Summer is the season to get out and explore new things — unfamiliar dishes at restaurants, an undiscovered hiking trail that winds through a mysterious valley. But as winter approaches and icy winds and dark days force us inside, we yearn for what’s safe. This is the time of year for comfort food, for the familiar, nostalgic and warming. Depending on where you grew up and where your family originated, comfort food could mean mac and cheese, a deep pan of lasagna or a fierce bowl of green chile. But East Coasters all know that Jewish delis deliver an almost universal dose of grandmotherly love in the form of simple soups and sandwiches.
Chicken-noodle soup is the most all-embracing of delicatessen offerings; its familiarity as a home remedy and a way to repurpose leftovers transcends state lines and regional boundaries. Nearly every home cook from Buffalo to Barstow has simmered up a pot of chicken soup bobbing with carrots and heavy with noodles thick or thin. A half-sandwich on the side, maybe grilled cheese or thin-sliced ham, completes a lunch intended to ward off winter bugs. You may not have had pastrami at home, but at New York-style delis, the cured and smoked beef brisket is a true test of a kitchen’s adherence to tradition.
Here are three classic delis in Denver where you can take comfort in a simple soup-and-sandwich combo. We ordered a cup of chicken-noodle soup and half a pastrami sandwich at all three, to get a feel for the value, quality and — most important — comfort that each deli delivers.
1) The Bagel Deli & Restaurant
6439 East Hampden Avenue
The 48-year-old Bagel Deli & Restaurant is beginning to show its age — at least on the outside. The marquee above the door is faded and the windows are cluttered with stickers and signs. But inside, the main deli counter and market are overflowing with fresh baked goods, cured meats and an assortment of other traditional Jewish foods. For an eatery like this, which specializes in serving its longtime customers exactly what they want in exactly the same way every time (there’s no need for experimentation here), longevity is a good thing.
To the right of the entrance, a jam-packed dining room swirls with guests sidling into their seats, bussers refilling water glasses, and waitstaff — or even owner Rhoda Kaplan — hustling bagel sandwiches and mountains of shaved meats, checking to make sure everyone is happy. That the place is packed to overflowing for every lunch even after so many years is testament to the Bagel Deli’s dedication to “tradition, especially tradition,” as stated on the menu.
A cup of chicken-noodle soup is a big cup — what might pass for a bowl at many other restaurants. The soup itself has a bold chicken presence with a mild vegetable undercurrent. There are a few bits of chicken meat, but most of the substance comes from slurpably thick noodles and bright disks of carrot.
The pastrami sandwich is a teetering mound, even as a half order; full-sized stacks delivered to other customers threaten to upend tables and bury small children in an avalanche of salty meat. The pastrami is served warm on your choice of bread — marble rye, in this case — and is sided with the likes of potato salad or coleslaw. There’s also a pickle spear and a tiny plastic cup of beet-horseradish relish.
At $11.95, the combo is the best deal we found at the three delis we visited — especially when pure caloric load is considered. But it’s a mighty fine lunch, too.
2) East Side Kosher Deli
499 South Elm Street, Glendale
The East Side Kosher Deli is actually a miniature grocery store filled with kosher products of every kind, from fresh meats to snack crisps to a well-stocked deli counter. But head to the back of the store and you’ll find a small restaurant with a menu of traditional Jewish eats with a few international plates (like a short list of sushi rolls) thrown in for good measure. And at a mere 24 years old, this Glendale deli is a relative youngster.
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A soup-and-sandwich combo isn’t listed specifically, but a half a pastrami sandwich and a cup of chicken-noodle soup ordered together come in at $12.45. For that you get a ladleful of intensely chickeny soup with a sparse layer of short, skinny noodles. A choice of bread is offered for the sandwich (marble rye, again), and it comes with onions, tomato, lettuce and a pickle spear on the side. The extra-lean pastrami isn’t served hot, but it’s very high-quality, with a nice rind of black pepper and good beefy flavor unadulterated by the hammy, cured taste often found in commercially made pastrami. If you’re in the mood, the deli also has a liquor license, so you can enjoy kosher beer or wine.
3) Zaidy’s Deli
121 Adams Street
Zaidy’s once stood out as a beacon of delicatessen delight on the corner of Adams Street and First Avenue in Cherry Creek, but the recent explosion of new condos and office buildings has buried the family-run joint in a jungle of concrete and shadows. Inside, though, it’s the same diner-style eatery, with cakes under glass at the lunch counter and hunter-green upholstery on the booths that date back to the mid-1980s.
A cup of chicken-noodle soup comes brimming with broad, flat noodles and a broth that’s deep with herb and vegetable flavor. The sandwich is midway between those of the other two delis in terms of size, and arrives with a side (if you get the coleslaw, you can add it to your sandwich for a little extra crunch) and a pickle. There’s no bread choice, so light rye it is, topped with warm pastrami with a good amount of fat on it. It’s an enjoyable sandwich, but with more of a pronounced cured taste than the others. At just over $11.50 for the combo, this is a filling lunch, with the soup standing out for its big load of noodles and well-balanced broth. Even so, a seat at the lunch counter means you’ll be staring down a layer cake during the length of your stay, so it will take a supreme act of will to keep from tacking on a slice of something sweet.
All three delis offer simple comfort and time-honored recipes, with sandwiches that are basically meat and bread; any fancying-up is between the customer and a squeeze bottle of Gulden’s brown. But each offers something special, too. The Bagel Deli stands out for its side of beet-horseradish relish (a typical Jewish condiment that my Ukrainian family also enjoys) and its eye-popping portions; the East Side Kosher Deli has some of the finest pastrami I’ve eaten in Denver; and Zaidy’s makes a chicken-noodle soup worthy of any grandma’s kitchen. With choices like these, there’s no shortage of deli-style comfort this winter.