Wednesday, 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Thursday and Saturday, 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Friday, 7 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.
Without rituals, anthropologists tell us, life has no meaning.
That's why Hindus purify their bodies by bathing in the Ganges River.
That's why we sing "The Star-Spangled Banner" before sporting events.
That's why corporations sponsor company picnics.
Rituals make our gods accessible, our patriotism visible and our bosses more human.
When I was a kid, my family had an unalterable Sunday-morning ritual: A breakfast of bagels, cream cheese, smoked fish and pastry.
We'd sit down together. Dad would complain about the high cost of herring. Mom would tell me my hair was too long. My little sister would threaten to reveal my misdeeds, or even make some up, to get me in trouble. But I'd just quietly go about stuffing my face, oblivious to the din, high on our kind of soul food.
After I got my own family, the characters in this ritual drama remained the same: Mom, Dad and the kids. Only there were new faces in the old parts.
So when the family goes out Sunday morning for a Jewish-style breakfast, the meal must fill more than my belly. It must also satisfy its ritualistic function.
So far, Chompie's, a family nest of Brooklyn natives, is the best place I've found in the Valley to conduct Sunday-morning services. By 9:30 a.m. one recent weekend, the place was humming, every table filled with squabbling families, loving couples, sweaty hikers back from Squaw Peak, old geezers escaping their wives and earnest yuppies immersed in the Sunday paper.
Chompie's was reassuring the moment we stepped in. Long salamis hang over the deli counter. A mural along the far wall displays a chorus line of top-hatted men and high-kicking Rockettes dancing across the words "New York" and the city's distinctive skyline. Other walls host the obligatory Broadway show and movie posters and celebrity photos.
We ordered as if we were underweight, underfed and overpaid. Actually, $14.95 for the "smoked fish fantasy for two" is not out of line for what you get: a platter of terrific, silky, hand-sliced nova (smoked salmon), a hunk of moist, baked salmon, pungent, smoked whitefish and creamy, smoked sable. The fish packed enough salt to preserve us through Thanksgiving.
There was also lettuce, three puny slices of tomato, olives, cucumbers, two bagels and a disappointingly small plastic cup of cream cheese.
I had built up my daughter's expectations by describing the way bagels with cream cheese are constructed in New York. If done right, a bagel will have about a quarter of a pound of cream cheese slathered (the New York word is "schmeared") on it.
Instead, Chompie's puts the cream cheese in a separate container and lets the customer schmear it herself. That's probably a smart idea. After all, who really wants to eat four ounces of cream cheese? Still, I mourn the passing of this unhealthful tradition.
For some inexplicable reason, the platter also comes with a choice of two side dishes: home fries, coleslaw, potato salad or pasta salad.
Home fries? Potato salad? With bagels and lox? What next, chile rellenos?
How about some fruit, instead?
We also went for a side order of my all-time-favorite Sunday-morning treat: pickled herring in cream sauce. Healthwise it must be the single worst thing for you on God's green Earth--full of fat, cholesterol and calories. It should probably come with the Surgeon General's warning. Or a skull and crossbones.
Chompie's version is miles better than the stuff you get in jars. They're small pieces of herring filet in an onion-studded sour-cream sauce. Yum.
Chompie's also does a creditable version of matzo brei, crumbled up matzoh dipped in egg and cooked pancake-style in a skillet. However, without some jam to accompany it, this dish can get mighty dry. After a few bites, I practically had to move my daughter's jaw manually.
I was impressed with the blintzes, which the menu describes as "Jewish crepes." They're lightly fried pieces of dough, stuffed with farmer cheese. Purists dip them in sour cream. The kind of people who simultaneously order cheesecake and ask for Sweet and Low in their coffee dip them in applesauce.
But at $5.50 a pair, blintzes are no bargain. On the other hand, I remember a conversation between my mother and grandmother about the high cost of living.
"Oy vey," said Grandma, as Mom shelled out $1.25 for a loaf of rye bread, "back in the 30s, this used to cost a nickel." "Yeah," said Mom, "except in those days, we didn't have a nickel."
Of course, without good bagels, the whole breakfast enterprise is meaningless, an empty ritual. Chompie's bakes its own bagels, about 20 different varieties. While they're not quite as good as my remembrance of bagels past, they're better than the ones I've had on recent trips back East, and better than I've had anywhere else west of the Mississippi. The sad fact is that it's getting harder and harder to get good New York bagels even in New York.
Here they're large, hot and fresh, crusty on the outside, chewy on the inside. If you buy a dozen to go, freeze them within a couple of hours, and they'll be good for a week.
Since a breakfast like this is designed to see you through til dinner, we had some rugalach to ensure against an outbreak of early appetite syndrome. These little pastry rolls, produced in Chompie's own bakery, come with various fillings: cinnamon and sugar, raisins and nuts, and chocolate. I wonder if Juan Valdez is aware of them--they're great with coffee.
Naturally, a traditional breakfast like this is followed by another Sunday ritual: an afternoon nap.
Boman's, 3731 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 947-2934. Hours: 7:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., seven days a week.
After a week of rest and recuperation, we made the pilgrimage over to Boman's, exchanging the kids for friends Bob and Ellen. A couple of New York refugees, they've been in the Valley since the mid-1970s, as long as Boman's. But they hadn't eaten here for years and were ready for another try.
Not quite as spiffy as Chompie's, Boman's atmosphere is strictly deli-utilitarian: a couple of hanging artificial plants, posters and gray paneling. A wood picket fence separates the deli counter from the eating area. The seating is cramped, but there's a real deli feel.
At 9:30 we had no trouble getting a table, although an hour later customers had to wait.
As ritual demands, we started with a nicely arranged assorted-fish platter for two, presented on a ceramic, fish-shaped serving dish with its tail broken off.
Boman's delivered a generous portion of the usual Sunday-morning suspects: herring in cream sauce, barbecued cod, baked salmon, smoked whitefish and smoked salmon. Artfully positioned olives, sliced onion, a few slices of tomato, a big scoop of cream cheese and tons of lettuce rounded out the platter.
While we had no complaint with its size, we had misgivings about the quality. The lox couldn't approach the smooth, smoky taste of Chompie's Nova Scotia salmon. Nor was the pickled herring memorable. The cream sauce was not very creamy and had too few onions.
But the barbecued cod and baked salmon were wonderful, moist, meaty hunks of fish that quickly disappeared.
We also sampled the blintzes. They're less than half the price of Chompie's, but only about half as good. On some scales, I suppose, that's considered value, but not on mine. These simply weren't good enough to make us take more than a few desultory passes.
But by far the biggest disappointment here are the bagels. And for our congregation, that's a sin--and mortal, not venial.
Here it is Sunday morning, when 95 percent of all bagels are baked and consumed, and we get bagels that are not only stone cold, they're not even particularly fresh. Unlike Chompie's, Boman's seemed to have only one variety--plain. (Our waitress never asked us what kind of bagels we wanted.) The texture was rubbery, and even toasting didn't help much.
And besides tasting like they came from the recipe files of Annie Hall's Grammy, the bagels were small.
Remember the reaction when Roseanne Arnold screeched the National Anthem while massaging her crotch? Or when a Cincinnati museum exhibited Robert Mapplethorpe's impious artwork? I began to understand the anger of the patriots and true believers. These bagels stirred up the same feelings in me. A sacred ritual had been profaned.
We tried to put the botched bagels out of mind after the waitress informed us of homemade rugalach. Unfortunately, the pastries are stored in tightly sealed little plastic bags, so they arrived somewhat limp and soggy.
A pity, because the coffee here was good enough for me to down about five cups. Too bad it wasn't washing down food worthy of it.
As we left, Bob made a face and Ellen shook her head. "Now I remember why I haven't eaten here since 1983," Bob said. For Sunday breakfasters, Boman's is not the answer to your prayers.
CABBAGES AND KINGS... v8-19-92
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