The Heavy Table’s James Norton and Jill Lewis both take their deli seriously. Fans of East Coast delis that boast flavorful, tender meats, they recently visited Mort’s Deli in Golden Valley to ascertain whether Minnesotans could get an authentic deli experience here in the Upper Midwest.
Mort’s is, in many ways, a sitting duck for critics. The chance of opening up a deli in Minneapolis that will satisfy people familiar with the storied sandwiches of Brooklyn is a long-shot, at best; there may be no more particular or fussy eaters than true devotees of the lovingly prepared Jewish-American deli sandwich. And if there’s one thing deli fans truly enjoy, it’s a chance to kneecap a pretender to the genre. Andrew Zimmern and Adam Platt have both taken hard shots at the place in Mpls. St. Paul, and Twin Cities Eats was none-too-kind to its large portions.
Therefore, with an eye to giving the place a fighting chance, Norton and Lewis brought high but realistic expectations to the table. Though Mort’s has an extensive menu with offerings ranging from traditional deli sandwiches to a bacon cheeseburger, they chose the restaurant’s five-meat platter since, in their view, it is a microcosm of the restaurant as a whole.
Out of the five meats, two were clear winners, two were disappointments, and one elicited a “meh.” The salami and pastrami were the clear winners — both were well-seasoned and had a pleasing
texture. The chopped liver also scored well in the texture category, though it was underseasoned. The corned beef and brisket felt “phoned in,” which is odd considering both were imported from the famed Carnegie Deli in New York. The off-putting appearance of the brisket and the lack of flavor in the corned beef brought down the quality of the platter. The side dish — a potato knish — scored well on flavor but less so on texture.
The meat platter wasn’t the only inconsistent aspect of Mort’s. While the deli clearly tried to emulate a kosher deli in spirit, the menu didn’t reflect it in practice:
LEWIS: I think of deli as kosher, so of course, you wouldn’t have macaroni and cheese on the menu. In the rules of kashrut, of which I’m no expert but probably know more than your average Joe, milk and meat are prepared and served separately. So if you have a kosher restaurant that serves meat, that means there are no milk or dairy products in the restaurant.
NORTON: And according to those rules, you shouldn’t be able to get a chocolate egg cream. To me, that’s very disappointing, because I love egg creams. But of course there are also more secular interpretations of delis where the meat/milk thing isn’t a problem. Even the bacon thing is not a problem. And I think that’s what we’re dealing with here.
LEWIS: It depends on demand. This isn’t a part of the country where there’s a big kashrut-observing community that would demand that Mort’s be kosher. There is a kosher deli in the Twin Cities — Fishman’s.
NORTON: Fishman’s is a little less welcoming and accessible to the general public. I like it and I’ve been there a number of times — they do a great chopped liver, among other things — but Mort’s, by contrast, feels like a typical Midwestern restaurant. It’s a very clean and welcoming place.
But Mort’s did live up to a kosher deli’s reputation for large portions:
NORTON: Why are delis so prone to giving you such absurdly large portions? What’s the story there?
LEWIS: I can’t say for certain, but I have a theory. Jews are known for being frugal. To put it nicely, we like a value, so if you get a lot of food, it’s good value. You could bring it home and get a few
more lunches out of it.
NORTON: The owner of Carnegie Deli, whom, sadly, has recently passed away, was interviewed once and he said — and I’m paraphrasing here — “If one of our customers can get their mouth around one of our sandwiches or finish one of our sandwiches, we screwed up.” I think that’s kind of the approach these guys are taking. But the one thing about this place that kind of bothers me is that they get their meat from Carnegie Deli. Why not try making the meat locally? Why not figure out how to make a good corned beef and make something authentic to the region?
LEWIS: That is totally do-able. I was watching Diners, Drive-Ins and Drives last week on Food Network, and they showed this place in Omaha where the chef from Montreal learned how to make corned beef from the kosher delis there and was making it in Omaha on site. The way all the customers were raving about this sandwich shows that you don’t have to stay in New York. You can do it anywhere.
NORTON: It’s totally do-able, and if you’re going to be serving it at the amount that you’re serving it here, it seems like it’s rewarding. And one thing that really gets my dander up is kind of a provincialism that says, “We can’t do it as well here, so we have to bring it in from New York.”
Don’t get me wrong — I love New York, I lived in New York, my mom’s from New York, I think New York delis are amazing, and it’s not a crazy attitude to have — but I almost wish that this guy would have taken a stab at it and say, “You know what, we’re going to try doing this stuff ourselves, and we’re going to represent, and this is going to be something that Minneapolis/St. Paul has.”
BEST BET: The salami and pastrami are both surprisingly subtle and well-executed.
Mort’s Deli Restaurant
Deli in Golden Valley
525 Winnetka Avenue N
Minneapolis, MN 55427
CHEF: Russell Frey
ENTREE RANGE: ($8-18)