In a world of complex, layered and overlapping notions of race, ethnicity and identity, one singular group of people stands out as being particularly particular: New Yorkers.
Theirs is an identity bound not to religion or language but to a monumental physical landscape. Their homeland looms large in the American imagination, even among those who've never wandered its crowded streets. What's true in society at large holds in the world of food, wherein the phrase "New York deli" inspires a range of sights, sounds and smells that rarely vary from person to person.
These images, urban and edible, filled my head as I entered A Flavor of NY Deli at 21st and Cimarron streets. There, real and imagined converged in a large deli case loaded with giant hunks of Boar's Head brand meats and a drink locker stocked with Dr. Brown's and Yoo-Hoo. A smattering of tables, the smell of pickles and a greeting uttered in an inimitable Brooklyn patois confirmed that I had, indeed, walked into a New York deli.
As co-owner Penny told my friends and me about their sandwiches, homemade soups, Coney Island hot dogs, potato knishes and changing daily specials, my eyes settled on a conspicuously unlabeled jumble in the meat case. My heart, mouth, stomach and expectations leapt simultaneously as I recognized it contained custom-cured corned beef. Leapt, perhaps, too high.
In no time, we received a bowl of piping corn chowder. Full of firm kernels, potatoes, bacon and chunks of ham, it still lacked flavor and thickness. Sandwiches came next: two corned beef Reubens and an Italian combo. The corned beef itself was delicious flavorful, warm and unctuous from a healthy quantity of residual fat but the marriage of bread, beef, Swiss and sauerkraut proved to be good, and not great. The burly hoagie laid equal claim to quality components without achieving the synergy necessary to make it truly remarkable.
Last to arrive was the knish, an Eastern European street snack made of lightly battered and fried whipped potatoes. The first bite showed promise, but, having been nuked, the knish turned to rubber almost immediately. It was then that I looked around and realized that a steam tray and microwave constituted the kitchen's only cooking equipment.
Noticing everything was available to go, I returned another day. I bought a pound of corned beef and a frozen knish. I steamed the meat briefly, toasted a slice of A Flavor of NY's outstanding rye bread, and pan-grilled a heavenly sandwich. I also thawed the knish and heated it slowly in the oven, finding it crisp on the outside, soft in the middle and a joy to consume.
None of this is to suggest my superiority over theirs. In fact, it validates the genuinely high quality of ingredients on hand at A Flavor of NY. Missing, in my own opinion, are the tools necessary to bring these together with optimal results. I recognize this may be impossible: Codes are strict, ventilation systems expensive and construction a hassle. Still, I can dream.
For now, I'll be stopping by often to get my corned beef fix to go. Nothing can touch that for hundreds, if not thousands, of miles.
A Flavor of NY Deli
1014B 21st St., 471-4900
Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Sandwiches: $6.25 to $8; deli items $6.99 to $11.95 per pound.