New Jersey Dispatch: The Deli King of Clark
"Kosher deli in New Jersey is all too often a parody of the tradition rather than the thing itself."
The first time I sat down to a meal at Deli King in Clark, New Jersey, a server put two steel bowls on the table in front of me—one filled with pickles, the other with what my parents would have called "health salad." (Actually, they called it "health salad" too, I just hadn't found out.) Yet I was so far removed from traditional New York deli food that my first reaction was "Jewish panchan!"
Most of my childhood was spent in Queens or on Long Island and when my dad had the chance to choose a restaurant, deli was often his choice. (He drifted towards pizza and Chinese later in life.) Mom took a tongue sandwich on rye, and I was small enough to be satisfied with a hot dog or knish.
So when a woman on the other side of the room at Deli King ordered a tongue sandwich on rye, I almost started to cry. And when that sandwich turned out to look exactly like the deli sandwiches of the sixties, I choked up a bit more. Kosher deli in New Jersey is all too often a parody of the tradition rather than the thing itself. People don't go into Deli King for four pounds of meat; they go to get what their parents got fifty years ago. Or, with a bit of menu study, what their grandparents got thirty years before that.
On my next visit, I carefully scanned the dining room in order to make sure that nobody who resembled my parents was dining there, and then ordered a tongue sandwich on rye with a side of kasha. The sandwich was better than I remembered; the tongue was mild and not salty in the way I might have expected. And the kasha was what I remembered exactly. (The Deli King crew provided a bowl of brown gravy to go with the kasha that did nothing for it.)
Finally, I returned to Deli King for an even longer journey down memory lane—a plate of Kishka, something my grandfather ate, but my parents never mentioned. It turned out to be a savory cross between haggis and scrapple with that brown gravy on top. This was almost too much to think about. Despite the fact that kishka is more of a historical item than a dish, it was brought to me promptly and without the bat of an eyelash. And the same chef seemed to be at work on it; mild, savory and a tiny bit crunchy.
Deli King isn't the sort of place that tries to put on a show, and it doesn't seem like they're deliberate about preserving culinary history, it's just that they do—and they make it seem so effortless that I started wondering if this isn't the most exotic restaurant in the area. Dosas are a dime a dozen here, and kimchee is thick on the ground, but here they serve kishka, kasha, lake sturgeon and noodle pudding—foods long given up for dead in this part of the state.
New York and Kosher aren't the only traditions kept here; the menu lists Italian hot dogs, too. After all, this is New Jersey.
Sandwiches are in the ten dollar range and platters typically run fifteen dollars or so.