Recently I’ve been re-reading The Beautiful and Damned. I hadn’t read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s satire about absolute youth and beauty clawing itself to bits in Jazz Age New York for many years, and the last time I read it I didn’t notice the tremendous role that delicatessens and turn-of-the-century Jewish tenement culture plays in the book. The story centers on Anthony Patch, whose decline is marked by two delicatessen moments: one when he tries to make money by selling bonds door-to-door, and is tossed out of a delicatessen for being insanely drunk and trying to sell bonds to the girls behind the counter; the second moment occurs when Patch and his wife, at the lowest point in their lives, buy a dinner of roast chicken and potato salad at an uptown delicatessen.
I might never have noticed all the key pastrami in this great book, except that as I was reading it I was busy visiting Minneapolis’s new Rye, a delicatessen that opened in late November, after months of near-hysterical anticipation in some quarters. Truly, near-hysterical: I received a note from a reader I’d never met informing me that if I didn’t bring him pre-opening previews of the deli he would be insulted, as “the deli means more to me than you’d even think possible. I don’t say this lightly.”
Owner David Weinstein told me that as the restaurant approached its opening days the emotion in the neighborhood was palpable even though, as he told me, “we did no advertising, and tried to keep it somewhat vague on when we were opening.” But when passersby saw the lights on for training nights with servers and cooks, they kept trying to get through the locked doors, coloring with anger when told the restaurant was not yet open. And when the place did open, things got worse. Some 800 people a day stormed into the place, absolutely overcoming the fragile new restaurant’s resources. I went for lunch their opening week and was told there was none to be had, they had run out. I returned for lunch the following week and it was an epic disaster, consisting of chicken broth that tasted like brackish water and “smoked meat,” Rye’s version of pastrami, an utter mess: it was bizarrely hard, like a latex mattress you could bounce a quarter off.
A few weeks later, however, Rye found its footing. I had a smoked-meat sandwich that rivaled the best pastrami sandwiches in town, rich, tender, and robust. Weinstein and chef Tobie Nidetz call it “smoked meat” and not pastrami because they decided to use brisket instead of the traditional navel cut of beef used for pastrami. (Nidetz is a locally famous culinary hired gun who develops restaurants and then hands them off to their owners; locally, he’s created Ike’s and BLVD.)
Rye is mainly a greatest-hits delicatessen. Among those greatest hits is a matzoh ball soup made with homemade-tasting broth full of tender chicken and carrots, and a perfectly chewy, fluffy matzoh ball. The French fries—bun-brown, sea-salt-flecked, and boasting real potato flavor—easily join the company of the best in the city. However, the poutine, the famous dish of Montreal in which fries are covered with cheese curds and gravy, will be Rye’s claim to fame: the gravy tastes rich and real, and with the chopped smoked meat on top it’s so good it’s dangerous. Add a beer from their good little list and there isn’t better junk food in Uptown.
Speaking of Uptown, Rye’s open-faced hot-turkey-and-gravy sandwich paired with mashed potatoes is a worthy successor to the old Uptown Bar’s famous plate, offering flavorful slices of roast turkey burnished by good gravy. I didn’t think much of the burgers or the brisket, which was still seesawing between too chewy and too salty when I tried it. However, the five-dollar kids’ meals are an irresistible draw in a neighborhood with hundreds of kids and not a single kid-friendly restaurant besides the also-brand-new Lowry. My own kids were particularly blown away by the black-and-white cookies (the best I’ve had in town): they’re cake-like, vanilla-scented, and soft, the way they’re supposed to be, instead of being merely a sugar cookie. (Yes, these are the cookie stars of that Seinfeld episode: “Nothing mixes better than vanilla and chocolate. And yet, still, somehow racial harmony eludes us. If people would only look to the cookie, all our problems would be solved.”)
Rye has all but constant hours, serving daily from 7 a.m. until late at night. At breakfast, the challah French toast was exquisitely tender and the Nova lox on bagels was some of the best quality I’ve had in Minnesota. That said, I’m not sure that Rye supplants in my heart the pastrami sandwiches of Mort’s Deli in Golden Valley or Brother’s Deli in downtown Minneapolis, both of which are closer to what I grew up with in New York City. And although it pains me to admit this, I’d much rather have a mass-produced Gabila’s square knish from the frozen-food section of Byerly’s than I would one of the charmingly misshapen, flaky-pastry wrapped knishes at Rye. Why? Because those are what I grew up with! Is that a good reason? Nope, it’s an emotional one. I will, however, go to Rye whenever I want to think about my long-departed Grandma Millie, because her noodle kugel, a sort of rice pudding made with noodles, is exactly like Rye’s noodle kugel, which is not entirely surprising once you learn that this kugel is one of the only recipes that comes straight from Weinstein’s own family archives. Stick a fork in the tangle of noodles, set with a simple blend of egg, milk, and sugar, and pull out a raisin. When I taste it, I can see my grandma, saving her Tetley tea-bags for a second use and stockpiling the hall closet with bars of soap that were once a tremendous bargain, in preparation for the next Depression.
Reading The Beautiful and Damned and eating at Rye was a strangely powerful American experience—if you have the time, I highly recommend it. While reading the book, I was repeatedly struck by the idea that delicatessen was once as cheap as food could get. In my lifetime, it’s been just the opposite: if you want to pay the most you ever will for a sandwich, find a real Jewish deli. What a difference a hundred years makes. Some people ascend the ladder of the American dream, and the flavors go up the ladders too, on their own journeys. Rye is a perfect embodiment of that particular facet of the American experience. One night, I watched three adult men argue passionately about the right way to make an egg cream. For 15 minutes. For them, it was close to their hearts and meaningful, just as it was important to Anthony Patch to never eat an egg cream. With passions running so high, can anyone satisfy them?
A solid corner Jewish delicatessen with astonishingly good fries and gravy, and light-as-a-feather French toast.
Ideal Meal: Poutine, roast turkey with gravy, a microbrew, and a black-and-white cookie for dessert. Tip: Best kids’ meals in Uptown: make it a mom’s happy hour/kid’s dinner. Hours: Open daily at 7 a.m., full menu till 10 p.m., limited menu till midnight. Prices: Most entrées $7-$12. Address: Rye Delicatessen, 1930 Hennepin Ave., Mpls., 612-871-1200, ryedeli.com