When Jack Grodzinsky died in September 1998 at the age of 78, more than 650 people attended his funeral. It was a touching tribute to a respected businessman, an active participant in many Valley charities and a cornerstone of Phoenix's Jewish community.
While the sentiment was sincere, the enormous turnout may have been bolstered by visions of what food the reception might bring. Grodzinsky, you see, was founder of Miracle Mile Deli, a New York-style eatery and catering company that's been serving the Valley mouthwatering fare since 1949. Mourners at his funeral could celebrate a special life while consoling themselves with savory hot pastrami, corned beef and brisket sandwiches.
After more than 50 years, the Miracle Mile legacy still reigns, the restaurants split among siblings, but still a family affair. The chain's longest-standing location, at Park Central Mall, has survived the demise and revitalization of the property, at one time operating as the only business in the 750,000-square-foot space. About six months ago, the latest addition to the Miracle stable opened at Colonnade Mall, at 20th Street and Camelback, bringing the number of local Miracles to four. But the growth of the enterprise has not spoiled its charm. Miracle Mile Deli remains one of the Valley's best choices for excellent eats, served fast and cheap.
Using recipes culled from Grodzinsky's Brooklyn upbringing, Miracle Mile focuses on a short but satisfying menu of sandwiches and daily hot specials. Although menus and prices vary slightly by location (breakfast is served at Park Central, and Colonnade offers a huge array of desserts), the standards never waver: the signature Straw, New Yorker, and Jax Special sandwiches.
These delis aren't the claustrophobic joints we put up with in the Big Apple. At about 5,000 square feet each, the spotless restaurants have bright walls, lots of contemporary art and widely spaced tables. Park Central, in particular, is my pick for a relaxing lunchtime escape from the office; I head straight for the glassed-in patio with its soothing, bubbling koi pond. For balmy days, there are two open-air patios as well, one feeling quite cosmopolitan, swathed as it is with trees to shield it from the adjacent parking lot, and the other perfect for people-watching in the mall.
The ordering process does feel a bit bigger-city: Diners line up between skinny metal railings and lean into glass spit guards to call their order over the cafeteria line. But darn, these guys behind the counter are good, customizing orders with infallible precision, plating, pushing trays to the cash register with lightning speed -- smiling, even. Figure five minutes from end of line to table, even when the 400-seat restaurant is filled to capacity.
My Jewish, New York-raised companion is slightly perturbed at the automatic meat slicer whirring in back -- real delis should have an elderly man carving by hand, he says. Brisket pulled from a chafing dish can't be as good as fresh-cut, he insists. Oh, but it is, after hours of slow cooking, and more time spent simmering in its own juices. Plopped on an onion roll and perhaps slicked with a little ketchup, the brisket's a knockout.
Pastrami's a big player at Miracle Mile, served either naked or as the base for the Straw, the New Yorker and the triple-decker sandwiches. Lean and luscious, it's partnered with melted Swiss and hot sauerkraut for the Straw; with red bell pepper and carrot-spiked cole slaw and Thousand Island dressing for the New Yorker; and with Swiss, lettuce and dressing for the triple-decker. "For a healthier option, try the Straw or New Yorker with turkey breast instead of pastrami," the menu reads, but we're here as hedonists, so why bother? Such healthful aspirations, after all, would preclude us from indulging in the Jax Special, an opulent sandwich-and-a-half for a remarkable $7.50.
Corned beef is another class act, on its own or layered with pastrami. Go for it on rye bread fresh from Karsh's Bakery of Phoenix, a kosher spot that's been another culinary landmark for more than 40 years. Karsh's marble rye also lends zing to turkey breast that's freshly roasted, not processed, and topped with crisp green leaf lettuce. A croissant (a cranky 75 cents extra) enhances a club sandwich stuffed with turkey, honey ham and Swiss. The chicken salad, though, I can do without. The bird has all the taste and texture of prefab, and is oddly sliced instead of chunked. If I hadn't paid 30 cents extra to add Swiss cheese, this sandwich would have been a toss-away.
Add-ons aside, sandwiches are a bargain. Averaging $6, these two-fisters come with crisp-and-skinny French fries, potato salad, macaroni salad or cole slaw (familiar grocery-store variety) and a hefty pickle spear. You won't be leaving hungry.