I'd spent most of a lazy Saturday avoiding the commitment of deciding where to eat that night. Laura kept asking, kept pestering me to make a decision — wanting to know what kind of freaky, dumb-ass experience her darling husband would settle on this time: raw fish, testicles, chicken-fried steak, what have you. She wanted to know if it was going to require travel, research, a cocktail dress, a new credit line, hospitalization. Quite reasonably, she was just trying to plan her weekend. Meanwhile, I was just putting it off — knowing that if I could do so long enough, it would become a moot point: too late for reservations, too late for anything but scavenging in the pantry, eating ramen noodles and ice cream.
By around nine o'clock, we'd passed the critical threshold. And with the pressure off, it suddenly occurred to me what I wanted. Lying on the floor in front of the TV watching a rerun of Ace of Cakes, it hit me like a revelation. I sat up and said, "Bagel Deli."
"Get out of the way. I can't see the TV."
"We'll go to the Bagel Deli. Breakfast. Tomorrow."
"You mean you'll go."
Laura does not eat breakfast out. Ever. She's one of those people who dreams of someday living in a hotel penthouse — not for the housekeeping or the views or the glamour of being the sort of person who lives in a hotel penthouse, but just for the room service: bowls of cereal and coffee and platters of pastries appearing outside the door every morning, as if delivered by magical kitchen elves.
I, on the other hand, am one of those people who dreams of food. And on Saturday night, I did. Knishes and chicken soup. A hot-plate special of kosher salami and scrambled eggs. Blintzes topped with a fall of shiny red cherries in syrup. Long before I fell asleep, I was imagining standing in line at the Bagel Deli & Restaurant — reconstructing from my somewhat foggy recollections a rattletrap relic of other days and other places, a strip-mall operation that's part market, part restaurant, part lunch counter and mostly Jewish deli, renowned for its tenacity, its salt bagels, its matzo brei, lox, chopped liver and the bottles of rendered chicken fat knocking around its dark coolers. I recalled how the deli side was divided by a row of ancient, dusty dry-stock shelves piled with boxes of flat matzo crackers, bags of bagel chips (really good bagel chips, so far from those pieces of cardboard you get in the grocery store as to be a different species altogether) and sixers of Dr. Brown's soda. Not a pretty place, not always a friendly place, never a quiet place — but one of my favorite places in the city, a restaurant I've loved and forgotten and fallen in love with all over again a half-dozen times over the past five years. And by then, it had already been around more than thirty years. Paul and Lola Weiner opened the first Bagel Deli in Mayfair in 1969, then opened a second spot in southeast Denver, then consolidated operations at the East Hampden address. Today, the Weiners' daughter, Rhoda, and her husband, Joe Kaplan, run the Bagel Deli. It's a distinctive spot that sticks like a burr in your mind if, like me, you organize everything about your life (dates, people, histories, momentous events) around what you've eaten that day, ate the day before, will eat the day after.
The first time I went there was about a month after moving to Denver from Albuquerque. Oddly, I was feeling lonely for New York (the city, not the state), which is something I almost never am, and hungry for an egg salad sandwich. At the Bagel Deli, I got an egg salad on seeded rye, a fat pickle spear, some terrible potato salad and a black-and-white cookie. The black-and-white cookies here are not the best on the planet — more like upside-down muffin tops, cakey and moist, frosted on the flat side, rounded and golden on the other. They are good for just two bites (one from the softly frosted black side, one from the stiff and glazey white), then become a chore. Regardless, I keep ordering them, missing those two bites if I don't have them.
I ate there after one of Denver's big winter snowstorms (2002 or 2003, maybe), going directly from my recently cleared driveway to the Bagel Deli's ice-slick parking lot and hunkering down in the brown-on-brown-on-brown dining room for a big bowl of chicken and matzo ball soup and a massive corned beef sandwich on white bread with nothing. I sat in a booth, beneath the black-and-white photographs that make up the bulk of the decor, and ate all by myself with a hunger like I'd just survived something. And I wasn't the only one. The day after a bona fide disaster, Joe and Rhoda Kaplan and the ladies behind the counter were doing business. Not a lot, but they were ringing the register. In ones and twos, people trickled in looking for comfort, for encouragement, for company, for soup or hot brisket sandwiches or kishke or pickled tomatoes.
A couple of years ago, I gave the Kaplans' deli a Best of Denver award: Best Kosher Deli. Problem was, it isn't kosher. It's kosher-style, which is a huge distinction. Although I apologized for being such a bonehead and fixed the error as best I could, I stayed away from Denver's best deli, kosher or otherwise, for several months — as long as I could manage before the hunger for genuine kosher salami, for the Bagel Deli's roast beef, became too great to bear. I was embarrassed by my mistake, sure, but I was really afraid that Kaplan would somehow pick me out of the crowd and ban me for life.
At the Bagel Deli, people become regulars and stay regulars for twenty, thirty years. They haven't looked at a menu in more than a decade and just order what they love. They remember it as the place they went to feed the in-laws, where they got takeout on the day their child was born. It's the first place they eat after being away from home, from Denver, for far too long.
And though I hadn't been away, I, too, I hadn't been to the Bagel Deli for a long time. Too long. I actually had trouble sleeping on Saturday night because I was so excited. And when Sunday finally came, I got in the car and drove to the strip mall and went inside. Everything was exactly as I'd remembered it. There was still the sandwich board behind the counter — the kind with the stick-on letters — and a second, slightly more modern sandwich board beside it that seemed to offer completely different things from the first, and an actual menu (tattered, encased in wrinkled plastic) that offered both more and less than the other two. The loaded, dusty shelves were there, as were the dark coolers displaying whole slabs of brisket and tongue, jars of schmaltz, jarred herring and gefilte fish. And, as always, there was the exhortation that lets every new customer and old friend know exactly what to expect at the Bagel Deli, so perfectly succinct, my favorite paragraph on any restaurant menu anywhere.
"What to find in our authentic Jewish deli," it reads. "Attitude; corned beef; pastrami; lox; bagels; cream cheese; chopped liver; familiar faces; rye bread; chicken soup; matzo; challah; friends; kosher salami; giant hot dogs; cheesecake; rugulach; knowledge; brisket; matzo balls, kreplach; tradition, especially tradition."
I ate salami and eggs, loving every bite of the kosher, all-beef salami that tastes nothing at all like salami but like one of those Hickory Farms beef logs that everyone sets out for company during the holidays. I thought about ordering latkes — with sour cream and applesauce, that's one of my favorite breakfasts, right behind corned beef hash and eggs — but skipped them at the last minute, knowing I'd be back.
And I was, just a few hours later, for lunch. When I first walked in, it was just me and the ladies and those deli cases full of temptation. I went up to the counter and ordered a roast beef sandwich, plain, and a pint of chicken and matzo ball soup to go because that had been my plan — because this roast beef tastes entirely unlike any other roast beef in the city, and because even for a former Mick Catholic like me, matzo ball soup is a powerfully comforting taste from my past. But then I saw the combo corned beef, pastrami and Swiss sandwich on the old-fashioned board and had to have that, too. Also, the hot corned beef and egg salad combo — about as non-kosher as a sandwich can get short of adding a couple slices of bacon.
"Is that it?" the counter girl asked.
Potato salad. I had to see if it was any better than I remembered it. (It wasn't.) And blueberry strudel. And maybe a couple of bagels from the rack by the door. And a black-and-white cookie. (Of course.)
Once I got going, the only thing that stopped me was physics: How much could I physically carry from the register to my car outside? A pint of soup, three sandwiches, some pastry, some bagels, potato salad, a cookie, a few pickles — that was my limit.
Until I sent Laura out for more. For knishes (mashed potato wrapped in pastry and baked and chopped beef, lightly spiced, chewy, wrapped the same way and tasting almost like a Jamaican meat pie) and more soup (plain chicken noodle this time, which was not as good as the chicken and matzo ball, not nearly as salty, peppery, fatty and rich, and lacking the heft of the Bagel Deli's excellent matzo balls) and a big container of egg salad, because while egg salad is one of the simplest dishes in the world to make (eggs, chopped, with some mayonnaise, maybe a dash of celery salt), it seems that no restaurant or deli can resist adding celery chunks or bell pepper or something else that just wrecks the ideal simplicity.
No restaurant or deli, that is, but the Bagel Deli, whose no-frills egg salad is the benchmark for perfection and un-messed-with-ness, an avatar of rightness. Egg salad was my first meal at the Bagel Deli all those years ago. And doubtless, egg salad will someday be my last meal from there — remembered at the last minute as I am on my way elsewhere, recalled just before it's too late.