Poll a sampling of New York deli mavens. You'll likely learn that pickles play a significant roll in choosing where to lunch. You might also hear about pastrami marbling, matzo ball density, sandwich height and knish shape. And regarding the rarity of a Jewish deli in New Orleans, you'll probably face the question, "Is it really kosher?" The answer is yes. Strictly glatt kosher, supervised by the Louisiana Kashrut Committee, and the only deli in our area of its kind.
The "Cajun" side of Kosher Cajun allegedly appears in regional specials. If they had been offered when I was there, you still wouldn't read about them in detail here. The place is so Jewish that yarmulkes spangled with hand-painted American flags are for sale just inside the door, followed by kosher wines, loaves of babka, bags of rugalach and a back room stocked with bottled borscht, blueberry blintzes, halvah and frozen bagel dogs. When I took my fallen Jewish neighbor to browse, she resumed a love affair with the onion-flavored matzos she thought had been discontinued years ago. I found perfection in a new snack combo: the cloy of a raspberry jelly bar dipped in chocolate, plus the spritz of Dr. Brown's Cel-Ray (celery) soda.
Kosher Cajun is also a juicy spot for eavesdropping -- upon cellular phone arguments, for example, over how many portions of chicken soup with matzo balls a man should bring home for his flu-ridden family. And where else will you sit in earshot of a woman kvetching about how the sweet ground beef and rice forced inside thick-veined cabbage leaves doesn't match her family's recipe?
But the sour woman was there again the next time I was, which proved my suspicion that people for whom this kind of food is a custom -- especially people who keep a kosher diet -- will tolerate the deli's weaknesses for the sake of tradition. It's like a New Orleanian in Sheboygan, Wisc., with a hankering for a fried oyster po-boy. If his craving were strong enough, he'd settle for oysters from a can and po-boy bread with freezer burn.
Which is how a knish lover might come to forgive baseball-size ones imported from New York whose golden pastry coverings have a rubbery, reheated bounce. Sweet potato knishes were marshmallow-sweet, and a kasha knish with the coarse, fieldy smell of whole grains was as heavy as a shot put.
New York is homeland to many ingredients and prepared foods used in Kosher Cajun's kitchen. "They do it better up there," said a cashier, which is up for debate in some cases. Bagels were chewy, and lox erred on the burly side of thick. Finding parve (non-dairy) cream cheese, though, could be thrill enough to woo any orthodox Jew to order a seltzer and eat. Gefilte fish was heavy on matzo meal and the flavor of having traveled a long way from fresh fish, but it was rescued by a superior, beet-red horseradish condiment.
It must be said that I don't remember ever eating a hotdog that tasted more like actual meat; a tuft of dryish sauerkraut respectfully preserved the squish of its white bun. Matzo balls were like spongy, ping pong balls, resting in a yellow broth that tasted like essence of chicken. Smooth, chopped liver prepared in-house was like mild and sugary kid food; whitefish salad was smoky and ...white.
And then, of course, there were sandwiches. Another Jewish friend recently related the story of a Saturday morning in the 1950s when his father handed over the family sandwich duties. To the son's anemic efforts, father responded, "These are Goyim sandwiches: Goyim sandwiches have more bread than meat. Jewish sandwiches, son, have more meat than bread." Kosher Cajun isn't Carnegie Deli, but its sandwiches are far from this definition of Goyim. The hot J&N (presumably named for owners Joel and Natalie Brown) on rye was a sizable stack of evenly sliced corned beef and pastrami with yellow mustard, horseradish and -- once you remind your server -- swan-white cole slaw. Round, sweet potato fries challenged the notion that all worthy fries are crisp.
"Even in New York, a good deli is hard to find," sighed my now elder, sandwich-making friend. In New Orleans, any Jewish deli is hard to find; I raise a cucumber spear to the one we've got.