For true aficionados of the Jewish delicatessen-and if you can't list the top five pastrami sandwiches you've eaten on each coast, you're not in the club-San Diego can be, well, a bit of a drag. Compared to New York, where a simple phrase like 'best whitefish salad' can ignite debates that cause permanent family rifts, our city's offerings are few and far between. And then there's the eating process itself.
The problem with taking Californians to Jewish delis is that they do it wrong. You do not ask for lettuce and tomato. You do not order off the low-carb menu. You pretend Great Aunt Edith is standing over you in a housedress, yelling that you're too skinny.
Eat the pickles at the table while you wait; they're supposed to be half-sour. Slurp down a chocolate phosphate-essentially soda water and U-bet chocolate syrup, yet strangely addictive. When your food comes, slather meat-related things with mustard, and cover potato- or matzo-related things with salt. Now eat. Don't think, just eat.
With this in mind, here's a rundown of San Diego delicatessens that, if you go in with the right attitude, do a fine job of conjuring the old Jewish relatives you know you have somewhere.
D.Z. Akins was opened in 1980 by East Coast transplants who saw an untapped market for corned beef and bagels. In an unlikely strip-mall setting in La Mesa, the irrefutable king of area Jewish delis has earned this title not through food quality or ambience (although both are excellent), but through a delicatessen dictum that excess is the true signifier of authenticity.
We're talking portion sizes. We're talking plates the size of troughs. We're talking sandwiches that involve someone cutting up an entire five-pound kosher salami, layering the contents between two slices of rye and then serving it to you with a cup of coleslaw, as though that were a normal amount of food for one person to eat. And then you eat it, because it's that good.
The matzo ball soup and most other sides are just about perfect, but the high-quality deli meats-whether you're in the mood for corned beef, pastrami, salami, roast beef, turkey, pepperbeef, liverwurst, tongue or all eight-are the standout. Vegetarians will definitely find things they like; they will not, however, understand why you seem to be having fits of pleasure at the table.
Your waitress might be a little rude, and the tables around you will have a high concentration of senior citizens; both are signs of legitimacy in a delicatessen. By the time you leave, you should be unable to A) walk comfortably without unbuttoning something, and B) avoid lingering in front of the bakery case by the cash register. And with good reason: after the sodium shock wears off, you're going to want some sugar. Black-and-white cookies are your best bet. 6930 Alvarado Rd., 619-265-0218, www.dzakinsdeli.com.
True delicatessen connoisseurs can name one place they dismiss as serving 'imitation' deli food, and for many San Diego noshers Milton's Delicatessen Grill is it. However, it only takes one visit to this unusually attractive, spacious Del Mar restaurant to suspect that some of this negativity stems from unfair, purist expectations. With high ceilings and lots of natural light, Milton's wins the décor contest.
Sure, a hankering for baby-back ribs is not generally the reason for trip to a Jewish deli, but what Milton's does, it does well.
Their sandwiches are appropriately gigantic, the corned beef and pastrami consistent. But the best thing about Milton's stuffed sandwiches is the bread, freshly made by Milton's own bakery, which specializes in hearty and wholesome varieties as well as traditional rye. The deli counter at the front of the restaurant, accordingly, has a better-than-average selection of baked goods. Milton's also pays respect to a number of time-honored dishes your elders would approve of, including fine renditions of kreplach for your chicken noodle soup, and tzimmes, a sweet potato Passover treat that's difficult to find elsewhere in San Diego.
Other than the wide range of pastas and healthy or vegetarian options, the only thing not-so-authentic about this delicatessen may be its servers, who tend to be young and friendly, while conventional Jewish wisdom calls for middle-aged and crotchety. And if that's all San Diego deli fans can find to kvetch about, Milton's deserves a second chance. 2660 Via De La Valle, 858-792-2225, www.miltonsbaking.com.
Along similar lines, Hillcrest's City Deli might lose some points in the authenticity category-anyone who actually wants to order a 'salad niçoise' at a delicatessen should probably re-think what they're doing at a delicatessen-but it manages to make up for such affronts to traditional deli culture with copious amounts of sass.
It's true that at a Jewish deli in Manhattan's Lower East Side, you are less than likely to find yourself surrounded by more than one table of drunk Latina drag queens while you eat matzo brei at 2 a.m. But, honestly, can you think of a better possible lovechild from an attempt to blend California with New York?
Also, the food's darn good. In addition to fine versions of old favorites (their potato knish, among other sides, is superior), City Deli has a strangely charming selection of menu items that appeal to the goyim as well as those raised on chopped liver and onions with a side of guilt. Your friends can chow down on hearty, baked mac 'n' cheese, while you go for the cheese blintzes with applesauce-which are, somehow, simultaneously light-tasting and stick-to-your-bones good.
All-day breakfast and a surprising selection of Ballast Point beers available on-tap and by-the-pitcher make this joint just a little bit more 'party' than San Diego's elder delicatessens. Don't forget to ask about their erotic cakes: they've become a 21st-birthday staple in certain circles.
But don't ignore tradition, either. One dollar still gets you quality chocolate or apricot rugelach at the bakery counter. All in all, it's fair to say Aunt Edith might leave City Deli a little confused but certainly pleased and, most importantly, full. 535 University Ave., 619-295-2747, www.citydeli.com.