- Walter Novak
- That brisket dip makes fressers of us all.
Three trips to Jack's Deli in University Heights, and we still never got around to ordering the blintzes -- not the regular ones and not even the deep-fried dessert variety. Ditto for the Fresser's Delight, a yummy-sounding pileup of homemade potato pancakes and hot corned beef. Same goes for the beet borscht, the "chicken in a pot," the schnitzel, and the homemade meatloaf, which we could have ordered with noodle kugel or farfel on the side.
On the other hand, even a month of visits might not have been enough to do justice to Jack's giant menu, a killer compilation of breakfast, lunch, and dinner fare that ranges from burgers and hot dogs to such traditional Jewish-deli mainstays as knishes, corned beef, and chopped liver. In the face of this belly-busting largess, we simply did the best we could. That meant revisiting old faves like the tall, toasty Reuben; checking out newbies like the buttery brisket-dip sandwich; and even taking home carryout -- a pair of baseball-sized knishes, one stuffed with seasoned mashed potato and the other with finely chopped corned-beef hash -- for a hearty late-night snack.
In retrospect, though, the real story isn't how many dishes we had to pass over; it's how delicious almost everything we did order turned out. Sure, hindsight says we should have guessed that French toast made with thickly sliced challah -- while stunningly golden and irresistibly fragrant -- would turn out a little dry. But then there was that brisket-dip sandwich, more than good enough to wipe away any memories of minor shortfalls. Even the menu description was mouthwatering: "Hot brisket with melted Swiss [and] grilled onions on grilled thick challah with au jus dipping sauce." And when our server swooned at its very mention, we knew we were on the right track. Sure enough, once the sandwich arrived at the table -- three inches of melt-in-the-mouth beef brisket snuggled down between slabs of toasty challah, with caramelized onion and melted cheese peeking out from every side -- our taste buds began to tremble. Still, none of this entirely prepared us for that first bite: the savory wallop, the tender-crunchy contrapuntal textures, and the dribble-down-the-chin succulence.
Turns out, the brisket dip is also a favorite of co-owner Gary Lebowitz, who runs the 26-year-old business with Alvie Markowitz; the duo took over operations from founder and namesake Jack Markowitz (Alvie's dad) in 1996. Besides having discriminating palates, Markowitz and Lebowitz are also savvy restaurateurs: When it became clear that customer demand was outpacing the deli's capacity, they relocated from South Green Road to crisp, clean, smoke-free quarters on nearby Cedar Road last July.
Today, the sight of spotless deli and bakery cases, and a view of the open kitchen, greet incoming guests with style. Stone floors, plenty of windows, and walls painted in rich earth tones lend contemporary appeal to the bustling dining room, and what that space lacks in intimacy, it makes up for with its energy and verve. The sense of casual comfort is reinforced by the nicer-than-expected flatware and dishes; and while Jack's napkins are paper, servers bring them forth in fluffy abundance.
Which is a good thing, since the towering deli sandwiches -- corned-beef, hot pastrami, and their dressed-up cousins, the Reuben and New Yorker -- tend to become scrumptiously messy affairs. At least four of those thick napkins were sacrificed as we hoovered down a New Yorker, all overstuffed with sheer, tender, but not-too-lean slices of peppery hot pastrami, then slathered with creamy homemade coleslaw and Thousand Island dressing. (Jack's also offers a small selection of beer, wine, and cocktails.)
Soup slurpers, too, should keep a pile of napkins on hand -- especially if they're craving The Whole Magilla -- a veritable vat of intensely flavored chicken broth bristling with noodles, rice, a boulder-sized matzo ball, and a giant kreplach (a ravioli-like noodle dumpling, stuffed with ground brisket, turkey, and egg). Slightly less messy, but equally enchanting were the sleek, slightly sweet, and surprisingly mild cabbage borscht and the creamy, comforting split-pea soup, served with a handful of olive-oil-kissed croutons.
Breakfast is an all-day affair at Jack's, making the lean, meaty corned-beef hash -- topped with two gently poached eggs -- a perpetual temptation; on the side, try the chewy-crisp cottage fries, a dense potato pancake, or slices of sturdy rye toast, made with freshly baked loaves from nearby Pincus Bakery.
And for dessert, what could be more classic than a mug of smooth, robust coffee and a massive wedge of cheesecake, imbued with wholesome dairy flavors? Of course, we are still longing to try those deep-fried blintzes, topped with vanilla ice cream and whipped cream too. Looks like a fourth visit to Jack's is in the cards.