Given Houston's joyously polyglot restaurant marketplace, why shouldn't one of our best New York kosher-style delis be owned by a Los Angeles transplant who buys his corned beef in Chicago? I mean, this is a town that welcomes Vietnamese steak houses, Thai barbecue joints and Armenian-made poor boy sandwiches. So I say, oy vey, y'all, why the heck not?
Victor Tayeri moved from Los Angeles to Houston ten years ago, when you could hardly find a decent bagel in this town, much less an authentic pastrami on rye. "There are lots and lots of delis in Los Angeles, where I had a deli for ten years before I came here," says Tayeri. "But here in Houston, I was one of the very first."
Tayeri has been busy ever since. In 1989, he opened the first Victor's Delicatessen and Restaurant on FM 1960 (which he sold in 1994); in 1995, he launched a second store in Sugar Land at 13703 Southwest Freeway. Last year, Tayeri took over a storefront on Braeswood formerly occupied by Pastine's and, before that, a Champs hamburger joint. It's funny how well the mismatched bits and pieces left behind by the previous tenants suit this latest incarnation. The distressed concrete flooring, open kitchen and glaring white tiles outline a space clattering with dishes and conversation and employees shouting orders; in other words, a deli. Posh decor would only make me suspicious.
"Even now, there still are only one or two places in Houston I would really call delis," says Tayeri. "I mean, we're actually a full-service restaurant; most people don't realize that. It's not just sandwiches; we serve breakfast, lunch and dinner, too."
Of the dozens and dozens of items on Victor's menu, though, it's the sandwiches I crave the most. Two simple factors define the perfect deli sandwich: great meat and great bread. Victor's got both. Take his Reuben sandwich ($6.95), for example, immodestly but perhaps accurately listed as the "best in town." The ruby-red corned beef Tayeri imports from Chicago is worth ten times its weight in freight charges: delicately marbled with fragile white traceries of fat, incredibly tender, slightly salty and ever so faintly sweet. Thin slices of this elegant corned beef are threaded with mild sauerkraut, topped with smooth Swiss cheese, then stacked between chewy-crusted slabs of sourdough rye bread speckled with caraway seeds. After a light grilling, the sandwich is dished up with a side order of smoking hot french fries.
That same muscular rye bread reappears in the "house special" sandwich ($6.85) of pastrami and Swiss cheese. Layer upon layer of black-rimmed peppery pastrami is fan-folded several inches high and slathered with that peculiarly American (and peculiarly pink) tangy-sweet hybrid of mayo and chili sauce arbitrarily dubbed "Russian" dressing.
It's no good trying to find out where Tayeri gets his rye bread. "I buy it locally, but that's all I'm going to say," he says with a laugh. "Everything else we make ourselves." The homemade contingent includes the wonderfully creamy potato salad, made with just a speck of mustard in the dressing, which accompanies the house special or is available $agrave; la carte for a buck.
Tayeri is even less forthcoming on the subject of his prized recipe for chopped liver. "Nobody makes chopped liver like I do!" he crows. A punch line of so many jokes, chopped liver is described on Tayeri's menu as "Chopped Liver Delicious," as if any liver-lover requires encouragement or, conversely, any liver-hater is liable to be wooed by sweet words.
I love chopped liver in any form and hate to cook it at home, so I was thrilled to find it on Tayeri's menu in several forms: served as an appetizer in a generously mounded scoop surrounded by raw purple-skinned rings of Bermuda onion ($3.60), starring by itself on a cold plate ($6.50) or tucked between slices of that crusty rye bread as a sandwich ($6.15). The velvety brown poor man's pâté hints of a dash or two of Worcestershire, a little garlic and sprinkles of both black and red pepper, but I can't guess what else.
"That's the secret, you see," says Tayeri smugly. "You have to cook the liver just so, but it's all in the spices, of course. Believe it or not, I learned that recipe from a black Catholic priest. I swear, it's true. Now only the good Lord, me and that priest know how it's made."
Chopped liver I expected in a New York deli; fried oysters I didn't. I ordered them simply because they were on the appetizer list ($5.95). Instead of the standard Gulf Coast cornmeal breading, these small briny gems were lightly battered, then fried crisp brown and gold. Delicious but definitely not kosher, I told Tayeri later.
"Well, I didn't say kosher foods, did I? I said 'kosher-style' foods," he retorted with a sly grin. "Sure, we have a few kosher items, but kosher food itself tastes terrible, have you noticed? I tried some kosher foods from the best houses in the United States, but you must have to be totally in tune with your religion to eat kosher and like it, because the taste is just not there. I couldn't serve anything that doesn't taste good."
The same literary license must apply to the Spanish omelette ($5.50), one of the breakfast egg dishes that's available anytime at the deli. Victor's menu claims it's made according to an "authentic Barcelona recipe." Don't get me wrong -- it's a good omelette, folded fluffy and golden around a juicy filling of sautéed tomatoes and onions. But do Spaniards traditionally cook with jalapeño peppers? I don't think so. The home fries alongside, though, were authentically perfect: thin circlets of fresh potatoes lightly seasoned and panfried just right, none of those mushy shredded pretend-potatoes here.
I wasn't as happy with the cold beet borscht ($2.25). It's a beautiful burgundy color, of course, but so thin and watery that its billowy cap of sour cream almost immediately breaks down into unappetizing clots. I felt that I might as well have opened a pantry-temperature can of beets and drunk the juice.
And sadly the same goes for the cheesecake and desserts, blighted by a lack of imagination. Perhaps it has been too long since I've eaten traditional deli cheesecake, and I've forgotten how bland it can be. When the menu says "plain cheesecake" ($2.35), that's precisely and painfully what it means. On a recent visit, a fancier version threaded with caramel and dotted with chocolate sprinkles was a bit better, but only just. I was even more disappointed with the chocolate cherry cake ($2.75 a slice); the layers of cake were dry, the cherries mushy and the whipped cream frosting tasteless.
But these are minor quibbles. I can happily ignore the beets, disregard the cheesecake and overlook the goofy tourist posters of Italy -- what are those about, anyway? -- in favor of the best Reuben in town. No matter how fervently Tayeri touts his dinner entrées, such as stuffed cabbage or beef brisket ("Good value!" he tells me. "Delicious!"), I can't help coming back for his sandwiches. Righteous deli meats and rye bread, I'm telling you, are what it's all about.
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