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When it comes to kosher food, I'm the goy next door.
I live in the largest Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in town, within walking distance of four temples and the only King Soopers in Colorado that regularly offers kosher baked goods. My neighbors' biggest complaint with Denver's dining scene is the shortage of official kosher eateries. Of the few that exist, the largest, East Side Kosher Deli, got a lot larger six months ago, when it moved from its longtime Leetsdale location to a much bigger building a few blocks away.
This part of town would support any decent deli, kosher or not. But because Jews who adhere to the religion's strict dietary laws can't eat in a restaurant that isn't kosher, my 'hood had high hopes that the opening of a new East Side Kosher Deli, which features an expanded menu, a fancier restaurant section and a larger staff, meant big things for their kosher dining-out experience.
499 S. Elm St.
Denver, CO 80246
Region: Southeast Denver
Chicken noodle soup (bowl): $2.75
Pastrami sandwich: $7.75
Brisket sandwich: $7.25
Tongue sandwich: $7.75
Smoked turkey sandwich: $5.95
Rotisserie chicken: $11.95
Chicken marsala: $11.95
Spinach ravioli: $9.95
Tempura vegetables: $5.95
Beef stir-fry: $11.95
Oriental salad: $9.95
Bigger doesn't necessarily mean better, however. After three difficult meals at East Side Kosher Deli, I feel like Portnoy's mother: all complaint.
Granted, the preparation of kosher food is complicated at best. As it relates to food, the word "kosher" means "fit to eat," a definition that addresses only whether Judaic rules are followed, not whether the food is actually palatable. Foods fall into three categories: meat (which includes fowl), dairy and parve, referring to "neutral" foods that aren't meat or dairy, such as vegetables and fruits. Meat and dairy cannot be mixed, and people who keep kosher will space meat and dairy meals by up to six hours to make sure those foods don't even meet internally.
There's a list of animals that are okay to eat -- only those with four feet that chew their cud and have cloven hooves are allowed, which means yes to cow and no to pig -- and the state of their lungs and the way the animals are slaughtered can prevent them from being kosher even if they're approved. Milk must come from approved animals as well, and the USDA has to make sure that the dairy products it okays do not contain milk from non-kosher animals.
East Side Kosher Deli is a meat establishment, which mandates that no milk, cream or cheese can even touch the premises. From a cook's standpoint, that means that dishes such as ravioli, fettuccine Alfredo and quesadillas must be made with something other than cheese to re-create its richness. From a diner's standpoint -- Jewish or not -- the cook had also better use a lot of herbs, spices and other ingredients to make these jury-rigged dishes taste anything like the original.
But no one at East Side appears willing to take any extra steps. Many of the staffers seemed cranky that anyone was bothering them -- although I did find that dining with someone wearing a yarmulke tended to improve how the meal went. When I was obviously just another shiksa, the meals took twice as long, and only the all-Hispanic waitstaff had a smile for me and mine.
That wasn't the case back when East Side was a small, family-friendly deli down the street. Original owners Mel and Irma Weiss were nice to one and all, and they were usually delighted to share a schnitzel of this, a shmear of that, with anyone. People came from across town to get the creamy kugel and excellent pastrami, and the few tables were always full of folks from the neighborhood, gossiping and talking politics.
Not only does East Side have a new space, it has new owners, Michael and Marcy Shriver. They've taken over the vast spot that most recently was the doomed, Russian-run steakhouse Maverick's and, before that, the St. Petersburg nightclub. (This neighborhood also has a large Russian population.) The building is so enormous that it could be tough for a well-established, nationally known chef to fill it, let alone a kosher restaurant and deli. The Shrivers have turned the front section into a grocery, deli and bakery; the cash registers sit just inside the front door, while to the right are long cases filled with takeout containers of chicken noodle soup, slices of corned beef and a revolving display of poppyseed coffee cakes and kosher doughnuts. The restaurant in back is nearly hidden from view by floor-to-ceiling two-way mirrors: It's quite a surprise to leave the low-lit grocery store, turn the corner and find a cozy, cheery eatery complete with white linens, a wall of comfy booths, many tables pushed together for big groups, and an overall atmosphere that's a cross between a bar mitzvah and a carnicería.
The kosher kitchen is supervised by Va'ad Hakashrus, an organization that oversees kashrut, or the keeping of kosher, for most of the kosher establishments in the area. And while it was often unclear whether anyone was supervising making the food taste good, that wasn't a problem with East Side's chicken dishes.
There are two camps regarding kosher chickens: Some folks swear by them, not only because of the humane killing, but because they think the salting of the meat makes it more tasty; others claim the birds are a bit more bland and less juicy than their non-kosher cousins. East Side's chicken noodle soup was something to crow about, a traditional Jewish-penicillin style with a double-cooked broth (chicken to make the stock, then fresh chicken for the final product), plenty of carrots and celery, and just enough salt. The simple rotisserie-roasted chicken was another winner, half a bird with a crispy skin, served with a generous side of fresh, well-steamed vegetables and a knish -- a potato dumpling the size of a squashed baseball that was so warm and comforting it made me wish I had a bubbe to call and tell about it. Even the chicken marsala was worthy, and while the mushroom-choked marsala sauce on the skinless, boneless breast wasn't exactly textbook, it did manage to make the most of the 'shrooms.