Tuesday, October 20, 2009

If I Can Make It There

Right around the time you're a college kid, you just can't wait to get away from the islands.   It's partially because you want to see what the rest of the world looks like, partially because you're anxious to stretch your wings and live away from your parents.  This is pretty much exactly what happened to my sister after high school.   In addition to that, whereas I am a local boy through and through, and felt as incapacitated as Aquaman out of the water being away from the islands, my sister is sort of a chameleon.   She really truly takes on the personality of the place where she's living.   When she was home, she danced hula, played ukulele, and was as Hawaiian as can be.  When she went to Seattle for college, she was totally like a coffehouse, rain drenched, Pacific Northwest girl.  When she went to New York for grad school, she became the total walk fast, hyper active, East Coast, big city girl.    It's almost amazing looking at her at different stages in her life, because you just couldn't believe how different she was depending on the friends she had and the place she was at.   She becomes totally entrenched in the culture there.  Luckily for me, when I went to visit her for Christmas in New York, I got to see the big city through her eyes.  

I will always be an island boy.   To me standing in New York is simply overwhelming.   The buildings there make those on Bishop Street look like they're built out of Legos.   The sheer number of people there, hurrying all around you makes you claustraphobic even if you aren't.   For New Yorkers, walking 40 blocks to pick up lunch is an everyday occurrence, I kid you not.  I felt lost.  I felt insignificant.  I felt like grain of sand looking up to see an entire pail being poured on me.  But my sister helped me filter through noise and mayhem.  She showed me her New York.   She showed me the little pockets of culture and humanity that cumulatively comprise the sea of confusion.   And of course, one of the simplest ways to show this to me was to feed me.

Perhaps my favorite taste in New York is the one that it is so synonymous with, the New York deli.   As a tourist, you can't help but visit places like Katz Deli, made famous by Meg Ryan's orgasmic performance in When Harry Met Sally.   Where I simply can't begin to describe the thick, juicy, tender cuts of pastrami and salami, piled super high on your bread.   If you've never tasted Katz's pastrami, you may think you know what pastrami tastes like, but you're sadly mistaken.   As a musician, she of course also had to perform at Carnegie Hall, and take me to the  nearby Carnegie Deli.   Their pastrami is not quite as flavorful.  But the sheer size of the stack of thinner sliced meat is enough to turn your head.   It is a solid 6" think pile of pastrami between your slices of bread, and that is not an exaggeration.   Their sandwiches are also a bit more dressed than Katz's.   Both places are an experience as unique to New York as plate lunches are to Hawaii.   It would be near impossible to recreate the experience outside of the big city, but for a while, we had such a place.

The first New York style deli that we had was on the edge of Ward Center, called Bernards New York Deli.   They were the first place I had ever tasted one of those black & white cookies that Jerry Seinfeld made famous as a metaphor for harmonious racial relations.   But while they had the right menu, they didn't make the same impression on me that the real New York delis did.   By the time I had come back from visiting my sister, they had long closed, but another place had opened up in Kaimuki called, A Taste of New York Deli.    Having recently come back from the big city, I was astounded by how much they got it right (although native New Yorkers would probably disagree). 

Taste of New York Deli was opened up by a couple from New York, who missed having access to their favorite deli foods here in the islands.   So seeing a vaccuum and an opportunity in our culinary landscape, they opened one of their own.   The first thing you noticed when eating at Taste of New York was the big tub of pickles sitting at your table.   Unlike a jar of Vlassic or Claussen, these pickles were huge, almost the size of a regular cucumber, about 8" and thick as an old silver dollar.   In New York, all of the delis served 2 varieties, half-pickled and fully-pickled, whereas Taste of New York only served the former.   But seeing the pickles alone was good sign, for I had never seen them anywhere outside of the big apple.   The second thing that they got just right?   The menu was filled with triple decker sandwiches named after famous New York celebrites, like Sarah Jessica Parker and Al Rokker.  Yes they were pricier than what you would normally find here (almost 3 times the price of a plate lunch), but actually the prices in New York aren't that cheap either.   But what really impressed me was how good they actually tasted.   Their pastrami wasn't sliced thick like Katz's.  It was thin as a CD, but it was stacked almost as high as Carnegie Deli's, about 4" high.   But it was always really smokey and salty and flavorful.   It was incredibly juicy, juicier even than Carnegie's.   Their reuben actually had sauerkraut, deli quality provolone and real Russian dressing.   You see French and Italian all over the place, but Russian dressing isn't so common.   It was absolutely delicious.  Along side their pastrami, corned beef, cow tongue, and chopped liver, they also had enormous slabs of New York Cheesecake which were incredibly rich and creamy.

While they were a good "taste" of New York, they really didn't have everything a true Jewish deli would have offered.   They didn't have good blintzes.   They didn't have matzo balls.   They didn't have gefilte fish.   They did have good salmon lox and bagels, but the popularity of lox and bagels has extended well beyond the esoteric confines of a little Jewish deli.   They did have Dr. Brown's sodas.   But the thing that I really missed the most from New York and wished that they did have, were egg creams.   What the heck is an egg cream?   Well, no it doesn't have any real egg in it.   It's not egg nog.  It also doesn't actually have any cream in it.   The closest analogy would be that it tastes like a melted soda float.   Imagine a root beer float.  Now imagine it with chocolate ice cream instead of vanilla, and with seltzer instead of root beer.  Now imagine the ice cream melted and mixed in, and you've kind of got the taste of a good egg cream.   Egg creams are a Brooklyn institution, but they were sorely lacking from Taste of New York's menu.

Both Bernard's and Taste of New York Delis have closed, and now it's just about impossible to find the same authentic pastrami in Hawaii.   We are after all, all the way on the other side of the country, even moreso than the West Coast.   The closest thing we have to good salami is Hickory Farms', and even their permanent store closed here, only offering seasonal samplings at Sears.   As diverse as our culinary landscape is, losing representation from the big city is still a significant loss.  

Sometimes, I am glad for my sister' wanderlust, as it broadens our exposure to other opportunities, but still we can't wait for her to come home again.

1 comment:

  1. =) Thanks, that was really nice. But, just cause I can change and mingle with the culture that I've been put in, doesn't mean that it will define who I am at the moment. It just means I've added yet another facet to my ever-growing personality. So, what are you saying about my bay area personality?

    btw, it's hard to recreate new york style pastrami/corned beef deli meat outside of NYC, because of the water. New Yorkers are convinced that the water changes the flavor of the meat.