As artery-damaging as a plate of deli food might be, those of us who have eaten their weight in smoked meat from places like Schwartz's and The Main in Montreal understand how devastating the deli's decline really is. While those institutions live on in Montreal, the situation elsewhere is dire, with smoked meat that too often comes out of a package, mediocre fries and - perhaps worst of all - no Cott's black cherry soda.
Fortunately, a true deli revivalist named Zane Caplansky recently set up shop in Toronto. When Caplansky's opened in a tiny space inside the Monarch Tavern in summer 2008, the place was an instant smash. They were constantly packed, and frequently ran out of meat before the end of a week. By September of last year a bigger space was in order, which Caplansky's found right in the heart of the College Street strip.
Despite the rave reviews and my love of deli food, I was never able to make it to Caplansky's - until today, when the stars finally aligned and I found myself in the 'hood with an empty stomach. Unfortunately, it was also 10 a.m., and while Caplansky's serves breakfast, the meat cutters don't take their places until 11.
While my brain reasoned that I'd waited so long for a Caplansky's sandwich that it might be worthwhile to sit it out and wait the extra hour, my stomach had a simpler and ultimately more convincing argument: "Food. Now." After settling on the smoked meat hash, I began to regret my choice; every time I order the more-common corned beef hash, I quickly and happily eat my way through the dish, until I reach the halfway point and grow slightly revolted at the mushiness of the meat and same-ness of the flavour.
I needn't have worried. Caplansky's smoked meat hash is described on the menu as "Sandwich board leftovers griddle fried with onion, potato and eggs sunny side on top." While yesterday's table scraps might not appeal to everyone, most people's leftovers aren't like this: little morsels of hand-cut meat, with the perfect amounts of smoke, spice and fat, mixed with sauteed onions and julienned sticks of potato. Two eggs sit on top. It's a mountain of food, even for someone who eats like I do. But it's so good I can't stop. By the end, the unnecessary fruit garnish and half a piece of toast are the only things left on my plate.
As good as it is, breakfast isn't what Caplansky's is famous for, as evidenced by the fact that the place is virtually empty when I arrive at 10 a.m., but quickly fills with people eager for an early sandwich when I leave an hour later. I'll be back, too, and soon. If the smoked meat is this good at breakfast, I can't wait to have it hand-cut on a sandwich, with a side of fries, a pickle and a black cherry soda - the way real deli is supposed to be.