"I don't want to go to a deli."
"You've never been to a deli."
"But 34th street is really far away!"
"They have pastrami. You've never eaten pastrami."
"We could go to the Thai place down the road."
"I did not come all the way to New York City to go to the Thai place down the road."
"You're being bossy."
"You're being fussy."
If the above exchange sounds like two siblings bickering, that's because it is two siblings bickering. The whiny one is Lucille, my younger sister. I am visiting her in New York City. And we are trying to figure out where to go for lunch.
Lucille spent most of her childhood eating very little, in terms of both quantity and variety. She subsisted primarily on milk and Vegemite sandwiches, supplemented by the occasional apple or Caramello Koala. It wasn't until her preteen years that she developed a semblance of a normal appetite, and began to exhibit the carnivorous tendencies that are something of a family trait. Funnily enough, that was just about the time when I decided that she might have potential as something more than just a nuisance.
Lucille is now in college, has matured into an interesting being, and is still a nuisance. Her fussiness no longer involves food itself. Instead, it involves the location of food: she doesn't want to leave her particular corner of the city for lunch. She does not want to eat noodles and pork buns at Momofuku. She does not want to visit the Down Under Bakery for Australian meat pies. And she does not want to go to the newly-reopened Second Avenue Deli for pastrami sandwiches.
So I do what any self-respecting older sibling would do. I badger her relentlessly until she gives in.
I didn't have the chance to eat at the original Second Avenue Deli, but I have read plenty about it since it reopened last December. I love Jewish deli food, so I definitely want to stop by while I'm in New York. The chance to introduce Lucille to the delights of pastrami is just an added bonus.
The Second Avenue Deli is a tiny, crowded place where the tables are elbow-to-elbow, and the servers just barely manage to squeeze past. It feels cozy rather than claustrophobic, though, and the close quarters give you a chance to see what everyone is eating. (Mostly pastrami.)
I love places that bring you things to nibble on before your order arrives. At the Second Avenue Deli, they bring you enough food to constitute a small meal within itself. Within minutes of being seated, our server arrives with a bowl of coleslaw, a big dish of mixed pickles, and a plate of gribenes (chicken-skin cracklings).
Lucille, who has been grumpy for the entire journey to midtown, brightens up at the sight of pre-meal snacks. "I love pickles," she remarks, selecting a half-sour pickle from the dish and biting into it. I take this as a good sign, and fork up some of the coleslaw for myself. It is mildly sweet, with an agreeable crunch. It goes nicely with the gribenes, which are wonderfully crispy and oily, like fried chicken without the unnecessary meat. All signs suggest that lunch will be excellent.
Our server returns to take our order: we'll each have soup and half a sandwich, and split an appetizer of chopped liver and a side of French fries. Lucille opts for mushroom barley; I stick with the classic matzo ball. We both order pastrami.
The chopped liver arrives, and it takes some shuffling of bowls and plates to clear enough space on the table to fit it in. It comes mounded atop slices of onion, cucumber, and green pepper, and we attack it with our knives, spreading it thickly on slices of bread. It is rich and creamy in texture, with a lovely deep, sweet flavor.
"It tastes like pâté," says Lucille.
I nod. "It's pretty similar."
She doesn't react to my assessment, but asks for more bread. Between the two of us, we reduce the chopped liver to a few smears on the plate. Our server clears away some of the excess dishes, and then our soup arrives.
The matzo ball soup is as classic as classic can be: an enormous dumpling surrounded by carrots and rice in clear chicken broth, sprinkled generously with chopped dill. The dumpling is fluffy and pleasantly eggy, and the broth deep and savory. I offer Lucille a spoonful, but she shakes her head. I remember that she doesn't like matzo balls. I shrug. More for me.
The mushroom barley soup must meet Lucille's approval, because she stays remarkably quiet until she's scraped the bowl clean. I smile to myself. Lunch is going very well.
There is more clearing of bowls, and then our server returns with our sandwiches and French fries. The pastrami is cut in thick slices, deep rose in color, with a heavy blackened edge, and it is piled majestically atop light rye bread. The smell is mouthwatering. I am suddenly ravenous, despite the coleslaw and chopped liver and soup.
Lucille stares at her sandwich in consternation.
"How am I supposed to eat this? I can't fit it in my mouth!"
"Eat the pastrami with your fork until you get it down to a manageable level," I advise, suiting action to words. I leave Lucille to figure out her sandwich, and focus on my own plate.
The pastrami is tender and mildly spicy, marbled with fine seams of fat. The French fries are nothing to write home about, but they're not bad when dipped in spicy mustard. I eat enough of the pastrami to bring the sandwich to reasonable proportions, and pick it up with my hands. The bread of the sandwich could stand to be a little more strongly flavored - the light rye is largely overwhelmed by the pastrami's spicing - but the texture is good, and it holds the meat without slippage.
I look over at Lucille, who is slowly but steadily demolishing her sandwich.
"You like the pastrami?" I ask.
She nods enthusiastically, mouth full. I refrain from telling her "I told you so."
When the last bites of pastrami have been polished off, we lean back in our chairs, thoroughly stuffed. We both agree that dessert is unnecessary.
"Oof," sighs Lucille. "That was really good."
I couldn't agree more.
When I visit New York City in March, we might visit Momofuku. We might make it to the Down Under Bakery. Or we might just go to the Second Avenue Deli again. I may not even have to badger her next time.