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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.
East Side made the most of its sandwiches, too, which were piled high with great cold cuts in true Jewish-deli fashion. Mounds of extra-lean pastrami, tender homemade brisket, meaty beef tongue and smoked turkey came on quality bread ranging from marble or seeded rye to pumpernickel or whole wheat; lettuce, tomato and a kosher pickle, of course, were always included. Next to those sandwiches, East Side's take on kugel, the quintessential Jewish dish, was a real disappointment. The "pudding" part of this noodle pudding was nearly nonexistent, with hardly any fillings (apple and raisin in one, potato in another) to add flavor to the pasty, gummy noodles.
The further I veered from traditional deli fare, the worse the dishes became. Only if you'd never eaten real ravioli might you enjoy East Side's version: pasta pockets filled with spinach and topped with a marinara sauce that tasted like a tin can. The dull tempura vegetables were really just coated in panko (Japanese breadcrumbs) and fried. And while I had to give East Side credit for trying to internationally expand its captive audience's tastebuds, beef stir-fry reminiscent of La Choy didn't help anyone.
Since a few of the Mexican dishes worked, I have a feeling the Hispanic waitstaff may be offering the kitchen some tips. Proclaimed a "house favorite!" on the menu, the beef fajitas were indeed tasty. But the onions and green and red peppers that came with them were raw, and the guacamole was the gloppy, pre-packaged kind. (There are good versions of refrigerated guac, but this wasn't one of them.) More guacamole didn't help the smothered burrito, a hulking mass of salty ground beef smothered in a mildly spicy, slightly sweet red chile.
The service was as uneven as the food. Once the place got packed, we had to stand in the aisles between tables in order to make a server hear our request for a Styrofoam container or the bill. Things weren't much better in the deli. Once, when I called with a takeout order, I made it clear I needed it at a certain time. East Side employees called back twice to clarify the order, all the while ensuring me that it would be ready. But when I arrived, the woman behind the counter said, "Oh, I just have to put in the order for Oriental salad; it'll take a minute." Ten minutes later, I could see kitchen employees wandering around getting themselves drinks and gazing at the display case -- but no Oriental salad. Finally, the woman looked at an employee who was just standing there. "Are you going to get the salad?" she asked. He sighed and nodded, then slowly ambled back to the kitchen. (The salad turned out to be a ridiculously overpriced mess of pre-cooked noodles tossed with cold grilled chicken, canned mandarin oranges and lettuce with a side of sesame dressing, all of which could have been assembled in about four minutes.)
The woman looked at me and smiled. "What can you do?" she asked. It was all I could do to keep from leaping over the counter and making the danged thing myself.
But I can do something that many of my neighbors can't: I can eat somewhere else.