Since delicatessens have been around a bit longer than New York has--the first tangible documentation was in a publication printed around 1183 that refers to a burglary of cooked meats from a shop along the Thames--you have to wonder what people said when the first deli opened in the Big Apple: "Geez, it's just not like the ones in twelfth-century Europe. Now that's where you could get a good pastrami on rye."
The New York deli standard is so firmly en-trenched that I hear references made to it from people who've never even been to New York. Well, I've been to New York, where I've eaten in good delis and in lousy delis--both of which we have here in Denver. And while many components make up a good delicatessen, the sandwiches are the most important factor. The two parts of a sandwich that seem to catch most diners' attention are the quality and the quantity of the meats involved. Of two Denver delis, Hummel's Delicatessen & Sidewalk Cafe concentrates more on the former, while Stan's Metro Deli is a proponent of the latter.
The truth is, Hummel's sandwiches are among the skimpiest around, and there's nothing flashy about their simple, clean shop (even the sidewalk cafe is plain and straightforward)--but owner Gordon Hummel isn't a second-generation deli man for nothing. In 1967 he took over what his uncle Max Hummel started in 1943--Hummel's, in the original Cherry Creek Mall. (Another Hummel's, Franz A. Hummel's, in Cinderella City, was started by a not-too-close cousin and recently was sold to a non-Hummel). Gordon moved the Cherry Creek deli to its present location on Third Avenue in 1992, and the rest of his family quickly became an integral part of the new store. "My daughter cooks," Gordon says proudly. "And my twelve-year-old granddaughter, that's who you'll see at the cash register on Saturdays." But it was Gordon's wife, Jean--the cookie-scented grandmother you wish you'd had--who cooked and supervised the assemblage of our meal during a midafternoon visit. Things were pretty quiet--only a Walkman-clad college student with his nose buried in a book populated the tidy, sparse inside dining area--but Jean and two employees managed to liven things up with some good-natured bickering. Jean stood in the kitchen window grilling our hamburger, the Swiss Hummel ($5.95), while the sandwich-maker stood on the other side trying not to laugh every time the new guy in the back carried in the wrong stack of salad plates from storage. Jean came close to losing her patience around the time the third stack went back, but that didn't affect her expert cooking of our burger. The huge sirloin pattie looked and tasted more like Salisbury steak, with lots of sage for an unusual flavor. Augmented by sauteed mushrooms that were completely outdone by both the herb and the thick layer of Swiss cheese, it was nestled between two thick slices of fresh French bread, making for a challengingly ample meal.
Unfortunately, the other sandwiches did not follow suit. The roast beef ($5.45), Reuben ($5.95) and turkey breast ($5.45) all were meager portions of meat on thin bread slices--rye, rye and white, respectively. However, the meats were top-drawer, and each combination had a distinctive moistener that enhanced the overall effect: The Reuben's sauerkraut was tart and thinly sliced, with extra juice to spare, while the roast beef, possessing potent meat flavors itself, had just enough tangy yellow mustard. The turkey was juicy, strongly smoked and complemented by a slightly vinegary, freshly made mayonnaise.
What kept the sandwiches from being a ripoff costwise were the side salads that came with each; Hummel's offers a daily selection of five or six. Granted, they come in four-ounce servings, but they smack of just-made. Of the three we sampled (potato, carrot-raisin, and a typical fruit mixture), there was no question that the potato salad was the best; in fact, it was positively killer. It turns out that it's a particular specialty of Hummel's, having come from a recipe Gordon's father coaxed out of the Dutch owner of a German deli on South Broadway about forty years ago. "My father kept asking this guy--his name was Bernard Tietz, I think--for the recipe, and the guy kept refusing," Gordon says. "One day, out of the blue, he walked into my father's shop and handed it to him. There are two keys: Do the potatoes steamed in the jackets and then peel 'em, plus this unusual vinegar. Oh, and you can't forget the homemade mayo. We make it from corn oil." The mayo also figured prominently in the carrot-raisin dish, a welcome change from standard salads.
Most of Hummel's desserts were the usual, but done well--a creamy cheesecake ($2.50), big, soft sugar and chocolate-chip cookies (99 cents), and dense, just-like-mom's chocolate cake ($2)--with one exception. Called a mija pie ($2.25), this truly decadent wedge of goodness tasted of a time gone by--old-fashioned, with the consistency of chocolate pudding mixed with fudge and nuts and chunks of semisweet chocolate housed in a toothsome crust. It has a history, too: Gordon says the recipe came from an old Denver confectionary called Bauer's Bakery, which adds to its appeal.
Stan's Metro Deli, on the other hand, seems to have put all of its charm into the decor. This is the second Stan's owned by Keith Stone, in this case with partner Ben Johnston; the original is in Tempe, Arizona. The dishes at both are named after famous locals, although during our visit the menu still contained a lot of nationally known and Arizona-related names. Since then, a new menu has been printed involving the same sandwiches we tried (but a new slew of desserts), renamed with a heavy emphasis on Denver sports figures--fitting, since Stan's bills itself as a sports bar. The place is filled with eye-catching, autographed sporting goods that hang from the walls; the food, however, is not as attention-grabbing.
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Oh, there were a few standouts in our meal--the huge order of French fries with a hearty gravy ($2.50) and the pungent cream of red pepper soup ($2.25/cup)--but we mostly were overwhelmed by bland sandwiches that required fork assistance and side dishes that needed help. For example, the cold beet borscht ($2.25/cup) tasted as if someone had opened a can of julienned beets in their own sugary juice and poured it into a bowl. That's all there was--julienned beets and juice, with a tiny dollop of sour cream that was gone in one bite. This was not borscht. And all of the sandwiches we tried were about four feet thick and served on thin breads that split in the center from the weight of the fillings. This was not fun.
Take the Original N.Y. Reuben ($6.50), for instance. Of the possible meats (corned beef, pastrami, turkey or ham), we chose the corned beef, then had to pull the sandwich apart to be sure it wasn't roast beef--there was little saltiness, and the meat was unbelievably dry. To make matters worse, the sheer volume of it left little room for the sauerkraut and Swiss, both of which might have provided some wet relief. In sharp contrast, the "Robbie McGarey" ($7.75) contained coleslaw and Stan's special sauce (what's special about it must be that its flavor is elusive) that saturated the thin rye bread so that the ridiculously large pile of ham and turkey slid out onto the plate. We never could get it back in there. Stan's plain burger ($4.75) came out grilled way beyond our desire for medium-rare meat, and the chicken from Lucinda's Famous lemon chicken ($5.75) must have been cooking alongside--the bottom of it was scorched. Stan's "top secret lemon marinade" is safe from us: The lemon was so strong (and bitter) that we could barely taste the chicken, let alone any other possible ingredients. And suffice it to say that the potato salad and coleslaw sides that come with each order were about as boring as they could be.
It kind of made me long for twelfth-century Europe.