Mexican
Mendl Delicatessen Brings the Tastes of New York Home

American urban Jewish delis are a historic phenomenon. They were ubiquitous in the Manhattan of my childhood: there seemed to be one on every block. Some were neighborhood shops offering rotisserie chickens twirling temptingly in the windows, sandwiches piled high with pastrami, smoked salmon, tongue or liverwurst, prepared salads, pickles, rice pudding, black and white biscuits, bagels, bialys and rye bread . The famous Zabar's started this way, as did Russ & Daughters, both of which survived into the 21st century by repackaging and marketing themselves to new generations. In my day there were kosher dairy shops, some vegetarian (like the Famous Dairy restaurant on 72nd Street and Ratner's on Delancey) and others specializing in seafood (like the aforementioned Russ & Daughters and the still-existing Barney Greengrass). Every corner drug store had a soda machine and a lunch counter serving Jewish foods like pastrami and corned beef on rye, and nothing with the dreaded mayonnaise. Full-service, sit-down specialty restaurants were plentiful. There was Reuben's (gone before my time), the Stage and the nearby Carnegie Delis, both lost to greedy real estate speculation, Wolfe's on 57th Street, and Katz's, now hallowed as the Taj Mahal. Many lesser-known, but equally beloved, neighborhood establishments thrived. All these places had a common thread: they were run by rude waiters and waitresses who acted as if the customer were a nuisance. “You don't want it, darling!” a middle-aged waitress once admonished me when I tried to order a hot borscht in the summer: it bothered her to see me doing it “wrong.” Sometimes they would leave before your order was finished, or throw food at you like they were feeding seals in the Central Park Zoo.

Today, most of the food culture has disappeared in New York. Only a few survive in Manhattan and surrounding neighborhoods, and a handful in other American cities. The original immigrants were Ashkenazi Jews who arrived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries from Russia, Germany, and other Eastern European countries. They brought their culinary traditions with them, but now they've mostly gone to the Big Deli in the Sky. The first generation was made up of demanding devotees of gastronomy. Many of the second generation, my group, rejected it and moved on to “world cuisine”. Now we are trying to recover and celebrate what remains before it disappears completely.

Mexico's relatively small but important Jewish community (about 67,000 at last count) is made up of a large percentage of Sephardim (Jews of Southern European, Middle Eastern and North African origin) whose culinary traditions differ from those Ashkenazim, who are the majority in America. city. Deli food, as we New Yorkers remember it, comes from Russian, Polish, German, and other Eastern European traditions. So Mendl is a bit of a surprise here as he sticks, for the most part, to the Ashkenazi lexicon.

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