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This Spud's for You

Talk of the town: Zaidy's serves up Denver's deli bread.
Bryce Boyer

There are two items on the menu at Zaidy's Deli: potatoes and everything else. Zaidy's does great things with potatoes -- truly phenomenal things for which it deserves a medal. Now if only those bastards at the American Farm Council's tuber division would get off their asses and start planning the Potatolympics, like I've been suggesting for years. Seriously, if you can think of another sanctioned sport-cooking event where a nomadic team of pasty, eyeglass-wearing Irish Jews would be a handicapper's mortal lock for gold, I'd love to hear about it.

Zaidy's is everything you could hope for in a New York-style Jewish deli, except for one little detail: It's not in New York. And that's good, because we're not in New York, either, and if Zaidy's were a Gotham original, then all the Denver movers and shakers who pack this place every day would bankrupt themselves flying back and forth for some decent potato kugel and the best chicken matzoh-ball soup I've ever tasted outside of someone's grandmother's kitchen.

As a matter of fact, you really can't even call this place a New York-style deli -- it's a Denver Jewish deli. It has all the Big Apple trappings, like giant art prints hanging on the walls and antique photos of family members tacked up on the pillars separating one long line of tables from the next. But rather than the ubiquitous New York City skyline shot or a photo of Grand Central Station, with those gorgeous bands of light streaming in through the high windows, Zaidy's prints show downtown Denver back in the day -- back in the day when the whole world was black and white -- and the snaps are of customers' long-gone relatives, now enshrined in a place that maybe they would have liked, too.

Like most good delis (regardless of area code), Zaidy's has cold cases by the front door that are full at 6 a.m. and almost barren by 3 p.m., with only those meats and oddments left over that cruel (or funny) grandmothers use to freak out children -- barbecued sable, tongue, whole sides of salmon, raw brined brisket and gray-brown slabs of halvah. The comfortable booths are done in dark wood and deep-green leatherette; the tables are always set with little glass pots of jam, cold plates of dill-pickle spears and vinegary sauerkraut. And the staffers are the sort of pure veterans you only find in diners, interstate roadhouses and busy delis. They know their regulars by name (and me by a fake one), turn tables fast -- calling in surgical strikes of busboys with a waved hand or just a look -- and track orders with the concentration of serial-bingo junkies. They have their own notion of timing, bringing plates to tables as they come up, then piling on the bagels, the bread, the sides; they juggle multiple takeouts and a dozen tables each without ever seeming rushed or overwhelmed. If you need something -- an extra side of sour cream, maybe, or another knish -- a server is always right there, because, like their diner and roadhouse brethren, they've learned the trick of faster-than-light travel and can be in three places at the same time. Easily. This comes in handy during breakfast and at peak lunch hours, when Zaidy's can rock like no other joint in town. At noon, every inside table is full, every patio table is full, the small parking lot is full, and customers will gladly do gladiatorial combat à la Deathrace 2000, fighting for spots along the narrow streets of Cherry Creek and sometimes walking from blocks away, only to wait for a table to open up.

And then they'll do it again the next day. And the next. They'll do it because one fat little knish -- with warm, salt-and-pepper-spiked mashers baked inside a paper-thin pastry wrapper -- is worth it. Because this is the only place I've found in town that makes its own corned-beef hash. Because Zaidy's fresh-cuts its fries daily; because while its bagels are merely good, the Nova lox is fantastic -- for a million reasons. According to the Bible, the ancient Jews spent forty years wandering around in the desert looking for the promised land, but -- like our president's speechwriters -- the original authors of the Good Book were notorious for their dramatic exaggeration. Personally, I think those wandering tribes were simply looking for a good deli -- for some nice whitefish and kippers -- and got bad directions. The faithful will go a long way for a decent kosher hot dog or a fat, stacked Reuben sandwich on toasted rye with high-quality Russian dressing. So aren't we lucky we only have to go as far as First Avenue?

On any given day, the crowds packed into Zaidy's make it seem like you're actually sitting down to breakfast (or lunch, or now, on some nights, dinner) in a throbbing, thriving metropolis. Recession? What recession? There's no restaurant depression here. Not with a ten-table-deep waiting list on a Monday afternoon and whole pies and baked cheesecakes moving out the door like they're filled with heroin. Bring me another plate of lox and eggs -- scrambled fluffy and right with onions by the most ass-kicking, steel-box crew of breakfast cooks around -- and the New York Times business section, my good man. And while you're at it, have someone wax my Hummer....  

The Zaidy's faithful -- while still including guys like me in blue jeans, work boots and a frayed button-collar Oxford, and like the two pretty hippie chicks drinking their Dr. Brown's cream sodas and sharing a smokehouse bacon, lettuce, tomato and avocado sandwich on the patio -- go a long way toward dispelling the notion that Denver has a poor sense of fashion. There's Prada and Cole Haan in this crowd, knockoff Chanel basic black, Jackie O. pearls and too much perfume, but not a single trucker's cap to be seen.

Sitting down for breakfast one day this month, I had latkes -- crisp, perfect shredded potatoes cut with enough onion to give them some kick, cooked golden-brown with not a square inch of burn on a pancake as big as a dinner plate. Because I am a language geek, I can tell you that 'latke' is not, as most people assume, a purely Yiddish word (latke), or Russian (olad). It's got roots and usage in both languages (and in Ukrainian, where it's called oladka), but it actually comes from the Greek eladion, for "little oily thing." And because I am a food geek with an obvious soft spot for potatoes in all their incarnations, I can tell you that nothing goes better with little oily things than icy-cold sour cream and applesauce. Most places make you choose one or the other, but that's like choosing your favorite child or pet. Not Zaidy's. The kitchen includes generous portions of both on every plate of latkes, and while the sour cream is always just sour cream, the applesauce is handmade and changes according to the whims of the kitchen.

On this particular day, the applesauce was pink from being mixed with fat chunks of macerated strawberries, and the conversation around me was all about mayor-elect John Hickenlooper. The consensus seemed to be one of cheerful if guarded optimism, with opinions running heavy toward the "Well, things are bad now, and he probably can't make anything worse" school of electoral analysis. Across from me, two men in power ties and business suits that cost more than my car opined that Don Mares should've gone dirty if he wanted to beat Hickenlooper. Really dirty, like producing photos of Hick flagrante delicto with a lovestruck wolverine on the steps of the City and County Building.

This was not the NASCAR and punk-rock conversation I'm used to from diner folk, but it was just as entertaining. The men were eating lox and latkes (smoked salmon and sour cream between two potato pancakes, with fat sliced tomatoes, red onions and capers) and smoked whitefish on bagels, and they were also concerned with funding cuts at the Colorado Council on the Arts. So was I, so I flagged a waiter (who appeared instantly with a quick "Still hungry?"), ordered a side of what they were having and spent another half hour pleasantly eavesdropping from behind the comics section of the newspaper.

My suggestion for the new mayor? Stop in at Zaidy's during the lunch rush. Leave the transition team at the office, come incognito (if you need tips, give me a ring; I'm an expert) and try the lox, which is that luminous, sensual pink of the truly high-grade product. It's soft, not too fishy or too salty, and the perfect thing to savor as you listen to your new constituency for a while. People talk freely in the diners and delis of the world, and you can get quite an education over one or two lunch hours.

Or go for the corned-beef hash. Since you're a bar guy and may want to sleep late (like me), all you have to do is show up before two in the afternoon for a couple over-easy on a giant bed of fried potatoes, onions and tender, cubed brisket.

A few months back, I said there are some things that are better out of a can -- chiles in adobo, Beefaroni, coconut milk, corned-beef hash ("Reign Man," April 3). But I was wrong about corned-beef hash, and I'm man enough to admit it. A fatty, congealed lump of Mary's Kitchen hash straight out of the can is still good, but the scratch-cooked version at Zaidy's is better. Better by leaps and bounds.  

Zaidy's menu goes on forever. I love the blintzes, because they aren't the limp, frozen knockoffs some joints will use to class up their standard truckers' fare, but rather fresh and handmade, a little crisp at the edges, served with real fruit preserves and not some so-called strawberry sauce that's all glycerine and red dye #5 ladled out of a 10-can warming on the flat-top. A masterpiece of minimalism, the potato kugel should be taken to culinary schools to show the students -- obsessed with their squeeze bottles full of blended oils and shaved-truffle everything -- just what wonders can be accomplished with potatoes, carrots, salt, pepper and nothing else. The sandwiches are stacked high and wide -- the egg salad made with green onions (which I like) and without celery (which I hate), the turkey with chopped liver and onions made with good chopped liver, not the kind you were forced to eat as a kid, halfway between a liverwurst and a pâté.

So whaddaya say, Mister Mayor? How 'bout lunch? I'll buy, and being that you're a restaurant-guy-turned-politico, maybe you'd be interested in this little idea I have for the Potatolympics.

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Zaidy's Deli

121 Adams St.
Denver, CO 80206

303-333-5336

www.zaidysdeli.com


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