“You have to go to Stein’s.”
We frequently heard some form of the question and statement on this trip to New Orleans. Stein’s had been on my list of “must eats” since I learned that the owner is a Philadelphia émigré, so it was reassuring to have this decision reaffirmed.
“…(P)roprietor Dan Stein…racked up time working at specialty cheese shops. He had planned to open his own in New Orleans, but when St. James Cheese Co. beat him to it, he switched gears and in 2007 opened a hybrid Jewish/Italian deli where the focus was supposed to be meats and specialty groceries…” (Ian McNulty at bestofneworleans.com).
Stein’s is a combination Jewish deli and Philadelphia sandwich shop. The first thing you notice when entering Stein’s Market and Deli is that every expense has been spared in the décor. Yes, there are the occasional Simon (pronounced Cee-moan) Hardeveld signs like this one that combines the Jewish greeting shalom with “Southern speak.” But the walls are more likely to be covered with Phillies banners, Joe Paterno photos, and t-shirts. To be honest, the walls are more likely to be covered with these items than paint.
And I don’t know what to make of the counter front plastered with business cards, coupons, and assorted ads with an occasional bumper sticker.
The next thing you notice is cramped quarters. “The place is tight, so you may find (it difficult) trying to shop the crowded grocery shelves, but that's all part of the deli experience” (gayot.com).
“Stein’s isn’t just a lunch place….They also sell meats and cheeses from around the world. They have a little bit of retail, too–-really high quality oils and vinegars, salts and seasonings, tea and coffee. Their coolers are jam packed with hundreds of beers and sodas that you won’t find anywhere else” (Sunny Dawn Summers at gonola.com).
For seating, there are two long community tables for ten, a counter seating six, and two picnic tables on the sidewalk. But since it was (no surprise here) raining, the latter sat empty. As Sunny Dawn Summers wrote at gonola.com: “You’re going to be sitting with people you don’t know, which is just fine by me. In fact, I don’t know that I’ve ever gone to Stein’s in tandem, but I’ve always had an interesting conversation. Something about this city brings out the Miss Congeniality in all of us.”
One of the things we have learned during our almost four years of travel is that—outside of the Northeast—a good deli is hard to find. Stein’s attempts to fill that niche in New Orleans. But I will admit that we approached Stein’s with more than a little skepticism. (Note the message on the material in the photo below: "Looking for a Po-Boy... Go Somewhere Else.")
Ian McNulty at bestofneworleans.com says it best: “Imagine the scrutiny to which a native New Orleanian might subject an oyster po-boy encountered in Atlanta or a muffuletta in Denver. That's how the Phila-delphian approaches the cheesesteak outside of its natural habitat, how the Chicagoan looks at an Italian beef elsewhere and how a Northeasterner hungry for a hoagie regards anything dubbed a sub. And yet natives of these cities line up eagerly when these specials are on the board at Stein's Deli & Market, a veritable import annex for delicious things not indigenous to New Orleans.”
And many of the sandwiches were familiar. There was: an Italian Hoagie with mortadella, Genoa salami, hot coppa, aged provolone, lettuce, tomato, and onion; the Reuben with hot corned beef, Swiss, sauerkraut on rye bread with Russian dressing; the Rachel with hot pastrami, Swiss, sauerkraut on rye bread with Russian dressing; the Corned Beef Special with corned beef, Swiss, and cole slaw on rye with Russian dressing; and hot or cold corned beef or pastrami on rye. And, in addition to the Philadelphia style hoagie, Tuesday’s special are Philly Cheesesteaks and Thursday’s Philly Roast Pork sandwiches a la Tony Luke’s.
Before we get to the sandwiches, let’s talk about pickles. I was excited to see served with each of our orders half of a kosher dill and—be still my heart—a half of a “half sour.” Half sours are my all time favorite pickle and is a
“…new, overnight, or green pickle (and) most resembles a cucumber in color and taste. It cures for only one day in natural brine consisting of chopped garlic, salt, and other mixed spices….” (cooking.com).
They were out of the potato salad that Chuck wanted (he got a bag of Zapp’s chips instead), so I generously shared my side of slaw which was mostly shredded green cabbage with a spattering of grated carrot in a light dressing that hinted of sugar.
Well, after the slaw and the pickles things went downhill.
Chuck’s sandwich of choice was the hot pastrami on which, at Chuck’s request, a schemer of chopped chicken liver was added. The chicken liver—what there was of it—was pretty good, but the portion was very scanty for the price. But the pastrami was a total disap-pointment. To me, hot pastrami is thin sliced juicy meat that has usually sat in a bath of its own cooking juices. Here, the pastrami was sliced and then heated on a flat top. Thus, the meat became dry and some portions had an almost burned flavor. This was—as they say—a bummer.
We specifically target Stein’s for a Thursday so that I could order their version of my all-time favorite Philadelphia sandwich. Forget the cheesesteak. Forget the hoagie. The Italian Roast Pork sandwich rules—especially as served at Tony Luke’s in South Phila-delphia. As described on seriouseats.com: “It consists of thinnish slices of juicy, slow-roasted pork; sharp provolone; and…broccoli rabe. Everyone I know raves about the rabe…it gives the sandwich a slightly bitter bite.
“The vehicle for delivery is that same signature bread used for the city's cheesesteaks. Indeed, this bread seems like it was almost made for a roast pork Italian, since its soft enough inside to soak up the sandwich's juices, but just crisp enough outside to rein it all in—stopping well short of the mouth-damaging crustiness of a baguette. And the proportions are all in balance—not too much bread, not too much filling, no ingredients falling out of an overstuffed sandwich.”
Stein’s version missed on all counts. The pork wasn’t thin sliced. It more resembled pulled pork. The broccoli rabe had no flavor other than bitterness. Tony Luke’s sautés their rabe in olive oil with garlic and is so good you could make a meal out of a bowl of it. Tony Luke’s shaves the sharp provolone. Here the cheese was in much thicker slices. And if that’s not enough and to add to the indignity visited on this noble sandwich, Stein’s serves it on ciabatta rather than on a steak of hoagie roll. Can I say double bummer?
Can I also say that we were not impressed? That we don’t plan to return? That we only give Stein’s 2.0 Addies?
To review the role of Adler, Kitty Humbug, and the Addie rating system, read the November 14, 2011 blog.