My Last Meal at The 2nd Ave. Deli

I know I’m late to the game, but for those who may have missed it: The 2nd Ave. Deli is no more. This is very sad for several reasons: (1) the place had character; (2) the place was old, a landmark, a living relic; and (3) it had the city’s best chicken soup, coleslaw and challah bread.

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That’s a picture I took on an early visit there in October, 2004. I’d since returned several times, semi-religiously, as a way to fend off an oncoming cold. Some people believe in Coldeez, I believed in the 2nd Ave. Deli. Now I share Michael Stipe’s pain when he sings about losing his religion.

That’s me in the corner. That’s me at the 2nd Ave. Deli the last time I visited, just a few weeks before I learned of its demise. As a way of preserving the past, I’m going to try to recreate for you–using the 2nd person (oooh!)–the experience of eating there, with some James Frey flourishes for dramatic effect.

You walk to the silver doors underneath the blue archway.

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You immediately notice the sign announcing a reward to find the killer of the deli’s original owner, Abe Lebewhol.

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You go inside and in the vestibule there’s a section of the Automat mounted, museum-style, on the wall. You go through another door and there’s the host stand, angled to the left, and sometimes a crowd of people, certainly a crowd of people to your right lining up to buy overpriced slices of meat. (Once I went and an old Jewish woman accosted me outside: “X.99 a pound for turkey? That’s outrageous! Why do I keep coming back?”)

The host or hostess (usually a smily Jewish woman with black curly hair) asks you how many and you say one. You’re offered the table–my personal favorite–right near the door, with a large window behind you. You sit and study the menu, which overwhelms you at first with the options and the prices.

Then a grizzled old man with tufts of white hair shuffles over to your table. He calls you Sonny. “Sonny,” he says, “What are you having?”

You tell him you want: soup and half a sandwich. Matzoh ball soup and half a pastrami sandwich. “On rye?” he asks. “Of course,” you say.

“Anything to drink?” he asks looking up, eyebrow arched. “Dr. Brown’s Black Cherry,” you answer with flair as it’s the soda of choice for Jewish deli-dwellers since the first pogroms in the early part of the 20th century.

“Thank you, Sonny.” He shuffles away.

A busboy comes with a glass of water, a plate of challah, coleslaw and pickles:

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The 2nd Ave. Deli was mighty generous with its pre-soup offerings. And the coleslaw, as stated earlier, was the best in New York. Why? Bad coleslaw is saturated with mayonnaise; great coleslaw is spiked with vinegar, tart and peppery, and–most importantly–crisp to the tooth. The 2nd Ave. Deli’s coleslaw was all these things: I’d never eaten a brighter coleslaw. The Mayor of Coleslawland should keep the flag permanently at half mast now that the 2nd Ave. Deli is gone.

Your waiter returns with a large white bowl studded with noodle bits (not long strandy noodles, but chopped up bits of noodle), carrots and a matzoh ball. He then pours the chicken broth on from a silver server, which swishes the city’s best chicken soup to life.

What made it so great? The soup had honesty, the soup had integrity. It wasn’t the hypersaturated cosmic yellow of the Carnegie Deli’s, or the watery, muted yellow tastehole of Katz’s. [Haha, I just coined that term: tastehole.] The 2nd Ave. Deli’s chicken soup was brimming with life, with the melted spirits of happy Jewish chickens enlivening the broth that felt so good on your cold winter lips. Soup, in its basest form, is flavored water. But the soup at The 2nd Ave. Deli transcended this, it was its own thing–its own substance–pure as mother’s milk and served with far less guilt.

I mourn the loss of this chicken soup, though I reckon I can recreate it with the 2nd Ave. Deli cookbook. It won’t be the same. I need that shuffling waiter, the throngs at the counter, the waxy waitress with her hair in a painted brown-red bun. I need people who look like Rob Reiner and Nora Ephron, talking loudly and haggling with their waiter. “You charged me for an extra soda.” I need paper placemats and lemon in my water. I need the 2nd Ave. Deli but it’s no longer there.

It will be missed.

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