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The lost sandwiches of my youth

by Brian Clarey

I should start out by describing the sandwich, a simple thing really: a couple eggs done over easy, a little bacon or ham, a slice or two of square yellow cheese layered inside a chewy Kaiser roll. I ate one just about every day before high school, usually procured from the Garden City Deli in my Long Island hometown where a mustachioed counterman named Sal generally did the honors.

And I haven’t had one since. One would think that a sandwich of this type would be relatively easy to replicate. Not so. There’s something about the texture of the bacon, the viscosity of the melted cheese, the flip of the eggs so that the yolks run just enough to seep into the bread but not out of it. And the Kaiser roll… well, you just can’t get good Kaiser rolls outside of the New York metropolitan area. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

I still think about that sandwich, not all the time but enough so that it’s always close to the surface of my conscious mind. And when I heard the accent on Jimmy O’Brien, proprietor of O’Brien’s Deli in Winston-Salem, I knew right away he would be able to make one for me. But first I asked my standard question, the one I ask to everyone who speaks with the hard consonants and flat vowels particular to the place I grew up.

“What part of New York are you from?” Turns out O’Brien is also from Long Island, Suffolk County to be exact, and spent a few years as a deli counterman himself before getting involved in television and moving to North Carolina in 1989. He opened the deli more than four years ago, and he soon learned that deli culture is not something Southerners know instinctually like New Yorkers do.

In the delis of my youth, there were no menus, no pictures, no specials. What there was was a high glass counter stocked with trays of cold salads, hot food and huge hunks of meat ready for the slicer. Behind that counter as many as six guys in white clothes would run around filling everybody’s order. Half a pound of rare roast beef sliced thin, a pound of Swiss and a pound of rice pudding? You got it.

“In the beginning I almost had to order for people,” he says. “If I had it to do all over again I’d give everything a number.”

The menu at O’Brien’s may seem simple to you, but it makes me drool: homemade soups, antipasto, meatballs, chicken cutlets. He’s got pastrami and ravioli, and for sandwiches he uses deli-grade Boar’s Head meats.

“We’re the home of the reuben,” O’Brien tells me, made with pounds of NYC corned beef that the menu promises is “big enough for two.”

More: The sub and Kaiser rolls are flown in from Brooklyn, where the water makes them better.

So what is an expatriate New Yorker to do? I have a hard time saying no to the reuben, because it feels like I haven’t had a proper reuben in years. I’m looking at that rare roast beef under the glass case, the chicken salad, the pastrami. I love a chicken cutlet sandwich with lettuce, tomato and mayo. I could even go for one of those eggplant parmigana heroes.

But then I remember Sal and those fabulous bacon, egg and cheese sandwiches from the Garden City Deli I ate just about every day before high school. I give O’Brien the once-over again, just to make sure he’s got the goods. I order one, and he hustles back to the kitchen to start frying the eggs.

wanna go?

O’Brien’s Deli 4001-C Country Club Rd. Winston-Salem

The New York deli-style breakfast sandwich — basically bacon, eggs and cheese on a kaiser roll — sounds simple but for some reaon is difficult to replicate outside the NY metropolitan area. (photo by Brian Clarey)

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