As many chefs and restaurant owners (and critics) will tell you: You can’t please everyone. There will always be people out there who won’t appreciate your vision, no matter how you execute it. There will always be people who think you can’t deliver. That’s life.
The only option you have is to push through the trolls, amateurs, and professional againsters and keep at it.
That’s the beauty of the restaurant industry. For all the risks and hard work—and the often toxic environment—it’s a career in which, frequently, love trumps hate.
If that’s the kind of story you like to hear, you have to root for Aaron Steingold, a restaurant lifer, most recently general manager of the late Trench, who along with his wife, Elizabeth Abowd, has invested their life savings in an eponymous Jewish deli on carswept Irving Park Road in North Center, a neighborhood arguably more deserving of one than restaurant-choked habitats like Logan Square, Fulton Market, River North, and the Gold Coast
As the Tribune‘s Louisa Chu pointed out in her recent look at the past, present, and future of the Jewish deli, it’s a famously difficult business model to sustain at our current place in time. We’ve seen valiant attempts to revive it before: Brendan Sodikoff shelved Hogsalt Hospitality’s ambitious and promising Dillman’s before it really even achieved its potential. Before that an established import, Steve’s Detroit Deli, sank in the same River North space.
But there’s no question Chicago has a ravenous hunger for the life-affirming powers of bagels and smoked fish, matzo ball soup, and swole sandwiches piled with cured and smoked meats and tangy fermented vegetables. Steingold’s has all of these—except when it was running out of product in its early days—along with a few curveballs to give you the idea that this isn’t your zayde’s deli.
Here are the elements: Steingold’s cures its own pastrami, corned beef, and lox, and you can order those by the pound or in a handful of signature sandwiches named for real (and one theoretical) family members. Steingold has outsourced his bagels and bialys to Max Stern, aka the Bagel Chef, the city’s latest bagel upstart, who’s operating out of Barn & Company’s kitchen and supplying impressively chewy bagels with crackly shells to a handful of spots around town. Sandwiches are built on Publican Quality Bread, which is always a good sign.
The 900-pound gorilla in the room is the smoky Wagyu pastrami, which tends to disintegrate into an unstable but lusciously fatty hash that may contribute to the sense that the $22 “overstuffed” Reuben, aka the Uncle Rube, including Swiss, smoked sauerkraut, and Russian dressing, is overwhelmed by its otherwise marvelous grilled rye bread. This pastrami can also seem scant on the Sister-in-Law, where it does battle with pungent Chinese mustard and respectably spicy cabbage kimchi on a sturdy baguette.
Likewise, there’s something a bit off about the Fat Alvin, a sandwich described to me at the counter on two different occasions as “crazy.” This brick of braised short rib melded with Swiss and a thick application of mineral-rich chopped liver on rye needs a structural balance to support the meats that its sweet caramelized onions and sour shaved pickles don’t provide. The liver plays better on an open-face tartine, where its intensity is mitigated by pickled red onions and fresh parsley and dill.
On the other hand, on my third and most recent visit a friend—who on his only previous stop had been soured by all the ways Steingold’s isn’t a traditional deli—was happily surprised by the Grandma Rachel, a precisely layered strata of red-cabbage coleslaw and roasted turkey breast oozing with melted Havarti and Russian dressing but still well contained within thick slices of lightly toasted challah. Similarly, I’m besotted with the Steingold’s Classic, a bagel of your choice shmeared with cream cheese embedded with tangy capers and topped with tomato and, in my case, a stack of lush sliced Ora King nova lox, a sandwich close enough to God that He might spare humanity just long enough to eat it.
Other icons of the Jewish-American culinary oeuvre are both impressive and confounding. The wan, unseasoned matzo-ball broth surrounding an impressive sinker makes no sense on the same menu as the fatty, herbaceous, full-bodied chicken noodle soup. Oversalted smoked whitefish salad seems intended to compensate for the comparatively mild espelette-seasoned coleslaw and dill potato salad. Yet try to push aside the hard-fried latkes sprinkled with Maldon sea salt and served with labne and thin applesauce. And after a particularly square lunch one afternoon, I nevertheless found myself in my own kitchen with my head thrown back, draping a half-pound take-out order of the lush pastrami-spiced smoked trout over my gaping mouth hole.
When Steingold’s was announced last summer, it was spoken of in some circles as the Great Smoked Hope for a Chicago deli revival, and it was accordingly mobbed. But viewed through the unforgiving lens of my kvetching companion (an admitted pedantic nudnik), Steingold’s can only be a disappointment. Dinosaurs like Katz’s, Manny’s, and Langer’s—fully stocked with kishka and short ribs alongside piles of every cured and pickled sandwich filling, and overflowing refrigerated cases with beets, beans, and noodle salads—are a different animal entirely. Here you’ll find no irascible countermen slicing meat to order, customizing each sandwich to individual specs, and offering lagniappes alongside putdowns.
Instead, Steingold’s is a sleek sandwich shop with deli-like ambitions, the Rare Tea Cellar kombu salt next to the counter an emblematic stand-in for the Sen-Sen and Binaca at the prototypical deli register. Judge it on those terms and it’s also a sandwich shop with enormous potential: It’s already slated to expand into a small take-out spot next to the Francisco Brown Line stop early next month, and Steingold told me he’s hoping to expand to more locations. Given the dearth of decent deli food across the city, he’ll be a hero if he can make that happen. I’ll be following his progress closely, pulling for him all the way. v