Because Wolfie Cohen's name draws people. Cohen's restaurants not only served the best stuffed cabbage, matzo ball soup, and kasha knishes, they seated the most people, and nothing attracts a crowd like a crowd. The beloved deli icon started Wolfie's, his eponymous eatery in Miami Beach, in 1947. It was an immediate success, and a couple of years later, he sold Wolfie's -- along with the rights to his appellative -- and opened the 425-seat Rascal House in North Miami Beach. Wolfie's has been sold a couple of times since, and as a result the Wolfie's on South Beach and a second restaurant, Wolfie's Express in Delray Beach, are in no way related to the Rascal Houses or each other.
But Jerry's hasn't completely eliminated the elements that made the inaugural Rascal House so celebrated. Not only did the company add Cohen's name to the restaurant, it retained former owner Vasturo as general manager.
With Vasturo in place, the Boca Raton Rascal House is a bit smaller, at 350 seats, than its 50-year-old sibling. It's also a lot shinier, thanks to millions of dollars spent on renovating the location (formerly a California Pizza Kitchen); the multiroom, carpeted restaurant is hung with Broadway posters, and a gleaming, tiled bakery is attached. Otherwise the Rascal Houses are obviously related, right down to the roped-off areas in which customers have to wait on line to be seated -- a treasured tradition for many.
"We started off by taking names," Vasturo told me, "so people could leave and come back when their tables were ready. But they demanded we have them wait on line instead." Many of the patrons in Boca Raton are older folks who have moved up from the Miami area, where for years they lined up at the original Rascal House. Now they don't have to drive down to Miami, and that's about all the change they can handle.
Vasturo also held on to the original deli menu, with its signature Eastern European specialties. "Our customers don't even have to look at the menu to order. They remember it from the other Rascal House," he said. "Some of them ate at the Miami restaurant the very first day it opened. They come in and tell me. It's like a status symbol to have been there then."
On opening day 50 years ago, Wolfie Cohen gave away thousands of corned-beef sandwiches to his clientele -- a gesture that brought him lots of publicity and earned him a place in South Florida dining history. Six weeks ago, on June 30, Vasturo mimicked the trick in Boca, providing free fare to the customers who showed up between 11 a.m. and 9 p.m. He said he spent about $50,000 stocking corned beef, pastrami, kaiser rolls, and chopped liver. After giving away about 5000 meals, he ran out of food.
Astronomical figures aren't limited to free-for-alls. On a typical day, Rascal House goes through 1500 pounds of corned beef and 1000 pounds of pastrami, according to Vasturo. The busboys dish out a total of 120 gallons of half-sour and garlic pickles, which are put on the tables in stainless steel pots along with cucumber salad, sour green tomatoes, and cured cabbage.
The downside to so much business is obvious to patrons who wait 45 minutes for a table, then another 45 for a sandwich. "Training 200 employees on this menu is a logistical nightmare," Vasturo admitted. No kidding. During our dinner, the kitchen was slow, the service inept. Water, napkins, baskets of onion rolls, butter, and pickle refills were hard to come by. (When we couldn't wait any longer, we snagged pickles off other tables as they were being set for the next round of customers.) Our visibly flustered server submitted orders incorrectly. A nicely trimmed corned-beef and pastrami platter wasn't delivered on a plate with potato salad, as ordered, but as a sandwich instead. And an excellent shrimp salad, made with chopped-up jumbo shrimp, diced celery, and just the right amount of mayonnaise, was served on seeded rye; we'd asked for seedless. Our server also neglected to remove plates from one course before serving the next. By the time the meal was over, our table looked like a pregnant woman's picnic, with the remnants of pickles and herring in cream sauce shoved aside to make room for chocolate cheesecake.
For connoisseurs of the Jewish-deli experience, however, the overstuffed sandwiches, juicy turkey legs, and boiled beef flanken are enough to excuse the oversights. In fact, the crowded, manic scene is part of the experience. And complaints, when they are made, are addressed. A roasted spring chicken was so dry, the poultry stuck to our teeth like peanut butter. When the manager asked how the kitchen could correct the dish, we said we'd rather have another shrimp-salad sandwich. He was happy to supply it.
Aside from the minor irritations, we found our meal quite enjoyable. Rascal House makes wonderful chopped liver, laced with browned onions, and hearty, slightly sweet potato knishes. We savored both as appetizers, along with pickled herring in cream sauce. Usually served in chunks, the succulent herring arrived as a fillet, dappled with white onions and tablespoons of thick sour cream.
Sour cream also garnished a bowl of borscht, or cold beet soup. The thin, lipstick-red liquid was somewhat insipid, though, lacking the tang that Jewish grandmothers all over the world have perfected. Chicken soup was also bland, as if the chicken had been merely waved over the top of the pot. A soft kreplach, or beef dumpling, redeemed the soup slightly -- the peppery chopped beef added some substance to the broth. Manhattan clam chowder was the best of the bunch, a slightly peppery, tomato-based soup stocked with carrots, potatoes, celery, and a few clam strips.
Vasturo is proud of his stuffed cabbage entree, and rightly so. Large cabbage leaves were rolled around delicious meatballs and braised in sweet-and-sour sauce until tender. The kitchen also maintained the shape of the stuffed cabbage, a feat that has always made me envious. (My cabbage wilts and the meat falls apart.) Another main course, savory meat loaf, worked on the same principle as the cabbage dish: Molded ground beef was seasoned perfectly and wasn't overwhelmed by bread crumbs or other fillers. Both dishes were accompanied by freshly mashed potatoes.
The bakery attached to the restaurant offers diners the option of ordering dessert to be eaten in-house or to go. We opted for both alternatives. We enjoyed some crumbly chocolate rugelach while we waited for our bill, then bought prune hamantaschen, a three-cornered cookie, to take with us. At the bakery counter, patrons can also order food to go and avoid the lines, noise, and sloppy service. But what's the point? Patrons who have grown up Jewish, as I did, or who've frequented the original Rascal House in North Miami Beach know that the hassle is part of the fun.
Wolfie Cohen's Rascal House. 2006 Executive Center Dr., Boca Raton, 561-982-8899. Lunch and dinner daily from 11 a.m. to midnight; Friday and Saturday until 2 a.m.
Corned-beef and pastrami platter