I think it attracts fat people, my wife thinks it creates fat people. This might be one of those chicken-and-egg things (mmmmm, chicken and eggs....). Or perhaps we're both correct. All know for sure is this place is always stuffed full of fat people.
I ate here occasionally as a kid, always ordering the same thing: the Number One, a pastrami on rye with Russian dressing, tomato and cole slaw, an admittedly heretical combination, especially to those who hold that mustard is the only acceptable pastrami condiment or that a Jewish deli ought to, at the very least, keep kosher with its Number One sandwich, but, heretical as it may be, it's melt-in-your-mouth heavenly here. And it needs to be, for the sandwich arrives at least six inches high in the middle, a heaping pile of pastrami perched precariously on the freshest rye bread, the whole contraption subject to catastrophic collapse if your tooth catches on even the smallest sliver of fat. Which it never does, for this is the best pastrami you'll ever eat, the highest quality beef, seasoned, smoked and steamed just so, a subtle blend of opposing tastes and textures blended to a harmonious whole on your tongue for a few fleeting minutes until you've inhaled the entire thing and look around to be sure no one noticed your gross and completely uncharacteristic display of gluttony.
And that's all it was to me, that place with the best pastrami sandwich, until a few years ago when it became so much more: My Favorite Restaurant. I remember the day well, it was lunch, on a Saturday, the crowd waiting for a table spilling out into the parking lot, as usual, and while waiting I read a newspaper review posted on the window. This deli, sandwiched between a tile store and a dive bar in a non-descript strip mall across from some tenements in the middle of the sort of dystopic suburban sprawl that causes your average New Urbanist to wail and gnash his teeth in despair, was, according to the critic, not only the best deli in the city, it was one of the best restaurants.
Now I know what you're thinking, because it's exactly what my wife thought, namely, that seeing it so highly-rated is what elevated my esteem for it, but that's not quite the way it happened. No, I resolved, on reading that review, to branch out, to try something other than the Number One pastrami sandwich, for what struck me more than the review's conclusion was the review's long list of do-not-miss items, items I'd somehow managed to miss.
So I tried the matzo ball soup, the one with the softball-sized matzo ball swimming in a pool of chicken noodle soup, the ball's having reached that perfect equilibrium of density, a light fluffy texture that permits the ball to absorb a bit of soup but one that's firm enough to permit one to shave spoon-sized slices off until it's all gone. I now order it every time. And I tried the black pastrami reuben, a sandwich so good it would be my new number one, save for the fact that each one takes a year off my life. As I ate my way down the menu -- the blintzes, the mushroom-barley soup, the French toast, the bacon, the chopped liver -- I came to realize that each item was the ideal form, an exemplar of its type, each was a Number One in its own special way.
Then I tried the hamburger. A hand-flattened patty crisp and lightly charred on the outside, tender and juicy on the inside, a slight smoky smell and taste, it called to mind a backyard barbeque, albeit one without the burned spots and the dry spots and the stray bits of gristle and the cold purple part in the middle. It sat nestled between a toasted bun, tomato and onion and lettuce tossed in, and that's it. Just a burger. Simplicity itself. One I had to order again and again before I concluded it wasn't a fluke, that they cooked it this way every time, perfectly.
Now I'm no expert on food. I can't cook, and don't care to learn. I skip as many meals as I make. I eat to live, not the other way around. Yet I'm starting to obsess about this place, so much so that it's disturbing. And, as I'm wont to do with my obsessions, I'm spending way too much time analyzing what it is that makes this place so good. And I'm starting to suspect my response to this place probably has as much to do with the food as it does with me.
So the other night as I sat at another well-regarded restaurant, an establishment far fancier than My Favorite Restaurant, having just enjoyed a foie gras terrine, frog legs "tempura," veal "au poivre" and a brown butter pear tart, each an imaginatively-prepared dish both pleasing to the palate and to the eye, consisting, I am sure, of only the finest and freshest ingredients, turned out with interestingly unexpected juxtapositions, imaginative touches you remember the next day, even if you're not a foodie, I was certain, as good as this place was, it wouldn't come close to beating, or even meeting, my esteem for My Favorite Restaurant.
And it occurred to me, as I sat there, that the difference between My Favorite Restaurant and this fancy place, and so many other fancy places associated with great food, was that My Favorite Restaurant makes the everyday extraordinary, the mundane memorable, the rarest of feats, for it requires a combination of ingredients that usually don't mix well together: genius and humility.
Regrettably, I'm not yet one of the fat regulars, and I probably never will be, for with each new house we've moved further and further away, making it more and more difficult to drop by and stuff my face. I get there once or twice a month, a pace that should, if I enjoy a normal life span, just barely permit me to eat my way through its gigantic menu, unearthing all those superlatives buried beneath the ordinary.