There's a certain amount of non-job-related restaurantgoing, of course, for both festive reasons and those of convenience – sometimes you need to grab a bite before or after a cultural event. But after a year in the Bay Area I noticed a major gap in my vernacular eating, a complete blank, where once there had been untold late-night sandwiches and massive Sunday brunches and quick stops on the way home to pick up, oh, some chicken soup and a brisket on rye with Swiss cheese and extra mayo and a potato knish.
The knish should have given it away, if the brisket didn't (that particular sandwich, at Canter's in L.A., is known as a Downtowner): I was feeling deli-deprived. The yearning had been masked somewhat by the knowledge that every weekend there was a lavish spread of lox and bagels available at my parents', though not as lavish as the fabled smoked-fish spreads that my Uncle Eddie used to assemble lovingly from a number of different sources up and down Ventura Boulevard in the San Fernando Valley, chubs and sable and whitefish salad as well as lox and its upscale sister, Nova. But I was missing the succulence of good, fatty hot pastrami; golden-hued, glistening chicken soup; moist, steaming brisket; crisp latkes; tangy sour pickles; and that ineffable warm deli perfume composed of equal parts garlic, rye bread, and schmaltz, enjoyed in a comfy booth. There's a Yiddish word, ta'am, which is translated as "taste" or "flavor," but when you're talking about deli, it's as untranslatable as umami, the word the Japanese have given to the fifth taste, which isn't sweet, salty, sour, or bitter. When deli food has ta'am, it just tastes right.
My father and I set off in search of ta'am one Saturday, to Moishe's Pippic, a small place near Civic Center whose walls are lined with Chicago memorabilia (in deference to its claim of being a Chicago-style deli), with such inhospitable hours (it's open for breakfast and lunch six days a week and closed on Sundays) that I'd never found myself in its vicinity when it was open. (Need I mention that most of my favorite delis in L.A. and N.Y. are open early and late, so much so that several are open 24/7?) The hours are not its only eccentricity. The service style is complicated: You order at the counter, choose your drinks from a refrigerated case, await your food at your table (no booths), and then pay at the counter upon leaving. And it has a rather small menu for a deli – just 10 basic sandwiches, with brisket available on Friday alone, and the only smoked fish is lox. Over half the menu is devoted to colorfully named combination sandwiches and hot dogs; the only three egg dishes available are scrambled, scrambled with salami, and scrambled with lox. However, certain deli highlights – latkes, potato knishes, kishke – are represented.
We order a hot pastrami on rye for me, a corned beef on a kaiser roll for my dad, who doesn't like seeded rye and is disappointed that there's no dark bread available. The sandwiches are on the discreet side – the meat is machine sliced paper-thin – and they taste discreet, too. We share an appetizer portion of chopped liver, which is underflavored. My father tells me he used to hitchhike into Chicago when he was going to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne to eat at a famous Jewish deli called Mrs. Mink's on North Kedzie: Chicago delis were proud of serving lustier, garlickier food than that served in New York. And in my family, a belly button, here known as a pippic, was a pupik, and I can tell my pupik is not going to be distended by further visits to Moishe's.
My goddaughter Anna is happy to go to David's with me for Sunday brunch. "I'm seriously lox-deprived," she tells me. The big, high-ceilinged room is given over to a big U-shaped counter; there are side rooms devoted to tables, but (ominously, on a Sunday at noon) they're mostly closed off. We're led to a tiny, low-ceilinged, claustrophobic space at the back, into which four tables are squeezed. The menu is huge, but Anna goes straight to the smoked salmon platter. I get a brisket on rye.
Anna's platter of lox, potato salad, tomato, onion, and toasted bagel is mysteriously missing any cream cheese, but when we point this out to our waitress – with, we think, a bit of borscht belt charm – she scares us both by snapping, "That's because you didn't ask for it! People who order the platter don't want cream cheese! If they do, they order the lox and cream cheese on a bagel!" We think that people who choose the $15.95 lox platter over the $11.95 lox and cream cheese on a bagel probably believe they'll get more lox. Cream cheese arrives. The brisket, though piled higher than the sandwiches at Moishe's (and admittedly $2.50 more), is a travesty: dry and tasteless. But not as nasty as the piece of cheesecake we get to share, wackily slathered with gooey sour cream; one bite each is all we can muster, since the cake has picked up that ineffable taste of the refrigerator. Adding insult to injury, David's beautifully designed menu is covered with overwrought paeans to the glory of its cooking, on the order of "We make the joy of eating more delectable because we have the joy of cooking for you," and, about the cheesecake, "It is a sumptuous experience, baked for those with a penchant for the baroque." It is baroque, and it needs fixing. We feel mildly guilty when we give our leftover sandwich and cheesecake to a homeless person on Powell.
My parents decline my invitation to Saul's in Berkeley, citing past disappointments, so Peter joins me for Saturday brunch. The joint is jumping; we add our name to a long list. I like the big room, with a raftered, barnlike ceiling – and there are booths! But in less than 15 minutes we're given a small table for two at a banquette in between the front window and the hostess table; a hot plate with two coffee pots perched above us feels dangerously close.
We get a latke to share and two appetizer portions of sable and whitefish, followed by a cup of matzo ball soup and half a tongue sandwich for me, and a platter of Niman Ranch pastrami, brisket, and egg salad for Peter. (When he tells our waitress to hold the rye bread – "I'm on Atkins" – "Oy vey!" is the sympathetic reply. But she's heard it before: The day's low-carb special is steak, eggs, and green salad.)
After my previous meals, this one is a triumph. Not everything is genius (the whitefish is dry, the latke more a mashed-potato cake than the Brillo-pad version I prefer, and I've had better pastrami and tongue), but the sable is oily and silky, the matzo ball is light and well seasoned, and the brisket is probably the best brisket I've ever had, more than just moist, gloriously juicy, and falling apart. There's that ta'am I've been missing. The room smells good; it's full of happy, chatting people. This is a deli. I find myself wishing it were open later, for late-night suppers.
Bad planning leads me to have to refuse a second helping of one of my mother's Sunday-morning specialties, eggs scrambled with string beans and pork left over from the Chinese feast of the night before: "I'm going to a deli in Burlingame," I tell her. My sister gets misty-eyed. "Are you going to Brother's?" It turns out to be a family favorite ("It's owned by a Chinese family," my mother tells me), and before I leave I promise to bring them back sandwiches.
Brother's is a medium-size place, with comfy booths. Robert, Gail, and I get kreplach soup, a latke, an appetizer portion of chicken liver, brisket on an onion roll, pastrami on rye, and hot tongue on rye. The kreplach are astoundingly good – tender forcemeat in perfect dough, like the best wontons you've ever had – in deeply golden, very salty broth. I'm not nuts about the meek chicken liver. The latke is crisper than the one at Saul's, though still more mashed than shredded. The modest amount of thin-sliced brisket is fairly moist and has some flavor, but we're all perplexed by the pastrami: The slices look spongy and uniform, and don't taste like much of anything. We wonder if it's turkey pastrami. No, we're told, so we ask if we can have fatty pastrami, instead. "Most people ask for it lean," we hear, whereupon Robert erupts, "That's because most people don't want it to taste like pastrami!," with perhaps more vehemence than he intended. Our server backs away bemusedly. (Robert is not looking forward to my version of this. "Oh," I say to him, "don't worry: The column is fiction." "Based on a true story," he agrees, a trifle grimly.)
The fatty pastrami is better, but only slightly. What we do enjoy is the light, airy cheesecake. When I drop off the corned beef sandwiches and my father's favorite sour tomato pickles with my parents, I tell them that they really have to go back to Saul's. Preferably with me.