It's kind of like a Big Apple deli, without hot food.

New York State of Mind 

It's kind of like a Big Apple deli, without hot food.

A friend of mine, a native New Yorker who now lives in Kansas City, has firm ideas of what a delicatessen should offer: "Fresh breads, good meats and cheeses, crunchy dill pickles, matzo ball soup, a grilled Reuben sandwich and a decent slice of cheesecake."

You could throw in bagels and bialys, gefilte fish, lox and knishes. These are the standard delicacies ("delicatessen" is, after all, derived from the German delikatesse) still found in most traditional, kosher-style delis, from New York City's Carnegie Deli and Chicago's Zweig's Deli to Shapiro's Delicatessen in downtown Indianapolis.

If my friend's criteria holds true, Kansas City's venerable New York Bakery and Delicatessen -- which celebrates its 96th birthday this year -- comes close to the mark.

"It's not a deli anymore. It's just a sandwich shop," gripes my friend David, who still rhapsodizes over his childhood memories of the New York Deli as a bustling room with big pickle barrels and "smoked fish with the heads still on them."

But while a new franchise delicatessen, the Florida-based TooJay's (see Mouthing Off, page 42), prepares to serve its own matzo ball soup, overstuffed sandwiches, potato pancakes and knishes in the Kansas suburbs, the New York Deli holds its own. The style of delicacies here mirrors the changing flavor of the neighborhood.

When the bakery and delicatessen's founder, Isadore Becker, moved his business from Kansas City's east side to the freestanding brick building at 70th and Troost in 1942, this neighborhood was considered way out in the suburbs. Today it's an urban scene: A busy lunch shift attracts businessmen in suits, blue-collar workers and cool twenty-somethings in full hip-hop regalia. White, African-American and Asian diners crowd into the little booths on the perimeters of the spacious front room (which still has a smoking section), eating thick sandwiches and little foil bags of Art's & Mary's potato chips. The place lost its kosher certification in 1995 and never attempted to regain it because its core business is no longer the Jewish families who once lived in and around the neighborhood.

"We get everyone now: black and white, rich and poor, all religions and cultures," said Jim Holzmark, who with his wife, Barbara, has owned the New York Delicatessen since 1981.

That's one of the reasons there's no matzo ball soup: "Not very many people were ordering it," Holzmark says. "And matzo balls don't stay fresh very long. It's a difficult soup to keep for long periods."

Fresh is a big deal at this place, where the bakery side of the business has always been its primary focus. The doors open six days a week at 7 a.m., and it's a treat to get there that early, when even the parking lot is fragrant with the aroma of yeasty, just-baked bread and pastries. Inside, the display case is heaped with warm sweet rolls, Danish and glazed cinnamon buns.

I stumbled in sleepy-eyed one morning, unshaven and starving, and wolfed down a buttery sweet pastry covered with almonds and cinnamon. The rolls are light and flaky, drizzled with a bit of sugar frosting and folded around dollops of cherry preserves, pineapple jam or spiced apples. And the New York Deli's bagels have been baked the same way for nearly a century -- no weird flavors like blueberry or pumpkin allowed. If you ask, the person behind the counter will toast your bagel for you and sell you a little cream cheese to go along with it. On other mornings, I'll tear off pieces of a soft, traditional kalatchy (a fat horn of pastry laden with brown sugar and cinnamon) and dip them in my Styrofoam cup of coffee as I watch the traffic rush by on Troost.

Pastries, bagels and coffee are the only breakfast items available at this hour, although you can get a bagel piled with cream cheese and lox -- the price, however, reflects that the item is considered a sandwich (and is constructed in a deli-table-sized area set apart for sandwich-making). At lunch time, two employees are squeezed back there, simultaneously whipping up pastrami and Swiss on rye, spreading chicken salad on wheat and tossing kosher hot dogs on poppy seed rolls into a little microwave.

It's a bustling scene, and there's nothing fancy. The sandwiches are served on waxed paper thrown across a plastic mesh tray. Customers can serve themselves beverages from a soda fountain or pull a bottle of spring water or fruit juice from a glass-paned cooler. The service is fast and friendly, but the place doesn't feel like a delicatessen until you bite into one of the sandwiches.

The "awesome Reuben" -- as it's billed on the sign above the store -- is immense: a double-decker affair piled high on rye bread with luscious corned beef (with the bite of garlic, allspice and mustard), sauerkraut, Swiss cheese and a house-made Russian dressing that's heavy on the relish. It's not served hot, probably because it would be difficult to grill this clumsily oversized sandwich (it's hard just to grip the thing) named for its creator, who was either Reuben Kulakofsky of Omaha's Blackstone Hotel or Arnold Reuben of Reuben's Delicatessen in New York City. And the first one was reportedly toasted, not grilled, even though the grilled sandwiches taste better.

In another time and place, there would have been a grill at the New York Deli. As it is, all of the sandwiches are cold (unless you ask to have one put in the microwave). The chicken salad is among the better ones, even though there's a bit too much cabbage and mayo (it tastes as if cole slaw might have been a primary ingredient), while the tongue is a little chewy and gamy (mustard helps). But the chubby, juicy kosher hot dogs are delicious, even without condiments.

So there weren't any matzo balls, but there was a rich, soothing cheesecake, cut in an unglamorous square from a big rectangle tray in the display case and served on a sheet of waxed paper with a plastic fork. I lingered over every crumb.

These are the delicacies that the New York Bakery and Delicatessen has been selling since it moved to this location. In the 1940s, the Kansas City directory listed 67 delicatessens (including the Milwaukee Deli, the Chicago Deli and the Cincinnati Deli). Only a handful of real delis remain today -- and I'm not counting the ersatz "deli counters" at supermarkets, where presliced meats and cheeses are drying out in the refrigerated cases. Or the glorified "subway" shops, which don't know the difference between salami and sauerkraut.

The New York Bakery and Delicatessen is less New York than the name implies, and it would be fabulous if more interesting hot foods were available. But as a comfortable neighborhood place to gather for a thick sandwich, a soda and a smoke, it's one of the last of its breed. And if the place isn't as new, hip or stylish as its Johnson County rivals, who gives a knish?


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