Initially, I thought the text I had just received from a friend indicated that a local sports bar was serving chopped liver. Awesome chopped liver! Rascals’! he exclaimed. I responded immediately. WTH? Rascals’? Where is that?
I was immersed in the field research for the March restaurant issue, a project that requires stamina and a wardrobe of forgiving waistbands. There wasn’t room for extraneous calories or an unplanned excursion. However, my friend comes from a long line of passionate Jewish foodies (I refer to his heritage as orthodox foodaism), and a mid-afternoon message regarding chopped liver isn’t something to treat nonchalantly.
He is also a devotee of beer and sports, so it wouldn’t be unusual to find him at a bar on a Saturday afternoon hurling insults at sportscaster Tim McCarver. Hence my confusion. I imagined Rascals’ to be a dimly lit pub where my unruly friend was being served by a bartender with orange makeup affecting a suntan. Or maybe it was a glaringly lit, cavernous arcade where he could get an hour on a NASCAR simulator and two pounds of wings for $11.99. And apparently, awesome chopped liver. Impatient, I fired off another text: Where R U? Never heard of this bar. They serve chopped liver? Weird. He replied promptly: ??? Not a bar U idiot. New deli in Blue Ash. Gribenes. Latkes. Knishes. Whitefish. Chocolate babka. Go.
Babka! I was too excited to be embarrassed. I grabbed my car keys.
Rascals’ NY Deli is the full name. A name meant, in part, to evoke fond memories of Rascal House, a rather famous Jewish delicatessen that served Miami Beach for 54 years before it closed in 2008. Considering its sizable Jewish population, Cincinnati has endured a deficit of good Jewish delis for far too long. Izzy’s still cranks out corned beef sandwiches and potato pancakes across its regional chain (though the contemporary stores are vanilla versions of the original operated by Izzy and Rose Kadetz). Pilder’s, Bilkers, Irv’s, Upper Krust, Stanley’s, and Temple delis came and went quickly (as delis go), and never achieved the reputation of a Jewish soul food temple like Corky & Lenny’s in Cleveland or Langer’s in Los Angeles. (Even gentiles know the New York City deli icons: Carnegie, Katz’s, Stage Deli, Russ and Daughters, and 2nd Avenue Deli.)
Many Jewish delis simply lost their appeal as the older generation passed on, and the heaping portions of fatty fare gave way to healthier cholesterol-busting lifestyles. “It’s the food I grew up on and like to eat,” says Gary Zakem, co-owner (with Morris Zucker) of Rascals’. Zakem and Zucker (now that’s a good name for a deli) say they were inspired by the venerable landmarks listed above, visiting and revisiting many of them over a two-year period while they developed Rascals’.
Sandwiched between Samurai Sam’s and Jersey Mike’s in a Blue Ash strip mall, Rascals’ has throwback deli style down: a kitschy ’60s vibe complete with checkered vinyl flooring and green vinyl booths and diner-ette chairs; large laminated menus that read like a greatest hits playlist of towering cold and hot sandwiches, soups, combo plates, dinners, sides, desserts, and breakfast (“served all day”). There are bowls of cold half-sour green tomatoes and pickles on the tables, cans of cream soda and celery tonic stacked on a counter, trays of rugelach piled in the pastry case, and friendly, no-nonsense service.
In the pantheon of Jewish soul food, most items—including the pickled and cured meats—are made in-house. With the exception of some ingredients—the rye bread imported from Pittsburgh, the meats from Sy Ginsberg in Detroit, and the fish from Acme Smoked Fish in Brooklyn—Zakem and Zucker uphold that tradition. Chef Mike Werner, whose previous gig was sous chef of Stone Creek Dining Company, created most of the classic dishes that make up the five-page menu. It would take a year of Saturdays to dine our way through it, but we managed an impressive sweep in four or five visits. We found some of the items in good standing with deli covenants—wrapped in old world tradition and comfort—and others…meh.
If there’s one item other than corned beef that defines a good Jewish delicatessen, it has to be chopped liver. Chopped liver is a rustic version of pâté minus the quatre épices seasoning and dairy products (usually cream and/or butter): cooked chicken livers, hard boiled egg, onion, schmaltz (rendered chicken fat), salt and pepper. It is chopped or mashed lightly, never pureed. Rascals’ says their version is “soon to be famous.” If it keeps arousing spontaneous texts, it soon will be. The generous scoop accompanied by a few slices of rye bread is meant to nosh—a few bites to share as an appetizer. I ate the entire scoop on my own.
Rascals’ does a Reuben well. Thinly sliced corned beef (the default is fatty; ask for lean if that’s your preference) piled with Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and housemade Russian dressing on grilled rye bread. Aromatic, moist, briny, sweet, and spicy—everything a good Reuben should be. Perhaps you’ll eat it with a side of rough chopped cole slaw or cold herring in cream; a Dr. Brown’s soda or chocolate phosphate. (Where there is phosphate there is also New York egg cream. No egg or cream, just chocolate syrup, milk, and seltzer. Delish.)
Sooner or later you’ll meet up with chicken: in bubbe-approved soup with noodles, airy matzo balls, or kreplach (a Jewish wonton with meat filling); chopped into mayonnaisey salad; or in a pot with vegetables and dumplings. There are warm potato knishes wrapped in flaky hand made pastry, and house made blintzes (similar to a crepe) filled with sweet farmer’s cheese and dusted in confectioner’s sugar, and a jaw-defying burger (topped with grilled pastrami, cole slaw, cheddar and Swiss cheeses, a potato latke, lettuce, tomato, and onion) called the Dagwood that has more brawn than soul. Rascals’ potato latkes—practically a currency in delicatessens—are a little too oily and dense for my taste, and I wasn’t a fan of the bland beef brisket with its coat of glossy brown gravy. There were a few other misfires in the savory menu, most notably an overseasoned, overcooked grilled marinated salmon and an underwhelming, dry turkey schnitzel.
An in-house pastry chef is a luxury these days, but if you want to give good deli, it’s a necessary investment. Rascals’ pastry case is filled with housemade cheesecakes, large East Coast–style black and white cookies, tiny rugelach filled with fruit or chocolate, a variety of pies, and babka. (Insert nostalgic sigh here.) In my mind’s eye, I can still see and almost taste the yeast-raised chocolate and nut swirled bread created and devoured in my grandmother’s kitchen. Rascals’ babka is closer to kugelhopf, with a good yeasty flavor and striation of crumb to chocolate, but its exceptionally dry texture is disappointing. Ditto for the pies (we tried three different varieties on three separate visits). They were all unworthy of pie status, with tough overworked crusts, and a prominent refrigerated flavor. The black and white was on the dry and crumbly side as well. Only the rugelach and key lime pie (with a graham crumb crust) qualified as decent deli desserts (we did not get to try the cheesecake).
But I’m willing to forgive these lapses, because delicatessens aren’t merely restaurants; they uphold an ancient tradition as places where people can gather, nosh, and crack wise—no matter how sour the pickles. That’s something we can all celebrate. Mazel tov, Rascals’.
Rascals' NY Deli
9525 Kenwood Rd., Blue Ash
Six months old, yet looks as if it's been there for years.
Originally published in the April 2011 issue.