Friday, February 22, 2013

The Chicago Dining World Tour: Well Hello, Deli

Once Upon a Grill
2758 Dundee Rd., Northbrook
Yelp page

Since my Bar Mitzvah at the age of 13, my primary identification with my Jewish heritage has probably come through eating.

This has included numerous family dinners commemorating Passover, Rosh Hashanah and Hanukkah, but extends to my lifelong enjoyment of traditionally Jewish foods such as Bagels (with lox & cream cheese), Corned Beef, Pastrami, Noodle Kugel, Matzo Ball Soup and more.

From an early age, I was weaned on local (to Skokie) delicatessens such as Sam 'N Hy's and Barnum 'n Bagel, both now extinct, as is What's Cooking, long in Chicago's Lincoln Village shopping mall and later also Deerfield.

In visiting Northbrook's Once Upon a Grill--a sit-down, menu-board diner not to be confused with sister store Once Upon a Deli, also in the Dunbrook Shopping Center--with my friend Mark on Thursday night, and preparing to write this article, it dawned on me that I have scant knowledge of where, when, why and how the above mentioned foods (and others) became Jewish culinary staples.

While people, and even certain foods, are typically identified as Jewish in the same way others are Italian, Mexican, Irish, etc., obviously this isn't a perfect parallel as Jewish refers to a religion (Judaism), not a specific country of origin or ancestry.

Many Jews in America today trace their roots back to Eastern Europe, in what is now Belarus, Lithuania or even Russia itself, parts from which numerous other Jews emigrated.

Though much of their Jewish populations were decimated in the Holocaust, Poland and Germany were also the source of many Ellis Island immigrant Jews from the late 19th century through World War II.

The modern state of Israel was established after the war, in 1948, so although many surviving Jews went there, and some of their descendants have since relocated to the U.S., Jewish cuisine and culture as I know it doesn't harken--in a contemporary vein--to the Promised Land.

Sure, Jews have populated Jerusalem since well before Christ, but it's hard to imagine ancient Israeli Jews making a pastrami sandwich or cooking up a Reuben.

So I really don't know, and haven't been able to find the answer online, if corned beef (also part of Irish cuisine, but sliced much differently), pastrami, bagels, etc., trace back to Eastern Europe, Russia, Germany, Poland or largely developed--or at least coagulated into a "cuisine"--in the early 20th century after vast numbers of Jews settled in New York's Lower East Side and other nearby environs.

If you have any insight on this, or at least a solid opinion, please leave a comment.

As for our meal at Once Upon a Grill--which I chose over nearby options Max's Deli and Max & Benny's--it was enjoyable. I'd been there at least 'Once' before, but long enough ago to have forgotten that it features order-at-the-counter service, rather than wait staff.

Although I think Once Upon a Grill counts as a traditional Jewish deli, I was also tickled to note--as shown in a photo above--that it serves Mexican dishes as well.

Mark--on his first visit there--and I opted for the tried and true. I mean, what would be the point of going to the Jewish stop on my Chicago Dining World Tour and eating tacos?

He started with a bowl of Kreplach Soup, which he reported as very good.

I skipped the soup and went with a Pastrami Reuben on rye bread--as opposed to the Grilled Boat Reuben on a bialy loaf, which was all I could locate on the menu board.

A Reuben traditionally includes corned beef, Swiss or Muenster cheese, sauerkraut and Thousand Island or Russian dressing, grilled on rye bread. I greatly prefer it at a closed-face sandwich, but some places--notably New York's famed Carnegie Deli--serve it open-faced. Wikipedia notes that there are varying accounts about where and when the Reuben originated, but it was clearly a 20th century concoction.

While I definitely like hot corned beef, I opted to substitute pastrami, which isn't all that uncommon. Pastrami has a bit more spice to it, and it worked well in my Reuben, although I ate only half and took the rest home for lunch.

Like Mark--who fully devoured his corned beef sandwich on an onion roll--I got a potato pancake as a side dish. It was really crisp and quite good.

Mark offered that the corned beef was "not bad" though "I've had better," but said he'd come back to Once Upon a Grill as the prices were better than elsewhere, especially as there are no waiters to tip.

Although this wasn't one of more novel explorations of my Chicago Dining World Tour, it was rather satisfying nonetheless. As the late great Warren Zevon said when asked what he'd learned in facing death, "Enjoy every sandwich." And this was a pretty damn good one.

And though it doesn't represent one specific country, "Jewish food" represents a rather unique and savory cuisine onto itself.

Now if I could only find out where it came from.

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