Eppy's Deli/Spertus Cafe
Despite a new deli and a kosher café, good Jewish food is still hard to find.
Larry “the Jew” Epstein was looking more kempt than usual: He had a fresh haircut, his shirt was tucked in, there was a jovial lilt in his voice. “How many times you been here?” he asked us. “Have you ever been here? Let me tell you how this works.”
“Wow,” my gentile companion said. “He’s so nice!”
If my companion was going to learn a thing or two about Jewish food, this was a bad start. I wanted him to see that real Jewish delis aren’t nice at all—they’re gruff and loud, and therein lies their charm. Eppy’s Deli wasn’t helping my argument; roomy and flooded with sunlight, it’s a shiny, happy place.
Aesthetics aside, there’s little difference between the new Eppy’s in the Loop and its River North predecessor. A few hot foods make the only menu differences and, for the most part, they’re not worth exploring. A watery, spicy mac and cheese tasted only of heat; a slice of meatloaf was pale and tepid. So we stuck to the regular deli items: Temperature Soup (which that day was a lovely, subtle potato leek that cost 29 cents) and sandwiches. A Jewish deli is only as good as its pastrami, and here Eppy’s turned out to be, as always, dependable: The meat was salty and beefy. But it had been presliced, and was already showing signs of drying out.
“It’s good,” my companion said. But I thought he deserved better examples. So I took him with me as I visited the South Loop’s Spertus Cafe, a kosher café that, like a lot of museum restaurants these days, has Wolfgang Puck’s name attached to it.
Now, there’s a coffee machine in the Time Out offices with Puck’s name on it that spits out substandard liquids at best, so it’s clear the famous chef doesn’t have a lot of shame where branding is involved. Still, I can’t see what’s in this partnership for either party. Puck gets a measly selection of premade salads and sandwiches to his name; meanwhile, Spertus has no doubt shelled out a chunk of change for the privilege of his reputation. But nobody wins here—particularly not the diners.
Tearing through the plastic packaging, I found one cold, lifeless meal after another. A cobb salad (which resembled a true cobb salad in chicken only) consisted of tough, frigid slices of chicken and melancholy greens; tuna maki was heavy on the rice and full of dry tuna. An Israeli salad stuffed into a doughy slice of pita wasn’t half bad, its sprightly mix of red onion and cherry tomatoes a bright reminder that it’s still summer somewhere, and the salmon had a certain lushness about it. But both dishes still cried out for something more. Salt, for instance.
From the deflated look on my companion’s face I could tell he wasn’t impressed, and I couldn’t blame him. Luckily I had picked up a still-warm pine nut–apple cake at the counter. As I popped a bit of it into my mouth I tasted success: moist, spongy cake; chunks of sweet-tart apples; and the occasional crunch of walnut. I tore off a piece and held it up. “This,” I said, shaking it excitedly in front of his face. “This is something that tastes Jewish.”
Eppy’s Deli, 160 N Franklin St between Randolph St and Couch Pl (312-345-7771). El: Brown, Green, Orange, Pink, Purple (rush hrs) to Clark. Breakfast, lunch, dinner (closed Sun). Average sandwich: $6.
Spertus Cafe By Wolfgang Puck, 610 S Michigan Ave at Harrison St (312-322-1718). El: Red to Harrison. Bus: 1, 2, 3, X3, 4 (24hrs), X4, 10, 14, 26, 28, 127, 146. Breakfast, lunch (closed Sat). Average main course: $6.