We pretty much suck at deli. There are many types of food and restaurants we do really well in San Diego but deli just isn't one of them. So when Larry's Deli (323 7th Ave.) in East Village introduced itself as "a tribute to the nostalgic classic deli," invoking the names of New York's Katz's and Los Angeles' Langer's and Canter's, I was hopeful. Perhaps I shouldn't have been. The better question, though, is why they went there in the first place.
Having done so, Larry's had to match up with D.Z. Akins, the class of area Jewish/New York-style delis. As I've observed in this space before, a Jewish deli is not about culinary innovation, but rather evoking a specific cultural milieu. It's about a look and feel—a counter with breads and meats behind it, walls filled with headshots of celebrities and jars with pickles on the table—a familiar menu featuring overstuffed sandwiches, smoked fish and innumerable other Ashkenazi Jewish favorites. And yeah, Larry's doesn't have that.
Oh, there are items that kind of sound like that on the menu. The pastrami sandwich, for example, has pastrami and is on rye bread. Good so far. But overstuffed? No. Strike one. And there's cheese on it. Strike two. So what in the heck's "cornichon spread" and why's it anywhere near my pastrami sandwich? Strike three. In fairness it was a good and tasty sandwich but it doesn't exactly evoke the deli classic.
It was pretty much the same story with the Reuben. The classic elements were there: corned beef, cheese, sauerkraut and Thousand Island on rye. But the ratio of the corned beef to cheese and sauerkraut tilted decidedly against the deli meat. Problem. Tasty? Yes. Classic? No. It just paled in comparison to the carnivorous glory of yesterday's archetypal Jewish delicatessen wonder-behemoths.
Then there's the tuna sandwich: bland. The texture-less, monotonous tuna had me waiting to hit a good part that never came. Larry's take on a turkey, bacon and avocado sandwich came with a tarragon pesto that referenced a Canter's classic. But where Canter's pesto complemented the TBA combination, Larry's tarragon seemed to fight with the avocado.
Larry's greatest success came when it dumped the Jewish deli references. The homemade porchetta sandwich was wonderful: meat deeply flavored, bacon adding richness and texture all on great Bread & Cie bread. It was a sinful, rich, indulgent sandwich that needed no classic reference point. It was all the better in its own right.
Perhaps the single best dish was the pickled deviled eggs. Pickled eggs aren't unusual, nor are deviled eggs. But pickling the eggs in beet juice gives them a marvelous, nearly fluorescent color and a touch of acidity to cut the richness. They're a bit of genius you won't find in your average deli.
In the end, though, Larry's gets perilously close to average because of its insistence on references to nostalgia and classic delis. Embrace the creativity that is the opposite of those references—the hallmarks of what Larry's does best—and the place could come into its own.