8861 Villa La Jolla Drive
I've always heard the term "comfort food" used to describe dishes like mac-and-cheese or chicken pot pie. For me, a child of New York Jews, when I'm in the mood for something soul-warming, my thoughts turn to matzo ball soup, stuffed cabbage, chopped liver and good rye bread.
It was a bit of a culture shock moving to San Diego from Los Angeles. Jewish delis were in short supply down here. And unless you felt like schlepping out to D.Z. Akins, the only choice was Samson's in La Jolla-and really, compared to what we had in Los Angeles, Samson's sucked. D.Z. Akins was better, but not by a lot.
Now, many years later, Samson's has been replaced with Elijah's Delicatessen. My craving for some comfort food trumped my trepidation, and we headed over to check the place out. I was hopeful that maybe San Diego had finally gotten a real Jewish deli after all these years.
Walking in, the signs were positive. We saw kosher salamis hanging from the ceiling, shelves of Dr. Brown's soda and a bakery case stocked with black-and-white cookies, rugulach and hamentashen. So far, so good.
When we were seated and given menus, the signs became even more positive-a miniature barrel stocked with pickles graced the table, and a menu of early-bird dinner specials was available. I like to think of the early- bird dinner special as the deli equivalent of happy hour. For $8 you get soup or salad, an entrée, two side dishes and bread-lots of food for not very much money.
The early-bird entrée choices made me feel for a moment like I was at my grandmother's house: liver and onions, baked short ribs, stuffed cabbage and roasted brisket, among others. The side dishes were authentic, too, with options that included potato pancakes, noodle kugel (a sweet, baked dish composed of noodles with cottage cheese and sour cream) and carrot tzimmes (a slow-cooked stew of carrots with sweet potatoes and prunes-it tastes better than it sounds).
I ordered stuffed cabbage, which for me is kind of an acid test of delis. It's typically much too sweet, but I was hopeful Elijah's would be good. I got it with noodle kugel, potato latkes and the mushroom barley soup-another delicatessen staple. My date ordered the meatloaf, with noodle kugel, tzimmes and a salad.
While we waited, we snacked on bread and pickles, trying not to fill up too much. Fortunately, the wait was short.
First out were the soup and salad, both of which got things off to a promising start. The soup had a deep mushroom aroma, and the barley was tender without being mushy. The salad was made with the standard baby-lettuce spring mix, cucumber, carrot and tomatoes, dressed with balsamic vinaigrette-not really bona-fide deli, but in this case that's good since a bona-fide deli salad is usually iceberg lettuce adorned with a few sad croutons.
As we were finishing these up, the entrées were served. Unfortunately, the food wasn't very hot. We were there at the tail end of Elijah's early-bird service, so that may have had something to do with it. The waitress offered to have the food heated up, but we were starving and needed to eat.
Despite the lukewarm temperature, the food still tasted pretty good. The stuffed cabbage was legit-the ground beef and rice filling had a nice onion flavor, the cabbage rolled around the filling was tender and the sauce had just the right balance of sweet and sour. It wasn't my grandma's, but it was tasty nevertheless.
The meatloaf was just OK, but the side dishes were all pretty solid. The potato pancakes were crisp and flavorful, and while not really traditional latkes, they were still good. The tzimmes was thick, sweet and nicely spiced with cinnamon, and the noodle kugel was buttery, rich with cheese and decadent.
Overall, I found Elijah's to be a decent version of a Jewish deli. The only real flaw I encountered was on a subsequent visit when I ordered a whitefish salad sandwich on pumpernickel bread. They didn't have pumpernickel, and the rye I got instead was totally wrong; it had a soft texture like commercial wheat bread instead of being firm and dense. Oh well, you can't have everything.
Elijah's is open from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday, 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday, and 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday. Early-bird dinner specials are served Monday through Friday, from 3 to 6 p.m.