According to David Sax, author of Save the Deli (published in October by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), Chicago at one time had the majority of the kosher meat deli producers in the country. Which makes it all the more puzzling that, as he put to me, "deli never permeated the culture here." There's of course Manny's Coffee Shop and Deli (1141 S. Jefferson, 312-939-2855), the old-school cafeteria whose corned beef, latkes, and brisket have kept it going for 67 years now. I went in search of other holdouts and found that in addition to the remaining Jewish delis, there are a lot of delis that reflect only partly or not at all the tradition of the Ashkenazi, the European Jews responsible for the bill of fare you'll find in many classic New York delis.
Kaufman's Bagel & Delicatessen (4905 W. Dempster, Skokie, 847-677-9880) is among the last of a dying breed of triple-threat grocery store/bakery/sandwich shop combos, with a well-stocked cooler, racks of dry packaged goods, a separate annex for baked goods, and scattered tables with a small window counter where you can sit to nosh. Gregarious owner Arnold Dworkin passed away in December, but his wife, Judy, and daughter, Bette, are still running the place. There are four types of corned beef: supertrim, lean, regular, and deckle, the fatty brisket end—which is definitely what you want if you like flavor. Salami comes in soft, medium, and hard, the soft being the youngest and the hard being the oldest, possessed of the densest texture and deepest, most concentrated flavor. There are even two types of house-made pickles: old, which having been brined longer are more salty and garlicky, and new, which are crunchier.
Open since 1938, the Original Frances' Deli (2552 N. Clark, 773-248-4580) is even older than Manny's. But though it offers corned beef, pastrami, and a few other traditional Jewish items, it trades more heavily in omelets and a range of treyf (unkosher) meat-and-cheese sandwiches and burgers. Frances' does offer fried matzo, which is one of those haymish (homemade) offerings that attests to roots that go deeper than might be suggested by the current business model.
Don't be daunted by the unsmiling, uniformly blond Eastern bloc women manning the deli counter, ladling galompki (cabbage rolls) with grim efficiency: Kasia's Deli (2101 W. Chicago, 773-486-7500) has been a Ukie Village landmark for 27 years, and owner Kazimiera Bober has proudly served her pierogi to presidents (Clinton), mayors (Daley), and domestic divas (Martha Stewart). Her deli offers tasty pork sausages and other staples of non-Jewish Europe.
The word delicatessen entered the language through German, and Chicago has had some excellent German delis as well. The venerable Kuhn's Deli (749 W. Golf, Des Plaines, 800-522-9019), established in 1929, used to be on Lincoln but moved to Des Plaines some 20 years ago. And this is the pattern: delis that were once an urban phenomenon have followed shifting demographics to the suburbs, where some of the finer delis can now be found.
Bergstein's NY Delicatessen (200 Dixie Hwy., Chicago Heights, 708-754-6400), for example, is owned and operated by Michael Mesirow and Bill Davis, both former countermen at Kaufman's. When they were in high school at Homewood-Flossmoor, Mesirow and Davis used to help with "lox box fund-raisers" for B'nai B'rith, delivering items like smoked salmon and bagels to people's homes in exchange for contributions. After college the two started Chicago Brunch Box Delivery Service, providing much the same service for straight-up payment. From there, with financial help and business guidance from Harris Davis, Bill's dad, they began planning a deli that Mesirow describes as something akin to Kaufman's: a sandwich shop, but also a place where you can buy a few pounds of this or that to bring home and eat later. The plan was always to be more than a sandwich shop.
Firmly in the New York deli tradition, Bergstein's—which is named after Harris's mother—purchases fish from well-known suppliers like Acme in Brooklyn and Banner of Coney Island. "There is no better salmon salad anywhere," Mesirow says. The menu reflects time-honored Ashkenazi preferences: Sweet-and-sour cabbage soup, one of several offered daily, is made from the recipe of a family friend, and it's a big favorite. The delicate fried knishes here enfold fluffy whipped potato; the kishke, a delectable blend of grain and beef fat, is sourced—like so many deli sausages in Chicago—from Romanian Kosher Sausage Company (7200 N. Clark, 773-761-4141).
Davis says customers who don't know deli can "get a little freaked out" when he describes the composition of a kishke, and Sax recently told me an anecdote about a radio interviewer who took one bite of chopped liver and spit it out with what he described as a "yuck, what's that?" look. For those types, Bergstein's offers green salads.
Plus: Nosh Time
Nine more delis and bagel bakeries
14 S. Wabash | 312-214-4282
AMERICAN, KOSHER/JEWISH/DELI | BREAKFAST, LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: EVERY NIGHT TILL 11
The sole city location for this otherwise suburban deli chain. The cavernous dining room is filled with Loop workers and students for lunch; dinner attracts theatergoers and those seeking an after-work nosh or quick takeout. While the food—matzo ball soup, corned beef, chopped liver, and other deli standards—doesn't break any new ground, it's satisfying. Portions are generous; deluxe sandwiches teeter with meat and trimmings and are served with pickles, coleslaw, and your choice of soup, fries, or a potato pancake. —Martha Bayne
12 E. Cedar | 312-944-5006
KOSHER/JEWISH/DELI | BREAKFAST, LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS
The deli's menu says "Push your way to the front of the line by calling ahead!" I hardly ever do that—my lunches are usually hasty, spur-of-the-moment events. But then on a couple stops at Ashkenaz the deli was busy and the wait was slightly longer than expected. Luckily, the food made up for it. The first time I opted for the pastrami-and-turkey sandwich. It was packed with meat, enough for two meals. The second time I got a combo—a corned beef sandwich, matzo ball soup, and three-bean salad—and added a cheese blintz for good measure. All were tasty and fresh. But one day I had to run some errands during my lunch break. So I called ahead and ordered a box lunch: pastrami sandwich, chips, brownie, pickle, coleslaw, and a fruit cup. Along the way I bumped into an old friend. I was a few minutes late, and a staff member chuckled when he saw me. But the sandwich still tasted fresh. —Michael Marsh