There's something special about New York City water that gives bagels, breads and cured meats a texture and flavor that New Yorkers know and love, agree Al and Tory Belsky, owners of New York Deli News. And as big as the city is, there may be even more New Yorkers living outside the five boroughs -- which means that while you can boil bagels in Denver or cure corned beef in Florida, the millions of New Yorkers spread across the United States will know the difference. That's why the Belskys opened their deli in Denver 25 years ago: to bring a true taste of New York to this city.
Not just a taste, actually. Almost everything that gives the menu its East Coast appeal comes "trucked from New York," as Tory Belsky puts it. But then, they came from New York, too. Al's family owned a restaurant called the Fashion in Manhattan's garment district (a framed menu still hangs on the wall of the Deli News), where Al learned about the restaurant business and New York's iconic foods. The same private-label meat company that supplied the Fashion when it opened fifty years ago now makes corned beef and pastrami for the Belskys' Denver eatery.
That meat company once tried to open a second processing plant in Florida, but the cured meats lacked character, so they tried shipping New York water to Florida. It worked: The corned beef and pastrami were perfect. But the cost of shipping the water proved to be more expensive than just delivering the cured meats from New York. What worked for Florida works for Colorado, too, Tory says: Their meat is cured in New York City and shipped here a few times a month. "Our bagels and rye and pumpernickel breads come in from New York par-baked," she adds. "We bake them off every day. That way we get the flavor of New York and the freshness needed."
The kitchen slices the meat thin and still warm from the steamer and piles it high on those breads, starting at $10.50 for sandwiches, on breakfast plates with eggs for $11.95, and on a monster of a dish called the Stage: two fat potato latkes heaped with pastrami and corned beef and draped with Swiss cheese. At $17.95, it will easily feed two people, with enough left over for breakfast.
Of course, the Deli News is more than just a deli; open every day of the year, it's almost a second home for many loyal customers. "We must have hundreds, thousands of regulars," Al says. "We bump into them on airplanes, at Disneyworld, [on vacation] in Scottsdale." Because the Belskys want to give customers what they want, their menu has grown over the years, with dinner entrees ranging from stuffed cabbage ("Aunt Ruth's famous recipe") to a roasted half chicken to grilled liver and onions.
Although the New York Deli News lives up to its name, some Colorado has rubbed off over the years. "Everything tastes better with green chile," Al says, so the kitchen serves it by the bowl and over breakfast burritos for weekend brunch. Over time, they added more salads to the lineup and "even avocados -- we fought that one," he jokes.
In the summer of 1989, when the Deli News opened, customers wanted a real New York deli experience so badly that the kitchen ran out of food after two days. That pace kept up through much of the summer, but after Labor Day, business dropped significantly. Restaurants open with lots of buzz, Al says, "but when that buzz wears off, you have to figure out how to be a real restaurant." That's when the Belskys realized they had a commitment to hiring and training staff properly, giving them responsibilities that they could handle and treating them with respect.
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Over 25 years, a restaurant becomes a part of the community, and its influence can be felt beyond the dining room. Al, who feels like a dad to many of his 48 employees, has friends in other Denver businesses and tries to help staff members with figuring out mortgages and making financial decisions and big purchases. He talks about an employee who bought a new car with a high interest rate attached: Belsky called the dealership owner and got the rate reduced. Such personal attention is one reason that employees stay. "We have staff who have been here ten, fifteen, twenty years," says Tory. "They feel safe here."
The Belskys have also had an impact on the neighborhood and businesses around them. A few years ago, during the low point of the Great Recession, the federal government was giving out infrastructure grants for city and state road improvements. The Colorado Department of Transportation was making improvements on major thoroughfares around Denver, but Tory thought that plans for a raised median in the middle of Hampden Avenue sounded like more of a threat to businesses on the street than a needed improvement. She looked into CDOT's accident statistics and determined that most of the reported accidents were low-speed collisions in area parking lots, not out on Hampden itself. So she took six months off of work at the restaurant to fight the proposal -- and won. It wasn't so much that the median was a bad idea, she explains, but the construction project would have been disastrous for businesses along the busy road -- and not just hers.
The Belskys believe in tradition and staying power, and they aren't too impressed with new restaurants that "serve one little ravioli on a big plate," as Tory puts it. When they have time to dine out, they prefer longtime Denver stalwarts like the Blue Bonnet and Brewery Bar II for Mexican, Armando's for Italian, Peter's Chinese Cafe on 12th, and an occasional splurge at the Palm. But most days you'll find them at their own restaurant, which keeps them as busy as they can handle.
The Deli News caters events as far away as Wyoming, Colorado Springs and Pueblo, so even mid-morning, when the dining room isn't full, there's a constant stream of boxes and bags headed out in vans to various events and business lunches around the Front Range. Al is still answering the phone at the host stand, and Tory, with a broken leg, sits at a table surrounded by mail and invoices. ("It won't kill me," she says with typical New York nonchalance.) After a quarter-century in the business (a half-century, if you include Al's time at the Fashion), that kind of dedication is what it takes to keep a restaurant moving through the ups and downs.
That, and whatever's in the water.