And then there were three. With the closing of Hillcrest's City Delicatessen after 30 years, San Diego is down to three top New York-style Jewish delis: Milton's in Del Mar, Elijah's in La Jolla and—the best of them all—D.Z. Akin's in the College Area.
We all have an image of the classic Jewish deli, even if we only know it from television and the movies. Many of these—including the greatest fake-orgasm scene ever (Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally)—were filmed at Katz's in New York. To a significant degree, those images have come to define the Jewish deli. A counter with breads and meats behind it, walls filled with headshots of celebrities and jars with pickles on the tables define the look of the prototypical New York deli. A casual atmosphere and waitresses who are one part Bubbie and one part New York brusque define the feel of the place. A nearly endless menu arrives, often with a thud, offering overstuffed sandwiches, smoked fish and innumerable other Ashkenazi Jewish favorites.
A Jewish deli is not about culinary innovation; it's about evoking a specific cultural milieu. And D.Z. Akin's (6930 Alvarado Road) does it well. It looks, feels and tastes New York Jewish. Of course, that "New York Jewish" is somewhat secular and doesn't necessarily equal "kosher"—no restaurant serving a true Reuben, including both corned beef and Swiss cheese, possibly could be.
It may be worth compromising the laws of kashrut for D.Z. Akin's Reuben. With cheese melting into the top layer of rye sitting on uncountable layers of corned beef over sauerkraut, it's a meal-and-a-half even without a single pickle from the jar—and I've never been to D.Z. Akin's and eaten only one pickle.
But my go-to dish at D.Z. Akin's is the smoked-whitefish platter. The fish comes with an array of cold and crisp vegetables, a bagel and cream cheese, not unlike the more recognizable bagels and lox. Instead of a flat piece of processed salmon, the whitefish is thick, moist, smoky, savory and utterly luscious. The sensual qualities of the oily fish and tactile element of the participatory eating nearly rise to the level of soft-core porn.
A somewhat lesser-known Jewish-deli classic is the potato knish: baked packages of dough filled with potato and a bit of onion. The secret to the dough is that old Jewish mother's pantry trick, schmaltz (rendered chicken fat). The knish comes to the table looking like a brick but is improbably light and soars when paired with sour cream.
Yet, the crowning glory at D.Z. Akin's is the matzo-ball soup, with or without kreplach (beef dumpling). This is not some clarified and enriched French consommé. It's simplicity itself, with only five easy parts: broth, carrots, noodles, kreplach and a solitary matzo ball. The lightness of that matzo ball elevates the whole affair.
Maybe you're inspired to think this soup really can cure the common cold. Or, perhaps you wonder if it might provide an alternate explanation for Meg Ryan's "fake" orgasm.