Monday, August 3, 2009

Benji's: A Classic To Some, News To Me...

I was watching the Food Network the other day (because I don't have enough to fill my time with as it is...), and the show they were running was something along the lines of, "The Best Thing I've Ever Eaten." This skinny, kinda witchy looking brunette whom I've never seen on TV before starts yammering on about her favorite desert... some sundae (probably in LA or Seattle or San Francisco) where they take Schokinag chocolate ice cream (elitist golf claps), and top it with sea salt, whipped cream, and -- get this -- bergamot infused olive oil. Oh, what has the food world come to?

We can't even be satisfied with a premium chocolate ice cream any more. We have to tart it up with all sorts of non-dessert stuff, slather olive oil, sprinkle sea salt... I mean, there's all sound culinary knowledge behind those additions, but I have to ask... is it necessary?

I'm being unfair and small-minded, I know. But with my monthly operating budget shrinking by the day, the simpler, tried-and-true treats I know deliver on their promises become more and more attractive.

Take, for instance, Kopp's vanilla custard. Simple. Consistent. Hasn't changed in the past 40 years. But when you really strip away the hype, it's absolutely entrancing, deep and dark, sweet, fatty, creamy, eggy, with this smooth gloss of cooked custard flavor that just screams home-made. No designer chocolate, no crazy savory ingredients. Just a half a century of tradition, plopped in a plastic bowl with a little cookie crisp, just how it's always been. There's comfort in that, particularly when it's a little shaky if I'm going to have enough gas in the Focus to make it to next payday.

Which I think is why Benji's has enjoyed such continued success for so many years. The food served is simple. The setting is spartan. And the experience is consistent.

On our latest outing, Andy, Lauren, and our latest staff member, Adam, took a trip to Milwaukee's (the North Shore's, to be more precise) authentic, honest-to-G-D, New York style deli.

Benji's is a no-frills affair. There are small tables, banquettes, a counter, and a couple of coolers. A few pictures on the wall, a few road signs for good measure, and that's about all there is to the interior.

The menu is straightforward and succinct. With a variety of deli fixtures, we've always been to Benji's for either lunch or dinner (although I hear breakfast is to die for). Selections run the gamut of what you'd expect: cold cuts, corned beef, traditional Jewish deli fare.

We started out our dining experience with a cup of chicken soup with a Matzoh ball:

or a bowl of the Mushroom and Barley soup:

Since I did not order the mushroom barley soup, I have a hard time assessing it properly. However, I did delight in the tradition of matzoh ball soup, and feel dually qualified to comment on the treat.

Benji's matzoh ball soup is safe: no surprise. That may seem a little drowsy, but there's a time and a place for everything, and I believe the soup matches the restaurant. The salty yellow chicken broth reminds me of the chicken stews my Grandpa Al used to cook for the family. Little drops of nuclear-yellow schmaltz adorn the surface of the soup, and the matzoh ball, like a pale, pasty set of ass-cheeks looms over the broth. The flavors are familiar, delicate and comforting. The matzoh ball is smooth, firm but still creamy, with a tight skin on the outside and a giving, only faintly grainy interior. It's fluffy, it's buttocks-shaped, and it's marvelous.

Sandwiches at Benji's, as a rule, are gargantuan. For proof, take a look at this traditional Corned Beef sandwich:

Or, this Reuben:

Or, particularly, my Hear-O Israel:

The Hear-O Israel is made up of a menagerie of meats, including Corned Beef, Pastrami, Salami, and Peppered Beef. Add oily cole slaw, swiss cheese, and Thousand Island dressing, and you have indigestion on a plate.

The meats are massive. Like, I'm not sure how to properly describe them in words massive. In fact, I had to make sure to get a super-extra close-up shot of the meat, just to demonstrate how the different strata are clearly visible:

The meat component is sublime: salty, spicy, tender, and chewy all at once. The cheese is relatively mild, a bit player (actually, hardly necessary, but then... when is cheese ever unwanted?), the cole slaw both sweet, crisp, and a bit oily, and the thousand island dressing... well... thousand-islandy. Served with chips and a pickle spear, it is a completely filling dinner, and a lunch that will certainly yield leftovers.

Benji's doesn't parade around as something it's not: this is simple recipes, probably generations old, prepared and served in a loving but unadorned manner. It has become a favorite in my group of friends for Sunday afternoon Dunch. Or Linner, depending on how you look at it. Consistent, tasty, and a little on the pedestrian side, Benji's delivers the kosher goods again and again.

Report Card:
Atmosphere: A-
Kitschy, simple and fun, Benji's reminds me of the sort of places my dad would take me when my mom was working late. A great example of mid-50's lunch counter, Benjis' hasn't changed much since then.

Prices: B-
Prices, despite what you might think, aren't shockingly low. My Hear-O Israel set me back almost $12, and that's before you factor in a cup of soup and a drink. It's a damn good sandwich, and you get a stack of meat that would make R. Lee Ermey quiver, but you do pay a little bit for it.

Service: A
Quick, courteous, and not too invasive. Everything I like in wait staff.

The Food: A
A taste of childhood, of Grandpa Al's chicken stew and Grandma B's Matzoh balls (oh, we're Polish Catholics, so they were always dumplings to us, but the same thing, nonetheless). With so many of the old recipes dying with the Matriarchs and Patriarchs who held them, Benji's is a lifeline to foodways that are on the endangered species list.

The Details:

Benji's Restaurant and Deli
(414) 332-7777
4156 N. Oakland Ave.
Shorewood, WI 53211

Menu available online here

Benji's Delicatessen on Urbanspoon