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.