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Family recipes integral to City Deli's lasting success

Sunday mornings are sacred to me -- not in a religious way, but because of the sense of tranquility and peace that I feel upon awakening. It is a day when I have no obligations. I have no appointments to keep, no deadlines to meet. I can loll around in my warm-up, read a massive newspaper and just relax. This is "my time."

Until I hear the rousing, stirring call to action. "Where do want to go for breakfast today?"

That is my other Sunday morning tradition: Going out for a good, delicious, leisurely breakfast, where I may savor a perfectly prepared omelet while browsing the headlines. City Delicatessen, in Hillcrest, is a frequent destination. The ambiance is comfortable and the food is delicious. It is the one of the few places where I'm willing to "disturb the peace."

City Delicatessen, or "City Deli" (as it is affectionately called), and I go back a long way. The restaurant has been in business for 22 years. I've been a frequent customer since almost day one. To me, over the many years, City Deli has always exemplified the best qualities of a traditional deli.

Alan Bilmes and Michael Wright, partners in Montreal, trekked south to San Diego so long ago in search of better opportunity and warmer weather. They brought with them the great traditions of Montreal smoked meats to the "deli" they created.

The term "deli" is actually a shortened form of the word "delicatessen" and is used notably when referring to a "Jewish deli". Other similar businesses use the entire word, such as "German delicatessen or Italian delicatessen." The word itself is derived from German and means "delightful things to eat."

A deli usually features both eat-in and take-out dining as well as a selection of packaged goods for purchase. The range of products, though, is much smaller than a traditional grocery store.

Delis have thrived for more than 100 years, often in small downtown stores in densely populated urban centers, where local neighborhood workers stopped for a quick meal or to pick up something to take home. Some delis developed great reputations for preparing their meat and other dishes, even pickles, in unique ways, with special tastes. There were the Lower East Side delis, the Manhattan delis and the Brooklyn delis, with distinctive styles and dishes. For example, Katz's Deli and Second Avenue Deli in different sections of New York taste differently and both are famous. Visitors to Los Angeles often lunch at Canter's Deli on Fairfax, hoping to catch sight of a star on a break from the nearby television studios, while enjoying West Coast flavors. Montreal has its famous deli, Schwartz's, with its distinctive smoke meats.

The food at City Deli is scrumptious. Many of its menu items are not the usual fare of family restaurants. Kreplach, potato latkes, knishes and stuffed cabbage are a few of the ethnic items that have penetrated our broad culture. You don't have to be Jewish to enjoy them. Many are made using old family recipes that have served the test of time. Family member and manager Sandi Perl declared, "Stuffed cabbage is one of the favorites here. We use my mother's recipe that gives it a wonderful sweet and sour taste." The deli's pastrami sandwich was rated as one of the best in the city.

City Deli has been a personal lifesaver for me. Every time I feel a cold coming on, I stop by for "Chicken in the Pot." This is a large casserole dish that is filled with steaming, fragrant liquid. Potato, carrots and celery float in the soup, fighting for space with a huge matzo ball and a half chicken. The soup is not too salty, a common failure in other restaurants. The chicken is big, plump and juicy. The matzo ball is light, and the aroma of the chicken soup alone could restore one to health.

Desserts are a special feature at City Deli. A display case near the front door is positioned to tempt diners as soon as they enter. Shelves with rugalach, homontaschen and other delights lie there seductively. On Fridays, special Challah for the Jewish Sabbath are stacked on top of the counters. Breads and desserts are made by Tom Adams, a popular local pastry chef who once owned his own bakery in El Cajon. His cakes and cookies are legendary.

There is a full bar and a huge jukebox crammed with 1950s songs. One can even play songs from the table, using a system that must have been rescued from a diner of that wonderful time. An outdoor patio allows relaxed dining while watching interesting Hillcrest pedestrian traffic.

City Deli is a fun, casual dining experience where the good food and inexpensive prices create customers out of visitors. It is delightful on Sunday mornings or anytime. City Deli is located at 535 University Ave. in Hillcrest. Call 619-295-2747 for reservations.


Rottenberg is editor of Dining San Diego Magazine and member of the California Restaurant Writers Association. Send comments to the editor@sddt.com. All letters are forwarded to the author and may be used as Letters to the Editor.

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