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Much to the chagrin of most New Yorkers, I’m sure, “deli” is an abused word. Sold at airport gift shops and gas stations, out of vending machines and by plenty of fast-food joints at one time or another, a “deli” sandwich is a crapshoot—when it deserves to be a sure thing. The term is used loosely enough that it promises only the involvement of bread and meat—but not the crucial presence of a dill pickle. I once ate a ham-and-cheese croissant at the “deli” of an electronics store while I waited to have my car stereo installed.
The Woodside Deli in Silver Spring (with other locations in Rockville and Germantown) earns its moniker partly because it has been around since the ’40s and partly because it deals out fresh cold cuts in honorably thick portions. But Woodside does not conjure images of your standard Big Apple eat-and-run. It does have a takeout counter where some
meats are displayed, but there is no on-site butcher ready to dole out recommendations in a costume of bloodied whites.
Woodside is the type of restaurant generally indigenous to suburban Jewish communities—a deli with a dining room nice enough that dinner with the spouse and kids can qualify as a night out. My waitress on several occasions displays an auntlike friendliness combined with a manner that suggests a slight disappointment at finding out that the world is full of shitty tippers.
“Oh my god, excuse me,” she says, apologizing
for a hacking cough that could prove alarmingly
effective in an anti-smoking public service ad. “I’m about to die.”
Woodside’s sure things are its triple-decker combos—monstrous concoctions of various deli meats, usually topped with Russian dressing and cole slaw—that make the meatloaf seem like a light snack. The deckers are all given names of nobility, which, coupled with the pictures of historical arcana hanging
on Woodside’s walls, can make for some intriguing dinner combinations: One night, I nibble at a Henry VIII (hot ham, pastrami, and melted Swiss with cole slaw and Russian dressing) while Richard Nixon stares intently at me from the cover of an old Life magazine; on another, I dine on the Lancelot &
Guinevere (chicken salad, bacon, lettuce, and tomato) next to an early Playboy centerfold. “There’s something kind of funny but disturbing about this,” a friend remarks.
Part of the excitement of the triple-deckers (my favorite being the turkey, corned beef, and chopped liver combo called Athena & Prince Charmpopolos) lies in their being put together with a comical disregard for proportion. Bite into the corner of the sandwich and all you get is cheese, bread, and condiments; attack the center and you’ll need to perform some frightening facial gymnastics to get your mouth around the beast. Perhaps they’re acting out of respect, but I never notice any other customers trying to redistribute the meaty wealth to make eating more comfortable; the reward is indeed in the struggle.
Woodside’s soups benefit from the restaurant’s penchant for delivering high-density meals. When I order a bowl of matzoh ball soup to supplement a reuben, the waitress with the cough gives me the glance she probably reserves for naive children. “That’s an awful lot of food, honey.” The soup, with two ice-cream-scoop-size matzoh balls, is delicious and, as she says, “really a main course.” (I recommend Woodside’s reuben, though I couldn’t finish mine.) The chicken noodle soup is sufficiently thick with vegetables and meat that it could pass for a stew. Woodside gets most crowded on Saturdays, the only day it features live music (usually Russian folk or jazz) and homemade borscht.
The nondeli food on Woodside’s menu is predictably down-home: diner mainstays (hot open-face sandwiches, either meatloaf or turkey), burgers, fried fish, spaghetti with meatballs, liver and onions, kosher hot dogs. Woodside treats its chef’s salad as it does most of its dishes, with a reverence for the simplicity of tradition; it’s nothing more nor less than a submarine with iceberg lettuce instead of a bun.
But despite all the respect Woodside pays its customers (five minutes is an eternity to wait for an order) and its cold cuts, the restaurant displays a sad indifference to the matter of pickles. I once had a butcher tell me that eating a sandwich without a decent dill is akin to jerking off: It’ll only do when the real thing is unavailable. Without the benefit of the triple-decker’s theatrical diversions, the unfortunate state of Woodside’s pickles is glaring; it’s pitiful when they accompany a straight-up sandwich of corned beef or turkey. They arrive limp and almost dry, as though they’ve spent too long next to a heat lamp and away from
A wise and toothless baby takes note of the injustice. After gumming her pickle like a cigar for several minutes, she tosses it to the floor and, given her position, reacts quite reasonably: She screams. Plucking the fallen, now-dusty pickle from the linoleum, Judy’s mom floors me with a comment as harsh as my server’s cough: “Come on, Judy. It’s just a pickle.” She’s obviously not a woman who feels proper deli practices are in need of preservation.
Woodside Deli, 9329 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring. (301) 589-7055.
When it comes to fish, it’s the person manning the fryer who has the power to make or break your meal. At Morgan’s Seafood, a scrappy hole in the wall by Howard University, the cook goes about his business with care, forming the crab-cake balls while you watch, then releasing them gently into a pot of madly bubbling oil. The fried shrimp are also prepared gingerly, emerging with their ridges still distinct beneath a layer of light batter. Ask for extra hot sauce.
Morgan’s Seafood, 3200 Georgia Ave. NW.
(202) 829-2666.—Brett Anderson
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.