"We are absolutely a deli," affirms Jeffrey Yates, Deli Manager at Siegi's Sausage Factory. In true deli fashion, they hand-make as many products as they can.
Authentic big city delis are hard wired into America's past. But as generations come and go, old world-family-owned delis are slowing disappearing into the American landscape. They're being revived on various levels, though, some fairly close to the original concept, others only in name and some even misnamed.
Old-world delis in America have a rich history beginning in the early 1800s. Italian, German, Polish, and Jews immigrated and settled in cities of the Northeast, such as New York City, Brooklyn, Chicago, Philadelphia and Boston in order to flee persecution, illness and difficult living conditions. Soon after moving, they began to establish themselves in those cities doing very well what at what they knew very well: prepare homemade foods.
Eating, certainly, is something we all have in common and these cultural delicacies were literally being gobbled up by the working class masses who were hard at work building America.
Family-owned delis began popping up in various ethnic communities, making their way west to places such as Detroit, St. Louis, Portland, Los Angeles and even Tulsa at the turn of the century. The culinary diaspora reached every corner of America's heartland.
As a child my world was part of this delicatessen history. My father, a first generation Polish-American from Buffalo, N.Y., grew up in a close-knit Roman Catholic Polish community of Polish delis. He left this "little Poland" neighborhood/world in his late teens to pursue a pro baseball career. Making his way west by southwest to Tulsa, he married and began a family here.
After school at downtown's Holy Family Cathedral School, we were often treated to homemade goodies at a little Jewish deli at 11th & Main, the New York Delicatessen. At this deli, we would purchase such traditional fare as bagels (real ones, crispy on the outside; tender and soft on the inside), cream cheese, pastrami, corned beef, pastrami, salami, Jewish rye bread, challah (egg bread, my favorite), dill pickles, cheeses, smoked trout--and for a special treat, Mr. Bland, the owner, would slice little squares of halvah for us kids. We would get just enough food for a few days' eating and then return next week for more. Often, we would take home a few sandwiches, fully prepared right there in front of us behind the counter on rye and pumpernickel baked on the premises.
Old world deli food was Polish/Jewish home cooking: kielbasa, muenster and Swiss, lox, horseradish, kishka, tongue sandwiches, Reuben sandwich, dill pickles, gefiltefish, matzos, cheesecake made up the typical selection behind the counter. Lunchmeats and sausages were homemade, cut, cured and packed on site, no doubt with little government oversight. Carnegie Deli, Katz's Deli, Lindy's Delicatessen, Canter's Deli and 2nd Avenue Deli are a few of the originals that remain today in New York City.
Recently an Urban Tulsa staffer noticed the "Delicatessen" listing in our Cuisine Scene appeared to be one of the most lengthy of any among the foods genre. We questioned the listing and began wondering if a new definition of "deli" weren't in order.
It's true, the concept has evolved to the point one would have to search long and hard to find a true representative of what a deli was originally.
(Actually, we did find at least one "true" deli in town.) But term itself survives as an evolved form as sandwich shops have proliferated in the wake of the fast, vast fried food wasteland.
Healthy eating, healthy options and selectivity have allowed the "new delis" to capture the attention and tastebuds of a demanding public.
A definition is in order. "Deli" stems from the Latin adjective delicatus meaning "giving pleasure, delightful." According to the Webster's New World dictionary, deli is short for "delicatessen," which is of German etymology, meaning "delicacies" or "delicious things." In this context, the term not only describes the place, but also the many "delicacies" sold within.
What's in a deli?
Many Tulsa establishments call themselves delis, but aren't; some are not called delis, but are.
Today's deli varies by ethnic diversity and by region, but do hold a few concepts in common, such as sandwiches being made to order right in front of the customer at the time of sale behind a counter. Today, an expanded deli menu consists of prepared salads (pasta, chicken, tuna, potato), precooked dinner and lunch meal items, cookies, cakes and other desserts.
Jason's Deli, Ella's Deli, Dilly Deli, McAlister's Deli, Felini's Cookies & Deli, Schlotzsky's Deli, Boston Deli Grill & Market, Margaret's German Restaurant & Deli and Siegi's Sausage Factory & Deli all carry the name, but the latter is one of the best examples of the original in town.
Siegi's is the closest place to the delis of old. "We are absolutely a deli," affirms Jeffrey Yates, Deli Manager at Siegi's Sausage Factory, 8988 "J" S. Sheridan Road. In true deli fashion, they hand-make as many products as they can.
"Sausage, lunch meat, fresh sandwiches, side salads and other prepared foods. We get people who come and tell us that Siegi's is the closest place they have found that are like the places in Chicago, New York City and Europe," Yates said. He added that Siegi's is a place where people come to shop for fresh goods to be used the next day or two, which is common in Europe and other big cities rather than "stocking up" at megastores.
That seems to fit the deli definition, but from the perspective of Tuck Curren, owner of Biga and Local Table, it is likely authentic delis from the turn of the century would not survive today. "Things evolve and as much as we might like the nostalgia of the delis, they probably would not fly today," he said. He added that today's definition of a deli has to be expanded a bit to get people to come in.
Tuck and his wife, Kate, who manages Local Market (next door to Local Table, a little store selling restaurant items all cooked, ready to be heated and served), grew up in a neighborhood where delis were the norm.
"I'm from Westchester, but my wife grew up in Queens. There was a deli on every corner, and you could just walk to one at any time," Curren said. "That's where we went as kids to get sandwiches--prosciutto, mortadella, turkey, ham and meatball sandwiches. Here you have to drive everywhere you want to go, and it is not the same."
What are deemed "delis" today in Curren's eyes are so big that they lose their ambiance. He recalled that in New York delis, part of the fun is people waiting in line--five people deep--to order in these small-footage charcuteries.
Curren prepares deli meats with his antipasto platter and for catering gigs at Biga's -- ordering the items from New York and Italy -- which include prosciutto, Tuscan salami and mortadella. Local Market aligns somewhat with today's delis, he said, in that foods sold are fully prepared, such as rotisserie chicken, and ready to go home with you to eat.
The New Model
If one seeks them out, Tulsa has a number of deli-like establishments, found in all shapes and forms, and with their own histories. Impressions Restaurant (507 S. Main) is a Tulsa mainstay, serving very popular hot and cold sandwiches, soups, salads and desserts since 1978. For 21 years, Impressions was located on 15th & Lewis; Owner and cook Tom Butcher also had PizzaDotTom briefly in the Brady District. Now, he is in his ninth year in the downtown location -- with the same 15th Street menu. He has a good insight into the Tulsa sandwich shop/deli landscape and has his own family history in the restaurant business by following in his father's footsteps in the restaurant and grocery business. From his perspective, a deli is where you take a number, stand in line together with others and place the order; then, the person who took the order yells it to someone else and then you pick up your meal. Most places called delis today are too institutional, he said.
"Impressions is not really a deli," he admitted, "but we are one step away from being a deli." He cites Perry's Food Store as a prime example of a deli food market with meat, sliced or whole, and sandwiches. It also has grocery food market items for sale, too.
He describes deli food as fresh--not pre-packaged, pre-made, out-of-a-can stuff. Impressions does fit that description. He comes into work each day by 6am to prepare food from scratch. By way of example, he said the beans for the chili are soaked overnight and boiled the next day; the soups have any number of steps to them as part of their preparation. He is quick to say he does not open cans for his soups. Cases of green leaf and romaine lettuce come in to be "washed and hand torn each day." In addition, he roasts his own turkey, prime rib and roast beef. He makes and bakes his own pies, all the way down to making his own pie crust and cream/custard filling from scratch. He credits his mom for teaching him how to make them more than 32 years ago, but his carrot cake is his grandfather's recipe.
He said when people step up to order at Impressions, he and his staff will ask the important questions: "How do you want it?" meaning what type of meat, bread, mustard or mayo, lettuce or tomato, onion, etc. for a sandwich. Customers can order off the menu or special order any sandwich. They do have corned beef for an authentic deli sandwich, but the best selling sandwich is prime rib.
Many delis today, such as Jason's Deli, various locations around T-town, called "The Deli Restaurant Since 1976," is very much menu-driven, and more of a sandwich shop than a deli. Their menu has a "Build Your Own" section, where customers can order custom-made sandwiches found in true delis such as hot, corned beef and hot, New York style pastrami, and frankly, they are very good eats. Still, that's where the likeness ends. Jason's does not sell "delicacies" to take with you, such as a pound of pastrami or corned beef -- not like you can at Siegi's or Dilly Deli.
Owner Elliot Nelson, together with general manager Dru Titchener and manager Christine Taylor, created Dilly Deli, 402 E. 2nd St., a fanciful deli-restaurant serving breakfast, lunch and dinner.
"We are a full-service deli--sit down, get a meal seven days a week," Taylor said. "We serve mostly sandwiches, and we sell deli meats and cheeses by the pound (such as pastrami, corned beef, salami, mortadella, ham, roast beef and roast turkey, and Muenster, Swiss, White Cheddar, feta, Mozzarella, blue cheese and cream cheese). We do have a deli feel about us."
Most deli-named places today do carry the fixings for traditional deli sandwiches: pastrami, corned beef and salami. Taylor at Dilly Deli points out that they offer mainly hot and cold sandwiches in true deli style, such as the Dragoo: pastrami, Swiss cheese and yellow mustard served on rye; Margie's Rueb: corned beef, sauerkraut and Swiss cheese, served with Russian dressing on rye; and from the "Big Boy Treats" section on the menu, the Jack Daniel: a pound & a half of corned beef and Swiss cheese served on rye ($19.50). This Big Boy is definitely a gastronomical treat with stacked layers of hot corned beef and melted Swiss. Sandwiches here are hearty, meaty and packed with flavor--a very good deli sandwich.
Still, as Scott Smith, owner of Blue Jackalope Grocery & Coffee, 306 S. Phoenix Ave. said, the term "deli" is overused today. And, he makes a good point saying that true delis today -- such as, in New York - make the sandwiches right in front of you to order while you wait.
"Subway is the only place I know of where you can watch your own sandwich being made," he said. But he would not go so far as to say this fast-food enterprise is a deli. Curren would agree with Smith, saying in the Italian neighborhood where his wife grew up, the corner delis would have all types of meat hanging up, and a steam table would have items to make eggplant parmesan sandwiches and meatball wedges right there, with sides such as coleslaw and potato salad.
Smith does not claim to be a deli but said, "(One does get) the old sense of being a local neighborhood place where you can get foods and sandwiches." In the deli spirit, Smith does offer pre-made sandwiches to sell, along with many pre-packaged grocery items from various vendors. He said he prepares a certain number of sandwiches each day, estimating what number might be sold. In visiting his little corner grocery store, there is an old world neighborhood feel about it. This former Church of Christ building (which Smith said opened its doors to worshipers around 1947) still has a church-like feel, with a pew for customer seating and a small wooden sanctuary area--equipped with a trap-door in the floor opening into a baptismal font.
Sandwiches are made with Oroweat bread and served cold. I tried one of his best sellers, the pastrami and Swiss on light rye. This also had fresh arugula (from a neighborhood community vacant-lot garden just across the street). The combination between the arugula and the seeds of the bread blended well with the five or six-layered pastrami. The arugula hit my palate immediately with its piquant urgency. It is a modest sandwich. It also had a fresh slice of tomato, which was also from the community garden.
One of the employees on shift kindly toured me through the place, pointing out the many items on the shelves and in the refrigerator section. I came away with a reused Braum's bag full of things: a few sandwiches; a tiny plastic sealed cup (or "a shot") of Mango pudding; Marukawa Grape and Orange Bubble Gum, made by Marukawa in Nagoya, Japan; and Augusto's Natural Green Sauce (a Made in Oklahoma product of yogurt cheese, Grade A cultured cream, cilantro, garlic, green onion, peppers, olive oil).
Most delis today are actually dine in or carry out restaurants, even if ordering is done at a counter. Felini's Cookies & Deli, 3533 S. Harvard, prepare sandwiches to order, and orders are placed at a counter, but they're prepared in the kitchen to go or to eat in. At Dilly Deli, it is definitely a restaurant feel as a serving staff waits on customers at table. At Lambrusco'z To-Go Deli and Catering Market, 41st & Peoria, customers queue up to order, reminiscent of traditional delis, viewing "delicacies" in the glass counters or ordering from a menu. Still, as owner-cook-manager Nancy Bruce claims, "We are really a pseudo-deli, but we are the closest thing to it."
She said she orders up to 1,000 pounds of deli meat each week to accommodate deli meat sales such as chopped liver (a very traditional deli item), mortadella, salami, pastrami and corned beef. She also sells cheeses, deli salads by the quart, soups, as well as many items in the "Market," such brands as Barefoot Contessa, Nonni's and Stonewall Kitchen.
"Most places called delis today are sandwich shops," Bruce said, "or someone doing home meal replacement (cooking)." Lambrusco'z (a name coined joining her last name with her mom's last name, Lamer) evolved into the "deli" category simply.
"We used a full scale line of Boars Head meats and cheeses. All else evolved from that," she explained, continuing that her evolution of a deli is basically carry-out food, prepared or made on site, such as meats, cheeses, salads, dips, desserts and fresh bread.
She calls Lambrusco'z a Brookside hidden treasure, for it is going on its ninth year at this location and 25 years of business overall.
She said today's deli customers are those who buy dinner for the evening. It is a "walking group of people" she defines as her customers -- mainly residents from the Brookside area. She said many of her customers are "cooks who don't have time to cook" at home.
Lambrusco'z stands true to old-time delis as it prepares fully loaded holiday meals to take home, such as for Thanksgiving. Still, sandwiches remain popular at Lambrusco'z. Reubens and pastrami sandwiches are big sellers, she said.
Bruce, as does Nelson and Taylor at Dilly Deli, offers a bit of a New York deli, serving things synonymous with the famous Carnegie Deli such as cheesecake, shipped in from New York. It's a tall, stately and fantastically creamy in texture and taste, with an unforgettable thick shortbread--like bottom crust.
Carrying quality, brand name meats, cheeses and other delicacies is one thing, but curing meats, stuffing sausage, cutting meats and carrying a fully stocked cold case--with the capability of offering the occasional sandwich--are qualifiers that get your deli in the dill and peppercorn hall of fame.
In Tulsa it's Siegi's, Hebert's Specialty Meats, 2101 E. 71st St., and even Conrow's Fine Meats, 7924 E. 21st, can boast that they, like the delis of years past, make their own products on-site.
Charles McBride, owner of Conrow's, said of the past 38 years, "We are just an old fashioned meat market. We cut the meat like they want it." McBride sells choice meats that he purchases from Iowa dealers. Originally from Chicago, he knows the world of delis first hand as he grew up in a family who had their own meat business. He said, "(Today), there are delis and there are delis."
Many people today think of a supermarket deli as a deli because they are used to shopping at the larger stores, he said, and that's all they know. While obviously not a deli, he does carry deli items, such as spices, sauces and other condiment items. But most importantly, he is proud to say they make 14 different types of sausages right on site.
At Siegi's, customers find out that the store makes its own varieties of sausages -- more than 20 - which are mostly influenced by the central European style, according to Yates. Indeed, there is an old-worldly ambience about the place, with its meat counter and simple product displays with labeling that doesn't quite match up to trendy U.S. graphic standards.
Since native Austrian Siegmund Sumaruk founded the place in 1985, Siegi's has continued the family tradition not into four generations. "Siegi" came to America with his mom and sister in 1965, working in Dallas as a sausage maker and butcher before coming to Tulsa. With recipes dating back to the late 1800s, the factory and deli still prepares fine food with the finest products, natural seasonings and ingredients.
Preparing sausages on site produces some challenges that Siegi's, Hebert's, Conrow's and others encounter. Yates said that the U.S.D.A. maintains a watchful eye on "production" days of their hand-made products by reading more in the paperwork area these days, such as checking the charts for cooking times, temperatures and more, rather than seeing the entire operation.
As in authentic delicatessen form, Siegi's does prepare an array of deli sandwiches, and the menu definitely reflects more: specialty sandwiches, plate lunches, side salads and desserts. Sandwiches can be built from such things as Schinkenwurt, German bologna and pan toasted turkey. Many of the meats carry European labels, such as McAdam, Butlerkäse, Jarisberg, Bergbaron, with Dietz & Watson for local flavor. Important to note, three lunchmeats -- roast beef, pastrami and corned beef are cured at Siegi's to house specifications.
Unlike the delis of old, the sandwiches are prepared in a back kitchen rather than right in front of the customer at Siegi's.
Siegi's Pastrami and Light Rye with lettuce, tomato and mustard is piled high (1/2" or so) with thinly sliced pastrami. A slice of American cheese on this sandwich added a bit of depth. With a little work, a mouth can surround each bite of this large sandwich, experiencing a contrast of textures and tastes, softness of meat and cheese with the crispiness of iceberg lettuce.
In contrast, a hot corned beef sandwich on light rye is most satisfying, especially when prepared with onions, Swiss cheese and mustard. Corned beef is usually brisket seasoned in brine, a strong concoction of salt used for pickling, water and spices such as dill, cloves, peppercorns, brown sugar and garlic. Siegi's corned beef is sliced very thin and has an excellent flavor of spices. This hot sandwich is a classic in the deli sandwich world.
A bit of the old taste
Today's meat markets provide hint of old-world delis--Conrow's, Bruner's Old Time Meat Market, 8013D S. Sheridan; Perry's Food Store, 1005 S. Lewis; Hanover's Meat Market, 1314 E. 41st St.; and Harvard Meats, 3245 E. 15th St.--where all serve fresh meats, sausages, cheeses and a finite selection of food items that go with their meats like old-world delis. Harvard Meats owner/operator Duke Dinsmore follows in his father's 45 years in the meat business with his own 20 years and recent location to midtown.
Dinsmore's business journey started when Whole Foods bought out Wild Oats, where -- at the time -- he was the meat manager. Wanting to go another direction, he seized this opportunity to open his own business.
"We source our product from all over the world, and a great deal of our products are local," Dinsmore said. He admitted that local meats are difficult "to source" for many reasons, the main one being tricky red tape of the state that requires the farmer to sell to stores such as them.
"They require large amounts of insurance usually $1 million or more," Dinsmore said. "This stops many small farmers since it's not usually affordable."
Harvard Meats as he describes it is a small neighborhood meat shop offering a little more than meat: beef, pork, chicken, lamb, bison, deer, goat, kangaroo, rattlesnake, quail and produce such as mild, local farm fresh eggs daily.
Besides fresh meats, he sells lunch meat in a variety of imported brands. Their cheeses, on the other hand, are made in Kingfisher, Okla., by Christian Cheese. While he said he does not consider his place a deli, he carries deli items and hopes in the future to build his business in that direction.
Like Curren's Local Market and Lambrusco'z Market, Stonehorse Café and Market is another good example of where today's "deli" meets and marries into a restaurant and market. Assistant Manager Emily Kelley said, "The Market's concept has always been an integral part of Tim's [owner Tim Inman] concept and though we have always had a market represented in the Stonehorse, our Market has in many ways competed for resources with the restaurant, most importantly, Tim's time and focus."
Kelley described Stonehorse Market as a "boutique market" whose mission is to serve the Tulsa community. Key to this, she said, is the variety of items in the market, from items in a typical grocery store (eggs, milk, butter, fruit, vegetables), but also new and different products (foreign cheeses, artisan breads, café-prepared dips, sauces, frozen meals) that the staff is eager to describe and explain.
Kelley said the Market is "run in a community fashion where everyone brings their best talent forward in product development and/or purchasing." The foundation of all decisions and production originates from a core set of principles. "Aside from the complementary packaged products that are available, our products are fresh, made in-house from scratch with quality products being at the core of our work."
The Market offers many of the menu items from the Café for a customer to take home, heat and serve; also, it offers an excellent variety of cheeses, olives, salads, quiche, lasagna, milk, eggs, fruit, vegetables and fresh meats and fish. Breads are baked daily and often differ for variety's sake, such as traditional ciabatta, country style potato, banana, rye with raisins and walnuts, semolina wheat and many more. There are also a small number of kosher products, such as the kosher chicken breast and the kosher chicken with 40 cloves of garlic.
The more things change, the more these, Tulsa's delis, intend to evolve along a path of natural selection. In fact, Siegi's, the deli most likely to be mistaken for a neighborhood noshery in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, NY, is moving a mile closer to midtown--from 91st St. and Sheridan Ave. to the intersection at 81st. Yates, the deli manager, guarantees that Siegi's "old-world feel" will remain.
And while Siegi's sells various deli-like products, such as pickles, olives, cookies, pastas, coffee, mustards, sauerkraut, and many other -- as Yates said -- "European" items, Yates admitted that they're not a deli in a true sense, even though they use and sell goods that might be found in a deli.
So, next time you turn to the city's most complete source for restaurants and dining options in the pages of UTW and Cuisine Scene, and you notice the length and breadth of the Delicatessens listings, and you suddenly crave a Philly style Rueben, take your pick of Tulsa's finest. And remember, a deli is as a deli does.
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