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Nosh rambler: The Deli Man returns to D.C.

Someone must have spiked my morning OJ with truth serum; what else could explain my need to tell you just how much I had dreaded yesterday's a.m. interview with David Sax, author of a deli blog and the newly published "Save the Deli: In Search of Perfect Pastrami, Crusty Rye, and the Heart of Jewish Delicatessen" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009).

David Sax, with Deli City's "salamlet" and home fries. He coined the term, not the establishment's owner. (Bonnie Benwick/The Washington Post)

Of course he was charming, well-versed in the subject matter he's researched all over the world; just coming off a book party with hundreds of guests (including Gail Simmons of Food & Wine, an old summer camp buddy of his) at Ben's Kosher Delicatessen in Manhattan, and already booked to eat with other media at the Parkway Deli & Restaurant in Silver Spring.

Hence, my unease. While Joan Nathan had the recent luxury of sampling matzoh ball soup, latkes and house-cured pastrami with Sax at four New Jersey delis, I was slotted for about an hour of his time, in the distinctly un-deli'ed domain that is our nation's capital.

Still, Sax was a gamer as we pulled into the parking lot of Deli City in Northeast D.C. (Gotta go with what's at hand, I decided.) His immediate pronouncement, just at the sight of the place: "It's kick-ass! A bunker." Then we opened the door and were greeted with the smell of bacon, not kosher pickles. A Tastee Diner kind of breakfast was well underway for about half the clientele.

The 30-year-old Toronto native and Brooklyn resident, whose speech is larded with a mild case of Canada-speak "outs" and "abouts," spent seven seconds looking over the menu, then ordered the salami omelet -- salami and eggs being standard deli fare. The lovely waitress ticked off the various 86'ed items: no chopped liver, no tongue, no house-made sauerkraut, no blintzes, no matzoh balls unless it's Passover.

Deli City's hot dog wrapped in salami, with brown mustard. (Bonnie Benwick/The Washington Post)

Three unimpressive half-pickles arrived on a disposable plate. Sax was not the least bit concerned. "This is all part of the deli experience," he said philosophically. "People feel like a deli should be all-kosher, but I don't." My reuben sandwich, recommended by the lovely waitress, and the house-special New York-style hot dog wrapped in salami, were delivered to our table.

"See? They griddled the bun," he said. True. The half-moon slice of salami didn't exactly wrap around the dog, but he declared it a gem nonetheless. "Who else does this? Each deli has something special to offer." Sax bestowed the title of "salamlet" on his selection ("not bad") and barely made a dent in it, excusing himself as an experienced sampler. His buttered rye toast had caraway seeds, which earned Deli City a few more points. My reuben's corned beef: "The meat's been steamed and sliced well -- not too thin. A little fatty." And the stack of it is not so big.

Why did that ginormous deli sandwich thing ever get started, anyway? Sax has a theory: Poor hungry Eastern European immigrants came to this country and wanted Plentiful. "Abundance is what they were looking for," he says. Later on, of course, it all became a matter of marketing, with one deli's sandwiches towering over another's. The biggest one he's heard of is at Harold's New York Deli in Edison, N.J., stuffed big enough to feed three or four adults and priced from $32 to $37. He hasn't had it. Yet.

Sax gives Washington little due, deliwise, in his book. He was last here a few years back, in research mode, and has written off our burg as "the WASPiest place in America." (David, I think Newport, R.I. more closely resembles that remark.) He chronicled the Duke Zeibert-Mel Krupin "Matzoh Ball War" and pretty much leaves it at that, although he seems to be up to speed on the various ownerships and menu mishaps of the Tenleytown location now called Morty's Delicatessen.

As his book declares -- somewhat dangerously -- that the country's best deli is to be found in Los Angeles, not New York, Sax had no trouble coming up with a short list of deli etiquette:

1. Don't sit down if the place is fancy. That means no young servers and not too much effort put into the decor. The deli should be comfortable; it's about the food, first and foremost.

2. The smell of something like chicken soup should hit you as soon as you walk in. If it doesn't, find someplace else.

3. A glass counter full of meats should be the first thing you see. It should make you hungry right away. People are suspicious of what is hidden behind the counter, he says. And if you see shrink-wrapped Boar's Head meats, that's a certain reality that needn't be explored.

4. The place doesn't have to feel particularly old-timey or traffic in nostalgia. But an experienced hand behind the counter that knows how to cut pastrami is essential.

5. If Asian food or sushi is on the menu, he guarantees neither those items nor the deli food will be good. Deli food is simple yet difficult to pull off well, he says.

In the end, what Sax enjoyed most at Deli City was talking to the owner's mother, camped at the register. In five minutes he learned that the Northeast neighborhood used to include Jewish businesses, which is why the restaurant settled there three decades ago. She relayed stories of a long-gone uncle whose gambling habit prompted him to clean out the till on occasion: "You can't run a business like that," she said. Sax tried to coax a few secrets about how the corned beef was done; she cooed about the soups instead.

"The stories of delis are really what interests me most," he said. "I find out that a lot of love and care goes into the food, and that makes me happy."

Sax is speaking at Sixth & I Synagogue tonight at 7, along with the Post's Ezra Klein. The program's part of Jewish Body Week -- quite a tie-in, don't you think, for a guy who has eaten as much corned beef as Sax has? The author may be able to enlighten the crowd about why young, fit Jewish types have come to fear deli food, but it sounds like he's more likely to try and talk them out of it.

-- Bonnie Benwick

P.S. Any Jewish mothers with an eye toward snagging Sax for introductions to their daughters should be happy with an autographed copy of his book instead: The nice young man's engaged.

By The Food Section  |  October 21, 2009; 12:00 PM ET
Categories:  Books  | Tags: Bonnie Benwick, cookbooks, delis  
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Bonnie, dear, Newport, R.I. boasts the nation's first synagogue. And while I feel strongly that D.C. is free of genuine deli, I believe you must be commuting from Virginia if you think we are wasp-y. Chain-y, maybe.

Posted by: kbockl | October 21, 2009 2:28 PM | Report abuse

This area is a deli desert, although it's too bad you couldn't have taken him to Chutzpah Deli in Fairfax. But thanks for the fun read!

Posted by: lechat17 | October 21, 2009 4:27 PM | Report abuse

Dear kbockl, So it does! Mazel tov. But we've got you beat by several percentage points, Jewish population-wise (5.1 vs. a statewide 1.7 for R.I., as of 2006). Perhaps Oklahoma, West Virginia or Wyoming (0.1) might have been a better choice.

Posted by: benwickb | October 21, 2009 4:50 PM | Report abuse

Artie's Deli on Broadway between 82d and 83d is the best deli in NY. . .

Posted by: chcattorney | October 21, 2009 7:55 PM | Report abuse

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