Tradition Time

D.Z. Akin's

6930 Alvarado Road, College Area

PRICES: Appetizers, $5--$14; sandwiches, $7--$15; salads, salad platters, and smoked-fish platters, $5--$23; dinners (with soup or salad, sides), $12--$26; sides, soups, small salads, $3--$6; breakfast dishes, $5--$14 (higher for smoked-fish platters serving two or more). Kiddie plates available at all meals.

CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: European-Jewish specialties, including deli meats and smoked fish, house-baked breads and pastries, traditional Jewish-American dinner entrées, overstuffed sandwiches, and American and Jewish breakfasts. A few acceptable wines by the bottle (all under $30), only plonk by the glass. Fountain drinks, sodas, some domestic and imported beers.

PICK HITS: Matzo ball soup; chopped liver; Rumanian skirt steak; "ethnic sampler platter"; kasha varnishkes (vegetable side); cheese blintzes; smoked fish of choice. Marty and Dave recommend matzo brei (breakfast pancakes), latkes, roast chicken.

NEED TO KNOW: Not kosher. Free parking, but patience needed at busy lot. No reservations except for holiday dinners and large groups; expect a wait at busy times (e.g., any weekend meal). Plenty for lacto-vegetarians, some substantial vegan choices from side dishes and salads. Portions huge, $2 to split entrées.

Passover has just passed, and in my mind's ear I heard Tevye singing "Tradition!" and I thought of Jewish holiday foods. I've brunched at Milton's in Del Mar and lunched at the late Herschel's in Encinitas -- so it was high time I hit the 800-pound gorilla of the local delis, D.Z. Akin's. Founded in 1980, it's reputedly the best -- and a glimpse at the menu online confirmed that the range of foods is the closest in town to a New York deli.

What brought D.Z.'s to mind was a news report: A long-time part-time staffer was recently hit with a catastrophic illness, and the owners (Debi and Zvika Akins) and staff have rallied around him like family -- contributing regularly to help with living expenses during a long recuperation and throwing a benefit dinner earlier this month to help with medical costs. So having a meal at D.Z. right now is more than a fress (stuffing oneself), it may also be a mitzvah (a blessing or good deed).

Oddly, I probably know less about Yiddish cuisine than, say, about Chinese or French or Mexican. A century ago, my Russian-Jewish immigrant grandparents sold pickles out of barrels on the sidewalks of the Lower East Side. They couldn't afford to rent a storefront, so they stood outside in all weathers, minding toddler Aunt Irma, as Grandma swelled with Aunt Alice. Rarely could my grandmother take enough time off to teach her daughters to cook. Aunt Irma, the eldest, learned to make a few traditional dishes from scratch for the Sabbath dinner, but even then, the family seldom had the wherewithal for a festive meal.

So my mother developed an ambivalent relationship with Jewish cuisine. It was her comfort food, but it also carried the bitter taste of childhood poverty. She might snack on a bowl of Manischewitz borscht or a bite of bottled gefilte fish, but she didn't know how to "cook Jewish" -- nor did she want to know. (She did make chicken soup -- "Jewish penicillin" -- but always with noodles, defeated in her few attempts at tricky matzo balls and labor-intensive kreplach, a.k.a. Jewish ravioli.) She favored the simplest American food -- broiled protein, boiled veggies -- and later, TV dinners. So my exposure to Yiddish cuisine was largely through wonderful (if only occasional) Sunday morning breakfast noshes: silky "belly lox," bony little smoked chubs, or sometimes a fat smoked whitefish (smoked cod and sturgeon were beyond our budget) and chopped liver from the deli; fresh bagels and rye bread from the bakery; and the sacred Sunday New York Times from the newsstand, to be devoured with gusto equal to that inspired by the noshes. I tasted traditional Yiddish dinners mainly at the larger gatherings of my father's side of the family, where Aunt Frieda wouldn't come out of the kitchen to eat with the rest of us until her perfect roast chicken -- the inevitable culmination of a parade of delicious starter courses -- was done to her standards.

Since I'm better versed in purchased Sunday brunches than home-cooked Sabbath dinners, I called on Marty and Dave, fellow ex--New Yorkers who are more knowledgeable about the cuisine. They live near D.Z. Akin's, have eaten there many times, and could guide me through a small-print, multipage menu only slightly thinner than the Torah (the two thick scrolls of holy writ).

We showed up early in the week, a good move, because it's easier to find parking and get a table without a wait. The deli/restaurant is a long building that dominates its little strip-mall. Inside it's vast, with a deli-bakery-souvenir shop at the front door, then brightly lighted large dining rooms with padded booths and photos of local celebs on the walls. Each table holds a vat of cucumber pickles in a mild brine. Ranging in age from fresh-made crisp ones to older ones suffused with brine, there's a pickle in there to suit every taste, and for free.

The menu starts with breakfasts, then lists about 100 sandwiches and burgers, then soups and salads, with side dishes and smoked-fish plates popping up at various points, and concluding with dinner entrées, desserts, and fountain beverages. Dave and Marty knew I wanted to order the classic Jewish Sunday brunch specialties (which they serve all day), even if it was dinnertime. "They make a very good matzo brei [pronounced MAH-tsuh bry] here," said Dave, seductively. "Believe it or not, I don't actually know what that is," I said. "Well," said Marty, "you soak some matzos in a little water just until they soften. Not soggy. Then you wring out the water in a strainer and mix the crumbs with beaten eggs and fry it like pancakes." "You can make it savory or sweet -- add onions or sugar or salami, whatever you like," said Dave. "Oh!" I said. "It's Jewish chilaquiles, with matzo instead of tortillas, and hold the chiles." "That's right," said the Latino waiter, listening in with amusement. "Which makes them, without chiles, just...'killahs.' "

I steeled myself to ordering dinner food instead of brunch noshes, feeling duty-bound to try some serious cooking to review. I could pick up bagels, smoked fish, and chopped liver from the front-room deli case on my way out for the next few days' breakfasts. Most dinner entrées come with soup or salad (unless you order à la carte to save a buck), plus all the rye bread you can eat, served with a week's worth of something that looks like whipped butter but tastes more like unsweetened whipped cream. Dave began with matzo ball soup. It is just one big ball (as in the racy old World War II song about Hitler's endowments), the size of a baseball, but airy and delicious -- if you like matzo balls. That is, they are rather bland dumplings, and maybe you have to grow up with them. Inept cooks who precisely follow the recipe on the back of the matzo meal box produce horrible, hard cannonballs that hit your stomach with a thud. But D.Z. knows the secret, which is to separate out the whites from the yolks and beat them to a high foam, so the dumplings come out light enough to, um, float your balls. (I think they may also use club soda for aeration, as many Ethiopians do when making injera pancakes in cool climates, where the batter doesn't ferment enough to puff.) And the chicken soup is very good, tasting just like Aunt Frieda's, with plenty of carrot pieces (which add sweetness to the broth). My only gripe is that, unless you specify, they also put in noodles, which just get in the way. You can also have the soup with kreplach (beef-filled pasta pockets) or with all three garnishes.

Marty ordered the exotic sweet-sour cabbage soup, which is tomatoey and pungent, probably a culinary contribution of Hungarian Jews, who are known for their love of tangy, complex flavors. It's a more intense version of the sauce that bedecked my stuffed cabbage, the centerpiece of the "ethnic sampler plate" I ordered for my dinner.

The sampler doesn't come with a soup but showcases several classic Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jewish dishes. The stuffed cabbage (filled with dense ground beef, with much less rice in the mixture than typical versions) has a light, sweet-tart sauce punctuated with raisins. The interesting sides include kasha varnishkes -- a combination of bowtie (farfel) pasta and buckwheat groats cereal. Unlike my mom's weird, evil-smelling attempts at the dish, the buckwheat is mild and pleasant, and the combination is more than the sum of its parts. Kishkes literally means "guts," that is, cleaned beef intestines (cow chitlins) stuffed like sausages with a ground vegetable mixture. In D.Z.'s modern version, the chitlins are long-gone, so you have simple cylinders of dense ground veggies, the equivalent of sausage patties, as opposed to actual sausages. The rusty color of the mixture announces the prevalence of carrots. The kishkes come with a touch of Uncle Sam, an accompanying all-American beef gravy. "I love the kishkes," said Marty, so I guess they must be authentic. (I can take 'em or leave 'em. Strikes me as sophisticated baby food -- but I did like the gravy.)

Finally, on the sampler, a great big potato knish -- a thin, buttery pastry shell stuffed with coarse-mashed potatoes. The Knish King of America is a little storefront on Manhattan's East Houston Street (pronounced House-ton) that's been at the same spot since about 1493, called Yone Schimmel's. I've eaten Yone Schimmel's knishes, and D.Z. Akin's knishes are not Yone Schimmel's. However, they're a good try, better than most. A little heavy, maybe (well, all knishes are heavy), and a tad dry, but recognizably a knish and not some horrible Americanized thing with too-thick pastry or (God forbid!) a low-fat filling. The waiter offered sour cream to go with it -- not traditional, but I thought I'd try it -- and he brought a bowl containing a good half-pint.

Marty was tempted by fond memories of D.Z.'s "honey-fried chicken," wondering aloud how this item ever landed on a Jewish deli menu. A possible answer: Miami Beach in the '50s. "When I was six," I recalled, "we spent the summer there. Not far from our hotel in South Beach was a little restaurant that specialized in 'Chicken in a Basket' -- delicious batter-fried chicken with honey syrup to pour over it. It was incredibly popular with the zillions of New York Jews who vacationed in Miami, especially the kiddies." And that may be how Southern fried chicken converted to Judaism.

Marty was also tempted by the roast chicken, which is probably just like Aunt Frieda's holiday dinner entrée. ("It's very good here," Marty said.) But mindful of her diet, she ordered the chicken breast cutlet (sized like the sainted Anna Nicole Smith). You wouldn't mistake it for what Italy does with cutlets. Barely breaded, the flesh was dry, although aided by goyish, delicious, flour-thickened chicken gravy. (I don't think Jews make gravy, except for Thanksgiving.)

Dave chose Romanian skirt steak, a specialty he remembered from Sammy's Rumanian, a famed old-time steakhouse on the Lower East Side. It was a rich, tender piece of beef, medium-rare to Dave's order, smothered with sliced mushrooms and onions. "It really surprises me how close they come to Sammy's version," he said. Tasting it -- delicious! -- I could see how Sammy's endured for about a millennium, even as the neighborhood went Puerto Rican, then yuppie, till the last old Jew was gone and Sammy's packed it in.

For dessert, we split a pair of cheese blintzes, served in traditional style with sour cream and applesauce on the side. The blintzes -- slightly thick crêpes -- were rolled around barely sweetened coarse-grained Russian-style pot cheese. (Not cottage cheese! Not ricotta! Not creamy! According to my ex-mother-in-law, who showed me how to make 'em, nothing but pure, lean, tangy pot cheese will do.) We marveled and reveled at D.Z.'s ability to find this increasingly rare Old World cheese. The house-made applesauce was extremely sweet, but of course the blintzes aren't. That's how it should be -- tradition!

On my way out, I made a long, slow stop at the deli counter and bakery for the next day's breakfast and lunch-dinner.

The first question: The bagel. Here, I know what I'm talking about. A proper fresh-made New York bagel requires good, rigorous chewing in the morning (makes your jaws strong). Twelve to 18 hours later, it must be halved and toasted to be edible. By its 36th hour of existence, it has turned into an inedible petrified torus that can only be halved by placing it in a vise-grip and attacking it with a power-saw (which no real Jew owns). You don't need "cement overshoes" to dispose of a Bugsy Siegel, a Meyer Lansky, a Moe Green -- just tie a dozen two-day-old New York bagels to a Jewish gangster's ankles and fill his pockets with my mom's matzo balls, and he'll sink like a stone. Please use the East River; we're trying to clean up the Hudson.

Here on the West Coast, people seem to think bagels should be soft, a little firm outside, but puffy enough inside to be suitable for after-services snacks in a Unitarian church. That is all wrong. D.Z.'s bagels, although slightly too soft initially, were only about eight hours behind schedule in the proper staling and petrifying process -- about halfway between New York and Gentile bagels. The "belly lox" was tender, flavorful, a bit strong-tasting, but out here I usually buy Scottish cold-smoked salmon in preference to Lasco packaged mediocrity, so I'm out of practice with New York lox flavors.

Chubs (small, heavily smoked whitefish) and chopped liver -- taste just like home. The challah -- a brioche-like egg bread -- is heavy and chewy but has reasonably good flavor -- yeasty and a little sweet. (Bread & Cie turns out an even better, lighter version on Fridays.) I also took home a sandwich of corned beef, pastrami, and tongue on rye. It was so huge, it furnished three days of "writing night" dinners, but I can't say it thrilled me. The meats didn't knock me out, and I couldn't find any tongue, not that it mattered. I already knew it wasn't gonna be a Katz's Deli sandwich (a few doors down from Yone Schimmel's), originators of the devastating slogan "Send a Salami to Your Boy in the Army." For one thing, the servers at D.Z.'s were much too nice. In a real New York deli like Katz's, you pay a steep price for tongue, but they give you plenty of lip for nothing.

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