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.' "