Sunday, October 4, 2015

Can you find a good Jewish Deli anymore?

When I was a little kid living in the Worcester, Massachusetts area a treasured outing with my grandmother was a trip to Weintraub’s Jewish Deli on Water Street.  When we moved away, any return trip was incomplete until we had made a pilgrimage for pastrami and corned beef.  Sometime in the 80s the place was sold and something seemed to change.  The staff that knew my grandmother by name retired.  Quality seemed to suffer some.  I traveled in search of other delis.  Posh Nosh and Pumpernickles in St. Louis, The Gaiety, Katz’ and Carnegie in NYC, Manny’s in Chicago all came close to those childhood memories.  But somehow my childhood memories of Weintraub’s was of sandwiches that had just the right amount of meat, not mountains bigger than my mouth, spicy brown mustard, a commitment to kosher rules, Dr. Brown’s sodas, and killer half sour pickles.  Don’t get me wrong, the NYC delis held up to their legendary status and Manny’s is amazing, but none of them were Weintraub’s to me.
That feeling of comfort and tradition is at the heart of the deli, as described in David Sax’s book, Save the Deli.  Any lover of community and food, Jewish culture, or traditional mom-and-pop dining will devour this book.  Sax summarizes the history of the Jewish community in New York City and its Jewish delis and then sets out on a six week journey across North America examining the state of the deli today.   Along the way he traces numerous themes in recent American history, particularly suburbanization, gentrification, the costs of quality ingredients, and the challenges posed by lowest-common-denominator, mass market chain restaurants.  He pulls no punches, essentially telling us that Florida and the Bay Area have lost all their Jewish deli authenticity, charm and joy, while Chicago still has passion, but hasn’t yet found the successful formula to save the deli, and that Los Angeles is the now de facto American capital of deli.  He wraps up his North American tour glowing about the dining in Montreal and bringing us back to NYC with the re-opening of the 2nd Street Deli.  Finally, Sax travels to Europe where Jewish cuisine takes on an entirely different set of influences, yielding fascinating results.  

I know many people who have no clue what I am looking for when I say I want a good Jewish deli.  Perhaps they can point me to an Italian or German deli, but have never set foot in a Jewish one.  Maybe their experience with corned beef or pastrami is little beyond their local grocery store.  These great delis have been dying for 40 years, but there are a few holding on and even a few opening (you will have to read the book).  Those who grew up with them and love them must promote them.  David Sax’s book, web page and Facebook page are just what we need.  Check them out… and    

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Loco Hawaii

Last February my family and I visited Hawaii.  We spent our entire time on the Big Island, exploring volcanos, wildlife, beaches, and of course, cuisine.  Fortunately we had a local guide, my sister-in-law, who worked on the island doing bird conservation work.  When you get to travel with people who live in the locale you get an opportunity to see things differently.  I find one of the biggest advantages this affords is getting direction for great grocery shopping.  In Hilo, she directed us to KTA Superstore, a Big Island chain.  I fell in love.  All sorts of fish, dozens of jerkies, fruit I have never seen and two aisles of all sorts of East Asian goods.  We ended up with that Hawaiian favorite, Spam.  Fried and mixed with some macaroni and cheese and had our first lunch on the island.

During the rest of the week we ate incredible (and amazingly priced) sushi at Ocean Sushi in Hilo, poke (essentially marinated, raw fish) in Kona at Da Poke Shack, saimin (Hawaiian raman) in a Kona food court and delicious pub grub at Kona Brewing.  But the highlight for me was a dish that somehow epitomizes much of what I saw of Hawaiian cuisine.  

Let me explain a little.  Initially, I knew nothing about Hawaiian cuisine beyond Spam, pineapple, macadamia nuts and an assumed love of fish.  What I did not realize was how Hawaiian eating has been so heavily influenced by its surrounding cultures, specifically Japanese and post-WWII American.  Most world cuisines have influences from other lands.  The Italian use of the tomato was only possible after the Columbia Exchange of the 16th century.  The Irish had no access to the potato until the same time.  American soldiers in WWI brought back French fries from Belgium.  The fortune cookie is actually American, but ubiquitous in Chinese restaurants here.  The food world is my favorite place to witness historical globalization.  But in Hawaii it more resembles current events.  Hawaiian food has evolved dramatically in the last 70 years.  The Japanese and maritime traditions seem obvious if you just look at the map.  A basic understanding of American history and Hawaiian statehood explains the American influences.  But those American influences are heavily-flavored by the US military presence – compact, long-lasting, easy to prepare, filling and durable.  

At three places I sampled Loco Moco, the ultimate blending of influences.  I found my favorite at a diner not far from the Hilo Airport, local favorite, Ken's House of Pancakes.  If you go looking around online or on cooking shows you will find many variations of this Hawaiian staple, but the most common, most pure form is loco-simple.  A few scoops of sticky rice, topped with a hamburger patty, topped with basic brown gravy with a sunny side up egg gently laid on top so you can let the yolk seep around it.  Imagine that for a moment….  Now, how can diner food be any more perfect?  Ken’s has an overwhelming menu, lightning fast service with a smile and many variations of loco moco, but the basic is really all you need in my opinion.  You will find fish, fancy burger patties, from-scratch sauces, but I say keep it simple and traditional.  Want to go seriously loco – try the sumo – 6 scoops of rice, 2 patties and 3 eggs.  They’ll bang the gong when you order and likely call 911 if you finish it, as a heart attack is immanent.  

So the other day I tried this at home…and kept it really simple.  One cup of rice, a frozen hamburger patty, a packet of brown gravy and an egg.  Simple, cheap, traditional and made of military-grade durable ingredients.  Three pans and a rice cooker, this dish done this way requires no skill but for whisking a packet of brown gravy and turning on a stove.  This turned out as good as anything I had in Hawaii.  I do not think I would change anything.  Maybe some hot sauce, horseradish or spicy mustard would be good.  Of course you could switch up the meat with the appropriate sauces.  But the original in this form is a flawless diner comfort food.  Mahalo and aloha!  

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Climbing for a Beer and a Brat

If you have been one of my readers for a while you know I am an avid cyclist.  Every now and then I have to go out for a long bike ride, and I always like to plan some delicious food to celebrate the end of a great ride.  As another summer came to an end recently, I decided I needed to find a truly epic ride.  Wandering around the Bookshop Santa Cruz, one of America’s great indie bookstore, I came across a book called The Cyclist’s Bucket List, A Celebration of 75 Quintessential Cycling Experiences by Ian Dille.  Of course I looked through it and immediately looked to see if there might be a suggested experience in California.  There was – ascending Mt. Tamalpais in Marin County.  Ok, I like attempting a hill.  That will be my end-of-summer epic ride.  Just a 38 mile loop, the first 17 was all uphill from Fairfax to the top of the East Peak.  

But where to eat at the end?  This might be overwhelming.  Marin County is loaded with great foodie spots.  To my surprise, I found the answer on a cycling webpage detailing the Mt. Tam climb.  It suggested stopping to eat at the Gestalt Haus in Fairfax.  Apparently this place is a known cyclists’ hideout fitted with bike hooks on the walls, situated right at the base of the Mt. Tam climb if you head up Bolinas Road in Fairfax.  

I did the climb.  It was brutal but beautiful with amazing views at the top.  I was slow, but I savored it.  But this is a foodie blog so let’s talk grub.  The Gestalt Haus exceeded expectations.  This is my sort of bar.  Simply decorated with beer and cycling paraphenelia, lit with big windows, a few big picnic tables, and featuring an expansive beer list and limited food menu, Gestalt is a place for relaxing and telling war stories.  I ordered a Bavarian Bratwurst and some German potato salad with Ninkasi’s Tricerahops Double IPA.  The first sip of the seriously hoppy beer began the recovery perfectly, but then the food arrived.  I started with the potato salad.  I could have ended there.  I mean ended life.  The potato salad was simply the best traditional German potato salad I have ever had…period.  I kept eating it almost forgetting about the brat.  When I stopped I topped the brat and sauerkraut with some onions, peppers and horseradish and bit into a great sausage.  I kept stopping myself to ponder whether or not this all tasted so amazing just because I had just done 4000 feet of climbing over 38 miles or was it truly perfect bar food.  I’ve decided it was perfect bar food.  In fact, I opted against the 5-inch square brownie for dessert and instead had another helping of potato salad.     


So get on your bike and head to the Gestalt Haus.  If you go, let me know.  If you want to climb Mt. Tam, call me.  Let’s do them both.