Caleb’s corned beef adventure

Protzel’s

By Caleb Ellis

It was a hot day during the summer of 2005. I can vividly remember my Uncle Daniel leading us frantically around the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He was on a mission to bring us to what he claimed was ‘the greatest deli on the planet.’ About an hour later, I learned firsthand the majesty of Katz’s Delicatessen. Dining at what many consider to be the Holy Grail of delis is a unique and outrageously tasty experience. The sandwiches are so big you can’t fit them in your mouth, the pickles so juicy you can barely hold them and the hectic atmosphere is truly unique. The corned beef sandwich I ate there stands as one of the greatest meals I have ever had the pleasure of eating, and inspired a love of deli food that I cherish. So when the Ohr Chadash Teen Page presented me with the opportunity to unearth the best delis St. Louis has to offer, I salivated at the prospect. Below I share my journey of trying corned beef sandwiches (which I decided was the most logical deli food) from five St. Louis delis, as well as thoroughly experiencing the service and atmosphere that all the establishments had to offer. I tried to pick restaurants that bear some history with the city of St. Louis, and operate in a traditional deli style.

Protzel’s

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My second stop was Protzel’s Delicatessen. Protzel’s possesses a similar simplicity to that of Kopperman’s. It’s tucked on 7608 Wydown Boulevard in Clayton and any deli die-hard knows that Protzel’s is a St. Louis original. The sign and Jewish star out front are faded and dark, and the interior is narrow and packed to the brim with side dishes and cans of the infamous Dr. Brown’s soda. The building itself holds a classic ambience and the plethora of cafes and trendy dining establishments around the corner give Protzel’s an attractive display. The restaurant’s exterior appeal is only overshadowed by the majesty inside of the corned beef, pastrami, knishes and so much more. The service here is delightful, and the management was more than happy to provide me with its $9 culinary work of art. I decided to eat this one outside on the patio and enjoy the North Shore Chicago aura of suburban Clayton. I cracked open my Dr. Brown’s black cherry soda and dug into my sandwich. I kid you not – the corned beef at Protzel’s makes a very serious run at Katz’s. The tenderness and sweetness of the meat is spot on, and the perfectly sized trim of fat on the edges is the cherry on top of an excellent sandwich. I sat and enjoyed my edible ecstasy. I’ve been coming to Protzel’s since I was a little boy, and the quality of the meat has not once wavered.

Kopperman’s

The first deli I visited was Kopperman’s. Kopperman’s Delicatessen is located at 386 N. Euclid Avenue in the Central West End. It is one of the oldest and most well established delis in the area. Although parking was a hassle, taking a stroll through the Maryland Plaza area is always delightful, and the Central West End retains a classic charm that adds to the traditional feeling when you enter the deli. I had the misfortune of arriving about three minutes after five, which is the closing hour on Fridays. However, the manager let me slip in just before he locked up, and prompted me to go ask Norm (the head chef) if he had anything left over for me. I kept it simple, corned beef on rye, with chips and a pickle. Norm graciously obliged, and engaged me in a friendly conversation. He expertly sliced and crafted my sandwich, and sent me around to the checkout where I paid a reasonable $9 for the meal. I sat down to eat my thick sandwich, and quickly dug in. Norm had generously piled on the meat, and the mustard was proportioned perfectly. It was also a well-built sandwich, not crumbling or overflowing. As for taste: this morsel was no slacker. It was tender and the mustard was tangy, and although the rye served as little more than structure, it was a fantastic sandwich. My outing at Kopperman’s was superb. The customer service, genuine kindness, location and food were all top notch.

Kohn’s

Kohn’s Delicatessen is one of two kosher delis I encountered during my research. Located on 10405 Old Olive Street by the JCC, it is tucked away quietly. Kohn’s is not plagued by heavy sidewalk traffic, lacking the pedestrian-friendly surroundings of Clayton or the Central West End. Entering Kohn’s feels like going grocery shopping (and in fact the deli has its own grocery along with Pratzel’s Bakery). The restaurant is very tidy and sterile and the sandwich station is located in the back. It definitely feels Jewish and plenty of advertising and Israeli selections make the place unmistakably so. The employees were pleasant and quickly supplied me with my usual order, although I did pile on a couple sides. This added up to a relatively large sum ($17.99 per pound of corned beef), but one has to factor in that kosher meat is intrinsically more costly and my stomach certainly encouraged the spending. Who could deny that? The sandwich and knish I purchased were solid, proving Kohn’s is able to provide desirable food that is also strictly kosher. I found that my sandwich surpassed anything I could craft at home.

Pumpernickles

The third stop on my culinary pilgrimage was Pumpernickles. The deli sits at 11036 Olive Boulevard right near the corner of Graeser Road, which means that it isn’t graced with the most beautiful surroundings. The construction in the area and buzzing traffic are a bit of an annoyance, but diners will find the inconvenience worth the trouble because Pumpernickles contains some of the best genuine customer service out there. The restaurant is clean and organized, with various foods out on display. I ordered my corned beef with mustard, this time on challah (bet you didn’t see that one coming!) and my waitress was friendly and happy to attend to my every need: napkins, extra sour cream – for the latkes, of course – you name it, she was ready to help. When the food came, I was pleased to sink my teeth into the soft as silk challah bread. Yes, yes, I know sandwiches are generally judged by what’s inside them, but the bread on this sandwich is out of this world. The New-York-sized $10.25 price tag left my wallet pretty thin, but the meal remained satisfactory nonetheless.

Diamant’s

The second kosher deli I ventured to was Diamant’s Meat Market, which sits at 618 North and South Road near the intersection with Delmar Boulevard. University City is another charming and historic district, with Diamant’s at the center of the area. Although parking is not readily available, the short walk is painless and well rewarded. Trees line the streets and interweave with the old stone buildings to add to a classy and refined atmosphere. When I entered Diamant’s, I nearly tripped over two little boys running around with candy in hand. The owner responded with a hearty laugh and ushered me to the back counter where I could place my order. He was friendly and gave me heavy doses of both St. Louis hospitality and mustard. I forked over my $8 and transferred from the counter to one of the many tables near the window. For starters, the window seating is superb; it offers a great view of North and South Road and it’s a treat to watch the serene flow of people and traffic. Now for the sandwich. It was once again superb. The kosher corned beef was flavorful, the rye bread was tasty and the mustard did what mustard does: complete the sandwich. Diamant’s was another pleasant experience that distinguished itself with picturesque suburban charm.

My city-wide crusade to unearth and experience the various delis of the St. Louis area proved to be a huge success. Although I’ve eaten more than my fair share of corned beef, I now know that St. Louis is no slouch when it comes to offering traditional Jewish cuisine. Although we may not have a treasure trove like Katz’s, we certainly possess a few sparkling gems, all of which deserve the attention of hungry St. Louisans. However, don’t let my search blind you, there are likely numerous other delis worthy of my attention that you may know of. So please, feel free to log on to the Teen Page online and share your opinion! Regardless, I’m off to go grab some sushi; there are only so many pickles and sandwiches one man can eat.