We’re sold on our neighborhood deli

You know the adage in real estate that location is everything, and you’ve no doubt seen spots where one failed restaurant is followed by the opening of another which also fails and then another. It might be a different kind of retailer but a similar pattern. Wrong location is the usual explanation, followed by the question of why anyone is foolish enough to repeat the disaster. Lightning may not strike the same place twice (though certain prominent heights would seem an obvious exception), but business traffic follows a different set of rules. Even one side of a busy thoroughfare might flourish while the same offering on the opposite side withers.

Now for the operation in practice.

A side street near us in our end of town has a charming carpenter-gothic style store we’ve watched undergo a similar sequence.

This unassuming delis sits on Ham Street (I’m not making that up) … two blocks from New York Street, at that. Well, there’s already a Katz’s New York Deli in Manhattan, and it’s famous. The refurbished Woodbury Mill rises behind the parking lot.

 

Back in the day before big supermarkets took over, such mom-and-pop groceries could do a lively small-scale business for a neighborhood trade. Send the kids off to pick up some milk, eggs, and maybe a head of cabbage or bag of flour. By the time we came along, this site was either struggling or posting a For Sale Or Lease sign, one owner after another. Just having bread, beer, and candy plus lottery tickets hardly made for a going enterprise, no matter how charming the setting. We wished them well, all the same, and actually lamented a bit when they went under. Something was obviously missing in the business mix.

And then, maybe five years ago, a new owner took over. We admired his low-cost, aggressive hustle – things like parking a pickup on a busy Central Avenue two blocks away and putting a big sign in its bed to alert passing traffic to his deli if they made a quick turn. It got our attention but not our business, we just weren’t ordering much food out and when we did, it was usually from a great Thai restaurant three more blocks away, a Lebanese takeout next to it, or a nearby pizza house. As for the milk-bread-beer-lottery tix, a chain convenience store sat next to the Dunkin’ Donuts on the big artery, though it too kept changing hands to a 7-Eleven at the moment.

Fast forward, it’s a Saturday afternoon my wife and I are both feeling too whatever to cook, we don’t want to spend much – and pizza is getting pricey – she suggests subs, I say fine but want something more satisfying than Subway.

That’s when she suggests Katz’s, where she had popped in a week earlier to grab a six-pack and was amazed by how great the place smelled. Good sign, trusting your nose. So we look up the menu online, see lots of tempting choices, and phone in an order. I trot off all of three blocks and am nibbling on amazing fries even before I get home. In short, we’re sold.

We can see why the place has taken hold and developed a loyal following. Sometimes we’re slow, OK?

It’s not a franchise chain, definite plus. The food is tasty, very, another plus. Some of the menu pays tribute to earlier occupants of the store, once the Busy Hill Market, local awareness. Breakfast is available all day, smart option, especially considering a lot of college students live in the neighborhood – well, they also likely go for the aforesaid beer cave. The prices are also affordable and the portions, generous.

Two sub orders later, we go for the pizza, and it more than lives up to our expectations. So we now have a new go-to pizza joint, unless we really want to splurge and go for Festa, another story.

Turns out the owner’s from Jersey, so he brings some deli savvy, and he has a great manager from all I see, and a skilled crew. None of these guarantee beating the odds, but we are impressed and definitely like the way it’s changed the neighborhood.

Continue reading “We’re sold on our neighborhood deli”

Even a local ‘soup kitchen’ suffers under Covid restrictions

My Quaker Meeting is part of two local ecumenical groups, one of them providing free twice-a-week community suppers for people in need. Our dinner guests are the homeless, especially, and others living in subsidized housing, but nobody asks questions as we welcome anyone who simply shows up. Each congregation cooks and serves its own menu on a monthly rotation. We Quakers do barbecued chicken thighs, mashed potatoes, and cole slaw, with pulled pork as the previous feature. Hey, it’s yummy and something nearly everyone likes. I love the rare times we have leftovers.

Even though the event is commonly called a soup kitchen, none of us serve soup anymore. The term simply points back to the tradition’s origins. The Methodists do lasagna. The Greek Orthodox do American chop suey and Greek salad. You get the idea.

So when our hosts at the Episcopal church decided to close their hall during the duration of the Covid-19 crisis, a concern for the dinner’s guests led to an exemption. The various congregations could still use the kitchen, but all the food would be takeout, something restaurants were later also ordered to do, while sit-down dining was prohibited.

It’s not the same, of course. We’re getting less than half of the turnout, but many are asking for two meals, to share with others, as well as an extra for the next day. So we’re happily dishing out about the same amount of food.

What we’re really missing is the community interaction. Many of the regulars enjoyed this as a time to socialize without having to spend precious cash on a place to sit. Better yet, this place was free of alcohol. Many would come early and stay till closing time, when an AA group prepared for its own meeting.

Another factor in shifting to takeout is that many of the volunteers are retirees in a Covid-19 susceptible range. Many of them are staying self-isolated, reducing the pool of workers. Usually, with everyone on board, it’s a kind of party, but when everything falls on just a few, things can be stressful. We’ll see.

But I do wonder if that’s what tipped one congregation to call in some caterers. That, or a desire to help our suffering local restaurants, too.

One other influence to consider is transportation. Our region is served by two public bus systems, both of them shut down by the coronavirus, and that may be keeping some of the regulars from getting to the church social hall.

What similar sorts of adjustments are you seeing where you live?

Ten reliable wines in our cellar

Let me tell you, for most of the American public, wine has really improved in the past fifty years. Most of what was available back then, except for snobs and wealthy insiders, was pretty nasty. Thankfully, that’s changed. Yes, definitely.

As for those snobs? The typical Trader Joe’s makes some good stuff truly affordable, just for starters.

Here are ten we like, with the caveat they can vary widely in quality from label to label and season to season.

And, for the record, we prefer dry rather than sweet.

  1. Cotes du Rhones. Lighter in weight than what I’d normally reach for, but oh my, how gorgeously it goes with everything on the table. If I had to limit it to only one, this is it.
  2. Merlot. OK, I like big, chewy red. Lots of body. Especially for that now-once-a-week red meat. I don’t care how much it’s disparaged by some critics. Bless them, they keep the price down.
  3. Malbec. A South American equivalent.
  4. Cabernet sauvignon. Once known as Bordeaux, it’s far outstripped its French confines. Lighter in weight, it’s a red we think goes with nearly everything. Well, maybe not fish. But definitely cheese and crackers beforehand.
  5. Pinot noir. Another notable red, but definitely tricky in the lower price levels. Never mind what the movie says, either. I mean, sometimes Zinfandel does the job better.
  6. Sauvignon blanc. We had one that was truly, marvelously stony. It’s our ideal, our holy grail, should we ever encounter it again. It was a unique year, as we learned later. And it remains our ideal of a white wine.
  7. Prosecco. Look, we love bubbly. And when a daughter discovered this during a semester in Italy, where it was priced like Coca-Cola here, we were soon hooked. Like cava, it’s champagne by any other name. Try it with pizza, if you must.
  8. Rose’. A summer favorite around here. Don’t snicker. An Austrian bottling knocked our socks off, all eight bottles we were able to clutch up.
  9. Good Italian and Spanish varietals. They come in so many varieties we won’t attempt to name them. I’ve come a long way from my ex-father-in-law’s bubbly Lambrusco, though I still harbor a fondness for it, as do my now wife and elder daughter after encountering it in Bologna, along with authentic prosciutto that melts in the mouth.
  10. I’d add Macedonian, but we’ve been able to score just one bottle in New Hampshire before my wife and daughter debarked for that part of the former Yugoslavia republic. As they discovered there, many folks are making great wine in smaller quantities and keeping it home. Heads up, should you chance across any.

~*~

If you notice, there’s no chardonnay on this list. Too much oak, my wife insists, adding if she wanted that, she’d just bite the table.

~*~

What would you add to the list?

 

 

Rolling out the Streetcar

In my novel What’s Left, the family’s signature dish is a sandwich sliced down the top, rather than along the side. Maybe with two slices, rather than one.

It started out as a Cubano but took off on its own. As I recalled, the name was suggested in jest by a comment on the Red Barn way back when, but I’m unable to trace it now. Let me say, if I’m overlooking an inspiration, I’ll be happy to give credit where it’s due.

In the novel at least, it’s a collaborative effort.

Cassia’s uncle Dimitri, with his MBA, is big on marketing and creating a niche appeal. So that’s where we start.

Add his grandmother Maria, from Cuba. Along with his brother, Barney, the master chef. And everyone else in the family, plus a few others.

Can this actually work? How would I know? Maybe if Harry Potter waved a magic wand and uttered some incomprehensible syllables?

But whatever they create sounds heavenly. Wouldn’t you agree?

~*~

The flavor was off in this round:

Few customers would realize we really offer five or six different Streetcars, depending on the season or our supplies. They’re all scrumptious, so nobody as far as I know complains.

~*~

That possibility, by the way, stems from an interview I once read for the chief taster for Chock Full o’Nuts coffee, who had to keep blending whatever beans were available into a consistent taste of java. Why not extend it into a sandwich?

Still, I love the image of creating something distinctive for a rural college town.

Look closely and you’ll see different parts of the country do have unique dishes. It’s not just baked beans in Boston, either. (Anyone else enjoy Indian pudding?) Or special spices, like Old Bay in Baltimore.

Think of seafood, if you live near a coast. Or wild game, if you can. Or even variations on pizza.

What’s a distinctive food where you live?

Ten special diets

These days it seems everyone’s on a restricted diet.

Here are ten of them.

  1. Kosher. This means the historic Jewish restrictions. You know, no ham. But that’s just for starters. And even the plates must be blessed.
  2. Halal. The Muslim equivalent of dietary laws. By the way, Ramadan still sounds like cheating. I mean, what’s the hardship of refraining during the day if you can eat like a pig, uh, beast all night?
  3. Eastern Orthodox fasting.  Food’s allowed, but the options are highly limited. No olive oil, for instance, and no meat. It can be tricky.
  4. Caffeine-free. The Mormon church recently lifted this restriction from carbonated drinks, though it still holds for hot coffee or tea. Some other disciplines, including yogis, also ban it.
  5. Vegan. Or its less restrictive vegetarian alternatives.
  6. Gluten-free or lactose-free or peanut-free. Based on a medical diagnosis, OK?
  7. Healthy Heart. A little broader, largely to reduce cholesterol levels.
  8. Weight-loss. Oh, my, these are endless and ever so trendy.
  9. Alcohol-free. Sometimes as a religious tenet, sometimes as a consequence of addiction.
  10. Hindu. No beef. Those cows are sacred … and sources of milk.

Are you observing any dietary restrictions?

Ten essential cheeses

When I was growing up, cheese in our household was almost exclusively of the processed variety. Some even came out of a jar, like yellow glue. Grandma and Grandpa would have the real stuff – Colby longhorn or a bitter Swiss, mostly. It wasn’t until I was off on my own after college – and in the ashram, especially – that I discovered how marvelous natural cheese could be.

Here are ten favorites.

  1. Cheddar. These days, we rely on Cabot. Mild to sharp, it’s all good.
  2. Calef’s. A general store in a neighboring town makes its own, starting with rat trap but extending into cheddar. The roasted garlic and wasabi variations are special treats here, especially after picking apples.
  3. Mozzarella. Lovely stringiness for pizzas and French onion soup.
  4. Parmesan. Grated on soups, pastas, and salads, of course, but also delightful with eggplant.
  5. Feta. Let’s start on salads for a Greek twist.
  6. Baby Swiss. Especially when made by nearby Amish cooperatives as I learned living in Ohio.
  7. Provolone. Love it on sandwiches, hot or cold.
  8. Gruyere. Uncork a wine, too, and open the crackers.
  9. Gouda. Ditto. With a sliced apple, anyone?
  10. Cream. For bagels and cheesecakes, especially.

What would you add to the list?

Fresh spuds

I stuck two rotting potatoes in the ground and got eight pounds in return.

Not a bad investment, is it?

Well, I stuck them in two old planters with just a covering of soil at the bottom late last spring and kept covering them as the stems and leaves shot upward. Didn’t take long for the entire container to be full. Three or four months later, in early September, the lush foliage went kaput, and it was time for harvest.

Have you ever eaten truly fresh potatoes – the kind picked just an hour or two before cooking? It’s a revelation. Roasted, they’re so creamy and sweet. Melt in the mouth, if you nibble at the oven. By the time they get to the table, they’re getting some firmness … but, oh, they’re still heavenly.

You don’t have to visit Maine or Idaho or even live there to discover what this means.

 

Welcome to the bar

At the risk of being considered a prude, I’ll have to admit I’ve rarely been fully comfortable in a bar. Could it be a reflection on my tea-totaling upbringing? Still, I can think of places I’ve loved to listen to jazz or even read poetry to an appreciative audience.

The developments in my novel What’s Left, by the way, parallel events in at least one restaurant/bar I’ve heard related. And then there is an old church a few towns over that has a respectable history as a launching pad for hot musical acts. I’ve had some memorable musical experiences there, come to think of it.

Back to the book. Nothing seems to escape their notice as they anticipate changing their core business. Here’s how another passage stood in an earlier draft of my novel:

Our Taverna presents its own challenges. Under Papou Ari and Papou Perry, it’s been largely an afternoon refuge for retirees who are joined by tradesmen quitting their shifts. But it’s never developed as a destination for older students or faculty, who have gravitated to an English pub across from our Hoosier Dog House.

Barney senses the Taverna might attract a younger late-night crowd as the original clientele thins out. Plenty of up-and-coming musicians would be eager to play for us if the Taverna stays open later – and, as we discover, stay busy to the end, most nights.

Oh, I’m so glad Cassia stopped talking like this! In the final version, she’s pretty snippy. She really can have a hard-edge reality.

So as we put the Taverna together? What would most attract you to a nightspot – live music, big-screen sports action, the crowd itself, a quiet corner for conversation, a dart board or pool table? Something we’re overlooking? Is there someplace you especially enjoy? Tell me about it, pretty please. Imagine ourselves sharing a drink.

When food opportunity knocks

Among the talent that shows up to work at the family restaurant in my novel What’s Left is a very, very talented baker. As they conversed with him, they could smell opportunity.

Still, these two lines were more than the scene needed:

What can you do here with what we have?

Pierre rolls out a list. We’re impressed.

Oh, I’m so glad Cassia stopped talking like this! In the final version, she’s pretty snippy.

~*~

Let’s just say everyone rose to the occasion. As a result, he started making real French bread to southern Indiana – and a lot more many of us take for granted nowadays.

Of course, the world doesn’t always come to you. When it comes to food or drink, where would you like to travel? Or, for that matter, return?