Delicatessen fare, which evolved from the culinary traditions of German, Polish, Romanian, Hungarian and Russian Jews, first made an impact in America during the period of immigration between 1882 and 1924. During the '20s and '30s, Kansas City had dozens of Jewish-owned delis that served breads, pickles, pastries, smoked fish and meats.
Barely a handful remain, and the recent Florida import -- TooJay's (6685 W. 119th Street) -- is the only one bearing any resemblance to the famous delis in New York, Miami and Chicago. For one thing, there's sit-down service and three meals a day. (In fact, the restaurant recently expanded its breakfast hours, now opening at 7 a.m. on weekdays.) That said, I still think the decor is blah. ("It's hideous!" screams my friend John Hastings, who notes that "everything, even the fabric on the booths, is synthetic.") And the service, mostly from dim-witted teenagers, is borderline zombie; I once asked a spotty-faced waiter for a napkin, and before he walked away he looked at me as if I'd told him to name the capital of Algeria.
But after a recent visit to New York City and three meals at three different delis, including the bustling and legendary (but none-too-tidy) Carnegie Deli (854 Seventh Avenue), I decided that maybe the squeaky-clean, suburban TooJay's needed a follow-up visit. And you know what? The crispy, crunchy potato pancakes at TooJay's were better than those at Carnegie Deli (although they could use more onion, lots more). And the matzo ball soup at TooJay's, made with real vegetables and chunks of chicken, is vastly superior to the watery, hideous swill of the same name served at Ben Ash Delicatessen (857 Seventh Avenue).
I asked a couple of native New Yorkers whether they agreed. Bronx-born David Herbet, now a Kansas City resident, hedged slightly. "Well, I will say that I'm happy that there's a place like TooJay's here. It's the only place I can find bialys like the kind I grew up with. The matzo ball soup is pretty good, and I love the whitefish salad. But not everything is as good as in New York."
Former New Yorker Lauren Ginestra Helmstetter makes her husband, Carl, bring back pastrami sandwiches and carrot cake from Carnegie Deli when he goes to New York on business. She's also been to TooJay's and says "the sandwiches are so-so, but I like the whitefish salad a lot. And I wish the potato pancakes weren't so greasy."
But Kansas Citians like greasy potato pancakes, I've discovered. They like their french fries that way too.
And on the subject of things French, Megan Sparks says she's convinced that Aixois, the bistro she's opening with her French-born husband, chef Emmanuel Langlade, will be open this week, at least for lunch.
The restaurant will specialize in classic French sandwiches, such as the croque monsieur (the world's most upscale ham and cheese) and the croque madame, which includes a fried egg.
"Emmanuel has created lots of great salads too," says Sparks, "including a salad lyonnaise."
And at least one of Aixois' waiters will be familiar to fans of the downtown scene. Actor John Luongo has flown off from Zin and landed in Aixois. But don't you dare call him a French fly.