Call me the Deli Lama.
Like my Tibetan counterpart, I've spent a long time in exile, far from the native foods of the Brooklyn streets of my youth. Where are the pastrami sandwiches, the pot roast, the stuffed cabbage, the chopped liver, the pickled herring and hot dogs with sauerkraut that kept me in pants with elastic waistbands until I moved away in 1972?
They certainly haven't made much headway in Phoenix, and who could be surprised? In the first place, until very recently, the only ethnic group that local deli worshipers outnumbered here were the long-vanished Anasazi. Second, heavy, out-of-fashion East European foods aren't likely to win over many converts in the calorie-obsessed, sauce-on-the-side, fat-gram-crazed 1990s.
Oh, some brave entrepreneurs have tried to plant delis in the unpromising Southwestern desert soil. Many have since gone to their reward at the big knish house in the sky: Remember Kibitz, Tradition, Mustard's and Hollywood Deli?
The most spectacular failure of all was the Carnegie Deli. In 1992, the proprietor of this famed Big Apple shrine to arteriosclerosis decided the Valley was just the place to open a second branch. Perhaps his judgment had been pickled by years of inhaling corned beef fumes. How else could you account for his decision to set up shop in the hulking white elephant called the Scottsdale Galleria? People stayed away as if it were radioactive.
Carnegie Deli misjudged more than location. Someone forgot that Phoenix isn't New York. I remember the look on one local's face when his order arrived -- a jaw-breaking, 22-ounce pastrami sandwich and a mutantly massive knish that Del Webb could have subdivided into one-acre lots. Bewildered and terrified, the poor guy didn't know whether to eat his dinner or call in a B-52 air strike. He took a few ineffectual passes at it, then bolted. No wonder Carnegie Deli folded in less than a year.
When I think of delis, it's not only the sight and smell of the food I conjure up -- it's my childhood. It's family dinners at Grabstein's, where my father moaned that his 95-cent corned beef sandwich cost only a quarter when he was a kid. (And it was bigger then, too, he sighed.) It's downing hot dogs and a Dr. Brown's cream soda with my friends after a game of stickball. It's hearing my mother shriek when she discovered I had scarfed down all two dozen kreplach earmarked for 12 guests' bowls of chicken soup that evening. (When he got home, Dad made sure I would remember the event by massaging my rear with an even 24 whacks of his belt. He was right -- I remembered.)
So when I went to the new LEO the Delicatessen, I may have carried along some unrealistic expectations. I wanted the New York deli experience. I wanted tasty, authentic food. Heck, I wanted it to be 1963.
Well, no amount of wishing is going to turn back the clock. And no amount of Hebrew National salami dangling over the counter can give LEO on Scottsdale Road the feel of a Seventh Avenue deli. But for the most part, to my happy surprise, the food is a blast from the past.
The look is as evocative as the fare. The walls are hung with striking, black-and-white photos of New York deli scenes, set in their high holy temples: Ratner's, Zabar's, 2nd Avenue Deli. Piped-in big-band '40s music reinforces the nostalgia, as does most of the clientele, who look like they were sent over by Central Casting, old neighborhood division.
The good vibes continue at the table, where old-time seltzer bottles (empty, unfortunately) tugged at my memories.
So did the freebie plate of pickles, sour tomatoes and pickled hot peppers set down as soon as we unfurled our napkins. But where, I wondered, was the basket of rye bread?
There's no reason to consider appetizers. If you truly adore chopped liver or stuffed cabbage, you can order them as entrees. Otherwise, ordered as appetizers, they'll not only take the edge off dinner, they'll also take the edge off tomorrow's breakfast.
Soups, though, are another story. And LEO's are seriously good. Hearty and intense, the thick mushroom barley is properly boosted with beef. I predict it will taste even better when the temperature outside drops below triple digits.
Chicken soup, of course, is a key measure of deli prowess, and LEO's almost aces the test. In fact, I'd advise skipping the starter bowl of matzoh ball soup altogether and going directly to the larger version, the main-dish chicken-in-the-pot. It's cheaper than a trip to Lourdes, and there's more than enough to cure whatever ails you and several of your closest friends, as well. Housed in a huge ceramic tureen, the soup is stocked with a half chicken, noodles, matzoh balls and kreplach (think of them as East European won tons, doughy, meat-filled pouches). The kitchen has the good sense not to overload the broth with salt, a common defect. Once the cook learns to add a bit of dill and parsley, and throw in some thick-cut carrots and celery, Jewish moms everywhere will face real competition.