New location offers quality Jewish fare.
To me, ‘deli’ means turkey sandwiches, piled high on thick rye bread. It means full–sour pickles, pickles that hold true to their name, pickles that make me both pucker my lips and grin simultaneously. It means fluffy matzoh balls submerged in golden broth, dill lily–pads floating lazily on the surface.
After traveling to the 19th street location of the Famous 4th Street Deli, however, I came to an earth–shattering realization: deli does not mean the same thing to everybody.
To some, it means whitefish salad on a toasted everything bagel (whitefish salad? Hello, it wasn’t Sunday morning). It means blintzes (blasphemous! Dairy at the deli?). It means “health salad” (whatever that means. “Health” does not translate within these walls!).
It was clear after walking into this “Famous” deli, however, that my companions and I could all agree on one thing: what ‘deli’ did not mean. It did not mean an empty room. It did not mean pristine floors and countertops. It did not mean the smell of ammonia. It did not mean the absence of black–and–white cookies by the register.
It was, as my grandmother would call it in Yiddish, a shandeh: a shame. What was a deli without loud, playful banter, without tables straining under the weight of their load, without old men and toddlers fighting over latkes? I was biased; I wanted to turn my nose up and walk away. But despite how much I truly wanted to hate it, the Famous 4th Street Deli delivered.
Delivered quite a lot, actually. Delivered platters and platters of sky–high sandwiches with fillings that spanned the length of the meat rainbow: ruby–red pastrami, snow–white turkey and every beige and brown in between. Delivered piles of fries ($5.50) whose peaks were even higher than those of the sandwiches, fat, thick fries, salty fries, potatoes in their highest form. Delivered steaming bowls of soup ($6.75), thick hunks of carrots and celery bobbing in unison. Delivered that whitefish salad ($9.50), happily oozing out of the sides of the bagel, mocking my skepticism.
The best of all: the meat. Latticed onto thick, hearty slices of rye and multigrain, they at first posed a challenge: how could one possibly open her mouth wide enough to get started? I opened up the sandwich, took out a hunk of meat: still, no change. But miraculously, it all got eaten.
Hot, enthusiastically–spiced pastrami ($14.50) dipped into dishes of faintly spicy mustard. Corned beef ($14.50), in all its slightly stringy, generously gamey glory, nestled onto a nub of rye. Moist, silky turkey ($13.50) lathered with Russian dressing, heaped onto a scrap of that multigrain toast. Leftovers? Not a problem. This meat is so good, you will dream about it, and then you will stumble down to your refrigerator at four in the morning for one last, lingering bite.
The whitefish salad, too, was a success; sweet, smoky, proud. Far from fishy or slimy, this was a revelation. So, too, was the Matzoh Brei ($12), something I would have never thought to order outside of Passover. Sprinkled with cinnamon, drizzled with syrup: I had discovered the Jewish version of pancakes. But this had texture, this had soul, this had an eggy bite to it that a mere pancake could not replicate.
Happily entranced in my food–induced reverie, I barely noticed those dishes that at once fell flat. But the blitzes ($4.25), in hindsight, were too thick, too sweet, too soggy; they lacked any sort of punch. So, too, did the coleslaw ($3.50); its sweetness and wetness was at once unappetizing, only palatable with a quick bite of a sour pickle. The potato pancakes ($4.25) were a textural bore, the outside lacking a sturdy crust, the inside a solid, dense mass, far from the feathery, pillowy ones of my childhood.
But my stomach was too full to mourn these shortcomings, and the sweet, smoky smell of our table overpowered any lingering stench of ammonia. I was warm; I was full; I was happy. And, most surprisingly, I had yet another definition of ‘deli’ to add to my list.
FAMOUS 4TH STREET DELICATESSEN
38 S. 19th St.
Don’t Miss: Corned beef reuben, hot pastrami sandwich