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Land of the lox: Can you get deli food in Berlin?

The odds of finding an authentic Jewish delicatessen in Berlin are about the same as those of stumbling upon a bratwurst stand in Kabul. D. Strauss investigates what we got.

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Barcomi’s Deli. Photo by Ana Garcia de la Blanca

The odds of finding an authentic Jewish delicatessen in Berlin are about the same as those of stumbling upon a bratwurst stand in Kabul. Nevertheless, the Germans can claim naming rights on the term, and in fact, most American delicatessens were German-owned before the Second World War. For some inexplicable reason, postwar, Americans preferred not to dine at Teutonic establishments, and the Kosher tradition became prominent, though of course, plenty of Jewish delis have no problem mixing milk and meat.

One might say a rough definition of a deli is a meeting place between complaining Jews and oily meats: a tough match in Berlin. Still, you would think that Berlin would embrace a culinary tradition involving fatty meat, herring and variations on cabbage, but for years, the primary representative of the tradition was the American chain Schlotzky’s Deli – now thankfully defunct (in Berlin, anyway) – which didn’t hesitate to push ham and Swiss sandwiches on Checkpoint Charlie tourists.

But what of pastrami and the knish? The latter remains as absent here as the culture that created it, but there appears to be a rumbling in the city of deli behavior (and not just within its bowels), the latest attempt being SCHMIDT’S DELI DELUXE, located in The Dude Hotel (Brooklyn Beef Club and its €85 hamburger flank the other side). Schmidt’s offers a limited menu, but one that boasts two deli staples: the Reuben and the chicken club, alongside a larger selection of toasts and croques.

It is, frankly, too clean for a deli experience, and as minimalist as the menu, with just a few tall cafeteria tables for restaurant goers – though hotel guests could sit at rest on the other side of the grill, which is a bit too low for proper scraping. The trimmings are minimal – no pickles, no fries, a bit of coleslaw on the side – but the kraut on the Reuben (€8) was tangy, if the pastrami a bit dry. The chicken in the club (€8) had a nice chewiness, though it was somewhat salty, while the bacon suffered from the usual German problem – under-crisped for US palates.

They also serve a lemon “merengue” cake (curiously, not pie) for €4 that is creamy and lemony, somewhat like a tart (though not tart enough), and the meringue wasn’t baked. Such small problems are more than made up for by the beer: it’s one of the few venues where one can buy a Brooklyn Lager, America’s finest mass-produced brand. If only all NY delis carried it.

Schmdt’s Deli Deluxe, Köpenicker Str. 93, Kreuzberg, Mon-Fri 11:30-15:00

Pastry was the high point of LUIGI ZUCKERMANN, which is neither Italian nor Jewish, though a pastrami sandwich is on the menu and the owner will be opening up a pastrami bar on Linienstraße in the near future. That pastry, a NY-style cheesecake (i.e. no back crust) is made by a 60-year-old Detroiter who plays in a local blues band. At €3.50, it’s a little small but hits all the right cheesecake notes – light, creamy, zippy, though the graham cracker crust could be crunchier: it’s the best I’ve had in Berlin. LZ started out as a 24-hour spot in the middle of the new hotel district, but that experiment failed, I suspect because neither the Amano Hotel nor Delicious Doughnuts customers nearby care much about food at 3am. The pastrami sandwich (€6.50) is served cold on a small baguette with the pastrami sliced thin. As with Schmidt’s, it could be fattier, and this may be the reason the sandwiches at LZ tend to be sweetly over-sauced.

Aside from to the cucumber/tomato salsa, there’s not a lot of topping variation available, and the sandwiches are usually served with only a few lonely olives, though hummus and pasta salads are for sale. One hopes that, at the new pastrami bar, there will be at least a small availability of meat that follows the NY deli tradition of sitting in its own unhealthy juices for days at a time.

Luigi Zuckermann, Rosenthaler Str. 67, Mitte, Mon-Tue 9-1:00, Wed 8-2:00, Thu 11-0:00, Fri-Sat 5-4:00, Sun 5-9:00 and 11-23:00

And then there’s BARCOMI’S DELI, founded by a famed American expat who has since become a German Baking Guru. And the pastry counter is impressive, with its giant muffins and cross-hatched pies offered at weirdly reasonable prices. Considering Barcomi’s reputation, it’s strange that the pastries are close to inedible in the parody of the German manner, with bountiful appearance and meager reward. A pumpkin tart (€3.30) was a basket of dough centered with a relative dollop of filling. Nevertheless, the place is a brunch magnet for the sort of Berlin professionals who wear cashmere sweaters and Fred Perry shirts (and have many, many children), so the line at the counter can be daunting, and same goes for the salad counter, which also offers sliced pastrami (100g, €3.30).

Barcomi’s booths and checkered tablecloths attempt to ape deli-style but appear more modern LA. There are some unsettling touches: what is granola (€4.20) doing at a deli? Shouldn’t it be replaced by matzo brei and egg creams? One can dream. One can, of course, understand the touches of gentrification, but why is the Weißbier (€3.60) served in a mug? Okay, there’s no matzo ball soup, but an acceptable cauliflower (€4.30) was served with my bagel, lox and cream cheese (€6.40), which sported a couple of sprouts but no onion (which can be purchased for 50 cents extra). The bagel is small, and you have to put it together yourself, but it is flavorful, if a bit like Lender’s in consistency, while the lox, while certainly a grand step up from Lidl (you can taste it past the salt), is not top quality. And why have a bagel chip sticking out of cheese served with a bagel? The manners of this country still mystify me.

Barcomi’s Deli, Sophienstr. 21, Mitte, Mon-Sat 9-21:00, Sun 10-21:00

So the NY/LA deli experience remains beyond the pale of Berlin, but there is one spot – only one, alas – that allows the actual German delicatessen experience in its full, chaotic glory, and that is the legendary ROGACKI, family-owned since 1928 and, god knows, some of its original staff are still working there. With dozens of West Germans slurping unpretentiously at long cafeteria stand-up tables, you can see what degraded into the Ossi milk bar. Granted, one is in the former heart of West Berlin, but still, the variety at the multifarious deli counters is astonishing to one used to hunting at half-a-dozen supermarkets just to get a pork steak dinner together. Though it may superficially resemble a public bathroom (another truth of the tradition), Rogacki maintains counters filled with fish, meats and salads: more than one type of lox or herring at one spot? The mind reels (as will the wallet: 100g of gravlax will run you €8.95).

There are a few nods to modernity, of course: a 135g jar of chili schmalz goes for €3. Oyster and champagne are consumed with the casualness of matzos ball soup in the Lower East Side and, in fact, the flavor of the broth of my fish soup (€4.50) overflowing with red perch and served with lemon and fresh dill, was not unlike that of the matzo ball soup at the 2nd Avenue Deli, formerly of the East Village, NYC, now in Murray Hill. The Matjesfilet (€5) tasted fresh and was served cold with a thick, creamy dill sauce with apple slices in it, and two boiled potatoes that were peeled in front of me. My matronly server then picked up my pen, put it in her ear and went “ding ding ding”. That was my reaction, as well.

Rogacki, Wilmersdorfer Str. 145-46, Charlottenburg, Mon-Wed 9-18:00, Thu 9-19:00, Fri 8-19:00, Sat 8-16:00