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Are Today's Delicatessens Cutting the Mustard?

January 21, 2010 By:
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Meat the deli? It's a mouthful at the regional Kibitz Rooms
Coming through the rye -- slowly cooked corned beef, juicy and marbled in enough fat to make it appear as if it's drooling; cole slaw so temptingly tangy they sent it to the moon with the astronauts; and Russian dressing -- aah, the Russian! -- so smoothly creamy, even Putin wouldn't protest.

Got you hungry? Take a number!

Built on a solid foundation of blintzes and stuffed with cabbage, delis once numbered nationally in the thousands.

But why are these love nests for LDLs now falling and failing? Where once customers seemed to stage blitzkrieg attacks for the perfect brisket, why have they suddenly deserted the ideal dessert whipped into a frenzy with cream cheese, oodles of egg yolks and sugar highs?

Why is no one attending the matzah ball anymore?

David Sax is on a mission to find out. Damn the cholesterol, full halvah ahead as the author of Save the Deli is issuing a Save Our Salami that burps of benign neglect as a national Jewish icon eyes its final fressers.

Is pastrami past its prime? Or is there hope for this "Eastern European cuisine reinterpreted through the American palette," as Sax sicks his taste buds on the best and biggest?

What's new is that it's not just an East Coast thing anymore.

"I hear there are a lot of good delis in Hong Kong," says the author, who's sandwiched in delis way beyond the United States in compiling his book, which he will discuss in detail on Tuesday, Jan. 26, as part of the Gershman Y's "Book & Author" series.

And while you're listening, so no one should go hungry, dinner will be supplied by the Famous Fourth St. Deli.

Alas, fame is fleeting: Where once Jewish neighborhoods were the nexus for the perfect sour pickle, suburban expansion and health issues now dilute the deli experience that once demanded elastic waistbands.

"Deli-lovers are a very passionate group," says the author.

"They put their hearts into it" -- dangerous as that may be -- "and they're loud as hell," those deli diners overindulging in the sound and the fury of what they do best.

But "the deli is on the endangered list," which doesn't necessarily mean that to save the lox, the government is about to halt all fans from smoking salmon.

It's about time and waist: "In many ways, people who once dedicated their lives to it realize it's more than a commitment to run a deli; it's a life sentence."

No appeal? The hours are long, the profits too trim.

Sax understands that sex appeal is all part of the perfect package, evoking "Seinfeld," in which George dubs pastrami "the most sensual of all cured meats." But chicken soup may not even cure what ails the industry today.

No one has to offer an egg cream to egg on Steve Stein about the deli's delicate condition.

Owner of the longtime successful Famous Delicatessen Inc. on Krewstown Road, a focal point of experienced fressers, he concedes: "It's almost over," he says of the deli as dynasty. "Look, how many old-fashioned delis are around anymore? People are getting away from the smoked fish and deli meats."

And as for the younger generation, he says, "they're just not supporting it. There used to be 40 to 50 delis between Bustleton and Castor."

Cast your eyes around his empire and see that he has no reason to carp himself, but "my crowd during the week is older."

It's no laughing matter to Neil Parish, the owner of the Kibitz Room, whose sandwiches are so big that they're spread between outposts in Center City and Cherry Hill, N.J.

Has the deli-delirium faded? Perish the thought, says Parish: It's just a matter of survival of the fittest -- even if those fittest need to let their pants out.

"A lot of places have gone by the wayside, sure, but the best of the best have remained, and we're doing pretty good," says Parish, who's bought into the industry -- lox, stock and blintzes.

As for the talk about health concerns ... where's the beef?

"People still eat it -- maybe not seven days a week anymore, but they still like it," he says.

And what's not to like?

Troy Garr, co-owner with Stuart Thomas of Famous Deli of Holland, Pa., knows that offers of "Let them eat cake!" won't sate an appetite that's been raised on the luxury of luschen kugel.

Closed for a month or so for renovation, but now reopened, "we faced a little panic" among customers, he says with a laugh.

"People are not spending as much, but are still get their bagel and lox -- maybe now as a treat."

Itzik Ohayon offers glatt kosher at his self-named emporium, a popular market in the Northeast. He, too, has noticed that "more people have become more economical."

As far as those who count cholesterol, well, "the schmaltz days are gone," he says.

Those were the days, when Ben & Irv's ruled Ogontz Avenue with the powerful appeal of pickles and pastrami and panache. Those nifty '50s have ceded to the modern millennium and a still-hot suburban spot in Huntingdon Valley, where the business once run by Ben Shore and Irv Chudnoff is overseen by Len Bromberg, Ben's son-in-law, where the law is still a chicken in every pot and a pastrami remains the best pal of a good seeded rye.

But ... "It's a dying breed," says Bromberg.

It all hit home, too. "My son," no longer at the deli, "got tired of the long hours and working his tuches off, working nights and weekends."

Corned beef the king: Have these beloved restaurants lost their scepter with the specter of cholesterol admonitions that ooze from every oversized sandwich?

Parish tries to set that notion straight: Just drop a few bread crumbs -- especially if they're rye -- and people will find a way to knish and tell.

"Eaters," proclaims Parish, "will find the food they want -- no matter what." 

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