New York Deli Southside
Years ago, I ate a couple of times at Barney Greengrass, a legendary deli and restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Opened in 1908, it was named for its founder, who was known as the Sturgeon King because his place was famous for that fish and for caviar. It still is, and this is also a great spot to try lox, herring, and other less-costly goodies like bagels and knishes. The writer Ron Rosenbaum, a longtime chronicler of New York splendors, once called the chopped liver served at Barney Greengrass “a supreme achievement of Jewish American civilization.”
In Santa Fe, the closest thing we have to that are the two locations of the New York Deli — the so-called Upper East Side branch on Catron Street and the Southside branch, near the corner of Cerrillos and Rodeo roads. Both have New York roots, hinted at on the covers of their menus, which say, in part, “Family Bakers & Restaurateurs Since 1931.” That’s a nod to Hyman Schwartzberg — the father of New York Deli founder Jeffrey Schwartzberg — who established himself as a bialy maker in New York in the first half of the 20th century.
The Southside deli, a small, functional space next to a Baskin-Robbins, has been in business since 1997. Its menu is big — five densely packed pages — and there are plenty of choices for breakfast and lunch: egg dishes and egg sandwiches, omelets and several kinds of eggs Benedict, pancakes, blintzes, bagels, bialys, New Mexico staples like huevos rancheros and a breakfast burrito, salads, soups, deli sandwiches, heroes, and hamburgers. What you don’t see is much fish — which isn’t surprising, given our landlocked location. So there’s no caviar or sturgeon here, but there is cold-brined salmon, which you can enjoy on a bagel, in a sandwich, or as part of a cream-cheese spread. You can also get fish and chips or a shrimp platter.
I like this kind of food, and I enjoyed much of what I had during two visits, but the Southside deli has a consistency problem. The first trip was for lunch, and I got things off to a Brooklyn-style start with an egg cream — a refreshing fizzy fountain drink that, strangely enough, doesn’t contain any egg or cream. (It’s a blend of milk, chocolate or vanilla syrup, and seltzer water.) Mine was pretty good, as was the cup of matzo ball soup I had with it, which carried a rich taste of fatty chicken broth.
After that I tried the deli’s Italian sub — a big step backward. The cooks take a dense, dull white-bread hoagie roll and slice it through the middle, slathering both sides with pungent mayonnaise and then putting in layers of salami, ham, pepperoni, provolone, lettuce, and tomato. The result is monotonous. This sandwich would benefit from better ingredients — good olive oil instead of mayo, for starters — and a few extras, like roasted red peppers or olives, which would add a variety of flavors. On a brighter note, my friend’s Reuben sandwich — corned beef, Swiss cheese, and sauerkraut on grilled rye — was gooey and good.
During the next trip, for breakfast, we started with a plate of blintzes — folded thin pancakes with a sweet and cheesy filling. Not bad, but the exterior needed more of a brown, savory crunch. I ordered an egg dish called eggs Yucatecos, which consists of two fried eggs and black beans on corn tortillas with green chile, feta cheese, and bananas. This combination, better known as huevos motuleños, is great when it works. But the Southside version of the dish was hobbled by bland ingredients, an overload of feta, and a soggy texture; to make matters worse, an unappetizing puddle of discolored water collected at the bottom of my plate. My friend ordered the Southwest eggs Benedict, which features green chile hollandaise and chorizo — but it was bland, too. There wasn’t enough green chile for that flavor to assert itself and, again, the whole dish was watery.
As I knew I must, I tried one of the deli’s signature offerings: a bagel with Nova salmon and cream cheese. If you order this “deluxe,” you get a substantial meal: a toasted bagel, cream cheese in your choice of flavors (I had the scallion), salmon, tomato, red onion, cucumber, sprouts, kalamata olives, and capers. The salmon was high-quality stuff, and the deli was generous with it. Since I won’t be getting to Barney Greengrass anytime soon, I’ll go back to the Southside deli for this instead.