Last week Nancy Nichols published a post on Side Dish that pondered the state of New York-style delis in Dallas. Nichols collected a few comments from a previous article on the recent closing of Gio's Café and New York Deli. Those comments offered some theories on why delis haven't worked here in the long term.
I will now disassemble both of them.
Theory one: The water from New York City is an essential ingredient in bagels and pastrami.
The pastrami thing is new to me, but the importance of water in bread baking is a myth I'm very acquainted with. When I was writing for the Washington City Paper, I interviewed bakers about the importance of water provenance in bread baking. One of the bakers spent thousands of dollars on a special treatment machine that could supposedly recreate New York City's highly coveted water.
At first the machine worked perfectly. People lined up to order Bethesda Bagels' rounds for a taste of New York City they could enjoy much closer to home. But then the machine broke. The owner had to use regular tap water temporarily, and he noticed the bagels weren't different at all. His customers didn't notice either. He never bothered to fix the machine.
Peter Reinhart addressed the matter in his book The Bread Baker's Apprentice.
For the record I do not believe, as many New Yorkers do, that their bagels are better because of the water. New York City water does happen to be very good, but that is not what makes their bagels better. In fact, I believe that if you make the bagels from this book, you will come to agree with me on this point.
Humble guy huh? What Reinhart was saying, though, was that technique is of the utmost importance in good bread baking, not ingredients. And sure enough if you follow his recipe, which calls for a lengthy, two-day process of mixing, proofing and baking bagels, you'll evoke the delis of New York right in your own kitchen. Besides, most bakers worth their dough filter their water anyway.
As for pastrami, I suppose that water could somehow flavor the meat during the brining process. After the meat is smoked and sliced for sandwiches, though, I think the chance of any of those differences being perceivable is very unlikely. The house-cured pastrami served at Charlie Palmer downtown is an excellent example of hand-crafted deli meat. It's obviously possible here in Dallas.
Theory two: Most deli food is not healthy. Most deli food comes in huge ridiculous portions. Most deli food is fattening. It's old hat and pretty uninteresting.
I know this is wrong because you bastards love fattening food. Every blog post I publish about cheese fries, hot messes, oversized pizzas and anything else that even flirts with the possibility of causing a coronary gets me more clickage than slide shows with bare breasts and puppies combined. To call delis old hat and uninteresting shows a lack of understanding about what makes this food so great.
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So let me offer a third theory: Delis don't work in Dallas because everyone that has opened one is lazy. There are no good bagels in Dallas because not one baker has taken the time to slowly ferment dough overnight so complex flavors and textures can be produced. Instead the bread is leavened with too much yeast so a bagel can be made start to finish in a few hours. Bread made this way is inexpensive to prepare and highly profitable, but it lacks character and integrity. It's one-note baking.
Deli meat fares a little better here and I'm starting to encounter more sandwiches made from house-brined meats. Bolsa Mercado does a little of this as well as Charlie Palmer, which I mentioned before. The sandwiches produced from these cuts are noticeably better than your standard deli fare.
If a deli in Dallas were to produce house-made bagels from scratch with no shortcuts, Dallasites would notice. That deli would undoubtedly have the very best bagels in Dallas because nobody else is putting that much time into their craft. If a deli in Dallas cured whole sides of salmon and sliced them before your eyes people would exclaim: Holy shit! Look at this deli! This is amazing!
Jon Daniel would weep. Little, old Jewish ladies would weep. I would weep. We'd all weep together and I'm quite certain this deli of my dreams, so long as it's properly managed, would last a lot longer than Gio's Café.