During my recent trip to Ann Arbor, Michigan, I finally got a chance to visit a place I’ve heard so much about, Zingerman’s. Prior to setting foot in the place, I long assumed Zingerman’s was a classic Midwestern Jewish deli along the lines of the heavenly Manny’s in Chicago. Then I saw an item praising the place in Saveur.
What could this be about? When I got in there, I figured out what was going on. It is a deli with carefully spiced corned beef and hearty mushroom beef barley soup. But it also sells gourmet olive oil, vinegar, chocolate, and bread. Let’s call it deli noveau.
Yet it’s deli noveau done right. Unlike the old-school Katz’s Deli, where the men behind the deli counter are likely to sass you (that’s part of Katz’s appeal), the 20-somethings at Zingerman’s will carefully answer your questions and even permit you to SAMPLE!!! a taste of corned beef or smoked salmon, as I did. And unlike the fraudulent Zaftig’s in Brookline, the food can live up to the hype.
My main man for deli, Michael Silberman of Michael’s in Brookline, gives Zingerman’s the seal of approval. Michael cooks his own corned beef. He sold me a pound that had just come out of the oven this week for a family function. He warned me not to put the meat in the fridge; we were eating a couple hours. (A large sandwich is $5.99) It was wonderfully moist and tasty. He says real delis around the country are a thing of the past. It’s just too difficult to do deli the right way. Here is a list of Gitell approved delis nationwide: Cantors in Los Angeles, Nate & Al’s in Beverly Hills (catch Larry King at breakfast), Manny’s in Chicago, Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor, Katz’s Deli on Houston Street, Harold’s in Edison, New Jersey (home to the pickle bar), Smallman Street Deli in Pittsburgh. I cannot neglect to mention Schwartz’s Smoked Meat in Montreal, worth a trip to Quebec.
–addendum. My friend Adam Hurtubuise writes in with a valid question about my list: why no mention of Rein’s New York Style Deli in Conn. Writes Adam: “Might not be in the same league as Manny’s or Katz’s, but it’s Triple-A even if it’s not the Major Leagues…and you don’t have to go to Manhattan or Michigan or Chicago. You just go halfway to NYC…”
The sight of Rein’s sign on Route 84, to be sure, always fills my heart with joy. It is a welcome respite on the road to NYC. I enjoyed a meal there on my way to cover the Lieberman-Lamont primary in August. It was that meal that reinforced my perception of Rein’s as Triple-A. Unlike the corned beef at Zingerman’s, et al., I found the deli products, while entirely adequate, too generic. Hebrew National products, which I like to an extent, dominated the line-up. Even the weakest deli on my list is Smallman Street in Pittsburgh offers a specially made corned beef and pastrami, a prerequisite for consideration on my list.
But Adam is right. Rein’s is a needed oasis, a place I’m glad exists and am happy to visit. They also offer a good bakery with rugelach and other traditional sweets, which more than lessened the blow of Lieberman’s primary loss to Lamont.