The Joint

In your worst nightmare, you're absolutely famished and nothing but a gorgeous hot pastrami on light rye will do. But you're also in Denver, 2,000 miles from Manhattan, nagged in the depth of your hunger by visions -- rivers of creamed herring, big bowls filled with half-sour pickles, mountains of that fragrant, steamy, dark-red pastrami -- mocking you from afar. In this dream, you'd kill for a knish. You'd shut up forever for a slice of smoked tongue.

What to do? Wash the sleep from your eyes, put on your shoes and head for the Plaza Delicatessen. This is not quite the Stage, or the Carnegie, or the Ben Ash, or any of those Seventh Avenue temples of delight that remain among the most beloved of all New York landmarks. But for 45 years, the tidy, crisply run Plaza, at the north end of the University Hills Plaza strip mall, has been serving up overstuffed deli sandwiches and good matzo ball soup and nice plates of whitefish and bagels loaded with cream cheese to Denverites with a deli-food jones. The current owners, Karen and Michael Weiss, clearly know their way around a Reuben, and their three-egg lox-and-onion omelette is a minor masterpiece. Despite the oft-heard lament that you can't score decent corned beef west of the Hudson, relief is close at hand.

Exhibit A: The "Josey," eight bucks. Of the 24 combination sandwiches listed on the Plaza menu, this has long been our favorite, a harmonious marriage of lean pastrami and chopped liver tucked between three slices of rye bread (or on a bagel or French roll, if you prefer). The peppery jolt of the pastrami contrasts perfectly with the tart creaminess of the chicken livers, and if you know what's what, you'll squirt a little brown mustard and dab some horseradish on for good measure. For the price, the "Josey" is plenty substantial; the Weisses don't stint on the fillings. Smaller children might have trouble lifting the thing, and all but the most satchel-mouthed diner will likely find him- or herself tamping down its bulk to appropriate jaw height. Among the side offers, the potato salad is good, and the coleslaw is even better. Drink a Bud draft.

Exhibit B: The "Colossal," $9. It's no condominium, but there's enough roast beef, pastrami, turkey and Swiss piled on here that it very nearly merits the name. While not exactly kosher, it's a nice combination of ingredients and evidently very popular among Plaza regulars. One recent lunch hour saw six of these beauties emerge from behind the cold case and counter, where the short-order staff, clad in spotless blue Plaza Deli T-shirts, goes about its business with a minimum of fuss and a startling lack of wisecracking. Try this sandwich with a can of Dr. Brown's cream soda or, even better, Dr. Brown's celery tonic.

Exhibit C: Cold beet borscht, $3.50. This is August, after all, and if there's anything more refreshing than a big bowl of chilled, dark-crimson borscht, decorated with a fat dollop of sour cream, we don't know what it is. Save the chicken noodle soup (and the Plaza's justifiably famous beef barley) for February. In midsummer, beet the heat.

Exhibit D: Homemade, hot apple bread pudding, $1.80. Although the Plaza's cheesecake and fruit strudels are pretty fair, this house specialty is nothing short of superb -- especially if you go all out and order a scoop of vanilla on top. Little matter that you're now unable to rise from the recesses of your blue vinyl booth: You didn't come in here for the health plate, did you? If you want bean sprouts, go to Boulder.

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Bill Gallo
Contact: Bill Gallo