- John Taylor
Despite the fact that the delicatessens of old New York are as foundational to American cuisine as the burger joint, it's not something the corporate fast-food machine has quite been able to mass produce. You can make the claim that places like Subway and Jimmy John's took their cues from the delis on American's Eastern Seaboard during the turn of the century, but they're so far removed from their source material that it's tough to make a comparison—slapping cold cuts on a bun does not a true deli make. Such national chains were as close as Utahns could come to the traditional Jewish delis on the East Coast. Then Janet and Michael Feldman moved here from New Jersey to open Feldman's Deli (2005 E. 2700 South, 801-906-0369, feldmansdeli.com).
As Feldman's is indeed the only local place I can think of that touts itself as a traditional Jewish deli, it's worth discussing the deli's origins. Anyone who's traveled East or lived in New York and New Jersey will recognize the Jewish deli as a place filled with stacks of thinly sliced pastrami and corned beef, chopped liver and no shortage of coleslaw and sauerkraut. In many ways, these places became the first true beachheads of immigrant entrepreneurship, and several old school delis have been up and running for generations. You get some variation based on each family's country of origin—German Jewish delis are fond of their bratwurst sandwiches and spaetzle, and Russian Jewish delis might serve up steaming bowls of crimson borscht—but you can count on the smoky, peppery goodness of pastrami and corned beef on olive-colored Jewish rye bread regardless of the supporting cast.
On paper, it's hard to pinpoint what exactly makes putting smoked meat on some good rye bread into such an influential dish. I could fly in some top-notch pastrami and rye bread from New York, put it all together with a bit of mustard and be miles away from recreating one. I suppose this is because the Jewish deli has a lineage and leaves a legacy. It speaks to us from the distant past. Even if I had the same ingredients, I couldn't make a sandwich like they do because I'm simply not in the family. I've always felt that a sandwich tastes better if someone else makes it for you, and it's hard to find a better example of that maxim than Feldman's.
While I can't base my opinion of Feldman's on my intimate knowledge of the New York deli circuit—so sue me if I've never been to Katz's—I can base it on the fact that I know the difference between a transcendent sandwich and a sandwich that's just OK. After the way my first bite of a Feldman's Sloppy Joe ($15, pictured) made me weak in the knees, it was easy to tell that we're dealing with people who know what they're doing. Eating at Feldman's without having experienced its forebears is a bit like hearing Lady Gaga rip into "Edge of Glory" without having first listened to Madonna's "Express Yourself"—it tops the charts all by itself even though it's not the first of its kind.
The Sloppy Joe is perfect for those who aren't quite sure what sandwich to get because it's essentially two sandwiches beautifully merged into one half-pound, triple-decker miracle. Your top floor is where Feldman's corned beef and coleslaw hang out, and your bottom floor is reserved for the pastrami and Thousand Island dressing. The Jewish rye bread—which means you get little pops of earthy flavor from caraway seeds baked into the dough—feels like it's much too soft to trap in all that smoked meat, but it does the job admirably. Even after it's taken you 10 minutes to eat one half of this monstrous sandwich, the second half doesn't get soggy and fall apart when you're ready to dive in for more. When you're confronted with this amount of corned beef and pastrami, you immediately worry about how much PSI your jaw can produce, but the twin decks of meat yield ever so nicely with each bite.
A first-time visit demands one of their signature sandwiches—they're simply incredible—but Feldman's is also an excellent place to experience Jewish staples like soul-warming matzo ball soup ($5.50) and flaky potato knishes ($5). Their recently expanded hours mean that freshly-made bagels ($2.50) are yours for the taking, and that you can snag one of their entrée-sized sandwiches for both lunch and dinner.
Here's hoping that the fast-food chains keep overlooking the magic that traditional Jewish delis like Feldman's can produce. I can tolerate the cold cut combos and freaky fast delivery knowing that any time I want a real sandwich, I know right where to go.