It used to be that if a New York City transplant asked for the best corned beef in Boca, everybody knew where to send him. Sure, the Wolfie Cohen's Rascal House on Glades Road didn't have the character of the original Wolfie's on South Beach, but there was still that corned beef, thin-sliced and wrapped into a ball, served always on rye.
Then came the hubris of 2005 real estate development, when the building's owner evicted the deli to make way for a higher-paying seafood joint that never came. Without Wolfie's, southern Palm Beach County lacked a corned beef king.
So that's why, on a recent Sunday, we embarked on a trip through the trifecta of Jewish delis in southern Palm Beach County to finally find a replacement for Wolfie's. Here, where Yiddish is the unofficial second language, there has to be a place where the pastrami rivals meat from the boroughs.
First stop was the relative newcomer, Zinger's Deli, in a nondescript strip mall off Palmetto Park Road. Actually, the place is a revamp of Pastrami Queen, which closed in '09. Owner Gary Zinger's new place opened last year and looks more like a bistro, with a long banquette along the south wall facing the dominant deli counter on the other side of the restaurant. There are flat-screen TVs and a swirly texture on the walls that hints Zinger was hoping for a higher-end look.
The ladies at the next table fit the central-casting stereotype, wearing tennis outfits and the windblown look of retirees who have taken in a few decades of Florida sun. They ordered breakfast — simple fare of fried eggs, omelets, and bagels, scooped and toasted.
But a Jewish deli won't be judged on breakfast alone, so this test began with the requisite matzo ball soup. Here it's a ball that barely fits in the small cup, swimming with bits of overcooked chicken and carrots. One too many bullion cubes ended up in the broth, as salty as ocean water and with all the home-cooked flavor of a can of Campbell's.
Zinger's scores better with its sandwich meats. The pastrami on the Rachel was flaky and oozing drippings, lightly seasoned and dominated by the sauerkraut. The corned beef was so tender that it almost seemed chopped instead of sliced, served simply on rye.
Sides — simple hand-cut fries, a knish that's more potato than pastry, and flavorless coleslaw — show that the emphasis at Zinger's is on that slow-cooked pastrami and corned beef. It's the Jewish-deli version of that barbecue joint where the meat shines and the sides seem forgotten.
The best of the Jewish delis needs more than just meat, so our quest led a few blocks north to Ben's New York Kosher Delicatessen on Clint Moore Road. This is the only Ben's south of the Garment District, and New Yorkers who earned points on their rewards cards back home brag about cashing them in at the Boca location, which opened in 2004. Ben's is full-on Boca glitz, with a rope line leading to the hostess stand. The deli counter runs the length of the wall along the way, overhead lights shining down on meats and smoked fishes as if part of a religious shrine. The walls are all murals of New York scenes and kitschy slogans like "They tried to kill us. We won. Let's eat." It all seemed too slick for a deli, too corporate to be able to roast a good corned beef.
The matzo ball soup changed our opinion, though. It's a simple affair here, served in a wide bowl with broth, vermicelli noodles, and a lonely matzo ball. You might wonder where they hid the bits of vegetables and chicken until you take a spoonful of that broth, which boasted the richness of the schmaltz and the savoryness of chicken marrow. The ball was nothing but matzo meal, no herbs or onions that might mask the flavor of this broth. We asked our waiter for extra spoons and instead he brought three more bowls, all outfitted with soup spoons and ladles.
We imagined someone's grandmother was back in the kitchen making that soup, and if so, she might have also been responsible for the stuffed cabbage leaves. They came swimming in a sweet tomato sauce that complemented the sour cabbage and the slightly spicy sausage inside.
The pastrami and corned beef also were of Wolfie's quality, both with just enough sourness and pepper and running juices. The rye bread they came on was spongy in the center, crisp on the edges, and thick enough to catch the jus.
All of those successes made Ben's failures seem so strange. For instance, the potato pancakes came looking stamped from a machine, all three the exact size. The onions and potatoes were far too kneaded until they had the texture of a Boboli pizza dough. (Later by phone, general manager Michael Ross balked at the idea of a machine spitting out the pancakes. "No way," he said. "Our latkes are hand-scooped every day.")
The kugel also came out looking like it had been made on the industrial scale, a square so perfect it too could have been stamped out by machine. It tasted of nothing but egg yolk and undercooked vanilla extract, the alcohol still wafting off the noodles.
So we carried on our hunt, north to Flakowitz on Boynton Beach Boulevard. The place has been in southern Palm Beach County for 50 years, first as a bakery, then as a bagel shop, and now as a full restaurant for the past 12 years. The late Wolfie Cohen's Rascal House once threatened to sue Flakowitz for allegedly stealing recipes ("Sue for Your Supper," October 7, 1999), so it seemed like a fine contender for new deli king.
Flakowitz has none of the bright lights of Ben's and instead was decorated with worn carpets, aging wooden booths, and Spartan furnishings like an Ebbets Field street sign and a couple of large mirrors. We had little hope of finding a Wolfie's replacement from looking at the menu, which seemed more diner than Jewish deli, with melts and triple-decker sandwiches.
But then we took in the scene. The maître d' worked the early-bird crowd of retirees, leading the "beautiful ladies" to their tables and urging on the gentlemen. He was maybe early 60s, the youngest guy in the house. "Take care of this group," he said to our waitress. "It's their first time."
Dinner starts with a basket of bread baked in-house that could feed these people for a week, with rye, white, sweet nut, and a shiny challah roll that was soon pulled apart and slathered with butter. Everything comes with a free fountain drink or coffee.
A framed Guy Fieri poster bragged about a visit from TV's most annoying food-show host, so we ordered what he had: the Triple D, matzo ball soup, stuffed cabbage, and a knish. The soup wasn't as high-end-looking as Ben's, but the broth was slow-simmered, bits of carrots and celery collecting against a fluffy matzo ball. The stuffed cabbage tasted mostly of the sauce, too sweet from honey and brown sugar, leaving it tasting like Chinese duck sauce. The knish was flaky and a bit sweet, stuffed with buckwheat and potato and disappearing quickly on an overstuffed table.
The brisket was a bit overcooked and dry unless drenched with the side of jus, as if the kitchen realized its mistake. But the pastrami on the Rachel sandwich was peppery enough to combat the bite from the sauerkraut, all drenched in a couple of slices of American cheese and between bread slathered and toasted to cracker-crisp.
The only thing on the table not immediately devoured were the blintzes, served like four tiny burritos grilled on two sides. Some of my party loved the filling, but to me, it tasted like a jar of Fluff.
Our server didn't know what was inside, so she asked another. "The cheese in the blintz? Well, it's ricotta and three others. I don't know what the others are." (Later, co-owner Robert Pirozzi said the filling is a cream cheese, which still doesn't explain that marshmallow texture.)
After we polished off the table, our server came by with a dessert tray crammed with cheesecakes and custards. She recommended the babka, baked in the shape of a muffin, exploding upward with a swirl of chocolate and crumbles. "It's like Entenmann's but better," she explained. She could've boasted more about that babka, a flaky and tender crumb cake that proved this place has a full-on bakery.
The maître d' was working the crowd at the bakery counter as we left. He shook our hands and urged us to come back and try the black and white cookies. "I'm not the owner, but I love it here," he said.
Sure, Flakowitz doesn't have the shiny look of Ben's, and there are far too many references to Guy Fieri on the menus and servers' shirts. But its pastrami, its babka, and its Jewish-deli friendliness will make you forget about a little place called Wolfie's.