In the winter of 2008, I began a quest to find the best Reuben in New York City. In five months, I only found one sandwich worth writing home about: Katz’s Delicatessen. The impetus for this quest was simple: whenever I came home from New York, one of my favorite meals was always a pastrami Reuben from Canter’s, maybe an order of cheese blintzes, maybe a bowl of matzoh ball soup with those perfect bagel chips. I grew up on Canter’s (not on Brent’s or Langer’s—both excellent, of course, but not ), and grew up suspecting that, as much as I loved this sandwich, there was probably a better one out there, and it was probably in New York.
I was wrong. I never had a Reuben there that approached the perfect bluntness of Canter’s specimen. Carnegie Deli’s was downright bad. Katz’s was very, very good, but not great. A few neighborhood delis had decent offerings, but nothing serious. And so on. An unthinkable opinion took shape: the best New York deli wasn’t in New York at all, but in Los Angeles!
I undertook the quest, just to make sure. I thought a lot about what makes a good Reuben: what’s the ratio of meat to ‘kraut to cheese? What’s the absolute meat mass? How toasted is the bread? How much Russian is there? Is the Russian too pink? Too orange? Is the ‘kraut too tangy? Is the cheese too fatty? What’s the texture of the meat like? And I tried all those delis again, this time with a notebook. And when I came home again to Canter’s, I knew in my heart that it was the champion.
This is all old news now. Thanks to David Sax and Save the Deli, everyone has heard that L.A. is America’s deli capital (though Sax favors Langer’s). Jonathan Gold has evidently been saying so since 2002, but who listens to that guy?
All of which is to say that, in these enlightened times, it seems a little silly to open a new deli in Greater Los Angeles and market it as “a slice of New York in Pasadena.” But that’s just what New York Deli, recently opened at 35 N. Raymond, has done. Despite the glut of good delis in Los Angeles, however, we here in Pasadena have been without one since Jerry’s closed way back when. As close as Canter’s is, sometimes it’s also pretty far, and it never hurts to have a good local option, despite the obnoxious marketing. And so it was that I found myself there for lunch on a recent rainy afternoon.
The walls are lined with kitschy photos of the New York skyline, not to mention Marilyn, Frank, Marlon, Audrey, and some cowboys. Aside from the photos, it’s a sharply appointed interior, all dark wood lush maroon, with a long, thick counter. Clean, smooth, and stylish, much more so than any deli you’d find in New York, though just as cavernous.
My companion and I didn’t quite order the gamut, but we came close: matzoh ball soup, potato pancakes, a pastrami Reuben with a side of coleslaw, and a brisket sandwich with coleslaw, Russian, Swiss, and a side of potato salad. If they had blintzes I’d have ordered those, too.
The soup came out first, ball steaming but bowl cold. The veggies were good, especially the carrots, the chicken fine, if a little dry, and the noodles fairly bland. These ingredients are all second fiddle, however, to the big ball of dough in the middle. On the first bite, it burned my mouth. On the second bite, a few moments later, I found it to be light and fluffy, if not especially flavorful. Both broth and ball had an easy enough fix: salt. Strange, though, to be salting matzoh ball soup, something I have never done before and likely will never do again. A light and fluffy matzoh ball is all well and good, but they’re better dense and heavy, full of the dead hand skin of the babushka who kneaded it herself. That’s where all the flavor is.
The soup was followed shortly by the potato pancakes, two of them, huge, served with a good apple sauce and sour cream. They were really, really good, by far the best thing we ate: crispy on the outside, creamy and fluffy on the inside, nicely seasoned, glowing with warmth. I would get them again. I might even go here specifically to get them.
The pancakes were followed in quick succession (like, a bite or two—too quick), by the sandwiches. The Reuben was… okay. Pretty good, even. A really nice bite: well crisped rye, good ‘kraut (a touch tangy, maybe), a satisfying layer of cheese, and some adequate pastrami. There was Russian on there too but it was undetectable, so I asked for a side of it, which came out too yellow/orange (too much mayo). The pastrami itself had an excellent texture, moist and buttery, but didn’t have much flavor. And although the ratio of meat to cheese to ‘kraut was mostly good, the meat distribution was off: the sandwich bulged unbecomingly in the middle, giving the impression of a pervasive heft when really the edges had very little meat indeed. This is more than just a cosmetic problem: as you get away from the center of the sandwich, the meat can no longer stand up to the ‘kraut, especially when the flavor is so thin. After a few big bites, then, I was left with a thin, overly tangy, boomerang-shaped sandwich-like object.
All in all, though, it was a pretty good sandwich, and certainly a better Reuben than you’re like to find anywhere else in Pasadena. The side of coleslaw was pretty good, as was the slaw on my companion’s brisket. The pickles were ordinary. A similar pattern obtained with the brisket sandwich: a nice bite, nicely constructed and executed, good texture, a crisp sweetness, but a lack of flavor in the meat.
The architects of these sandwiches clearly know what they are doing, for the most part. If they can figure out how to pack a little more flavor into their meat—good delis usually do the final stages of the curing and steaming themselves—I could be persuaded to make regular visits to New York.
New York Deli, 35 N. Raymond St., Pasadena, 626.578.0010, thenewyorkdeli.com