The ad campaign is "I Remember Isaly's," but if you've lived here for only the past decade or so like us, you don't. Originator of the Klondike bar, perfector of chipped-chopped ham, Isaly's started as a dairy company in eastern Ohio and became a regional institution. Stores had a deli case up front, a cooler of creamy ice cream along the side, and a lunch counter in the back. A dozen or so of the old shops have survived, most as convenience stores. But one, in the North Hills borough of West View, is preserved nearly in amber.
Under a pressed-tin ceiling, old Isaly's memorabilia and photos of the long-gone West View amusement park evoke nostalgia among locals and old-timers. But the traditional menu of hot and cold deli sandwiches, including reubens, chipped ham, steak and cheese, and burgers, should be familiar to anyone who grew up in North America. You won't find nachos or a Thai chicken wrap here. Isaly's only concession to modernity is cappuccino.
Having just missed breakfast, which features most of your short-order standards, we focused on lunch. Grilled ham-and-cheese for our toddler featured Isaly's legendary boiled ham, which took on an intensely flavorful crust where the edges hit the grill. Isaly's full deli gave us a lot of options for both bread and cheese, a treat at such an unpretentious establishment.
Angelique's hot pastrami sandwich offered a thick but not jaw-breaking portion of cured beef grilled on toasty rye bread. The sandwich's taste, texture and proportions were excellent, but coming with no cheese and no mustard, it would have been one dry lunch if Angelique had not requested these additions.
Macaroni and cheese, a special the day we visited, lacked the browned and bubbling top that is Angelique's favorite thing about this particular comfort food. The noodles were soft, but listen up if you're used to the stuff from the box: Isaly's sauce is the real thing, creamy and rich. No mix cooks up like this.
Meanwhile, Jason was in for a surprise treat. One of his luncheonette favorites is hot roast beef or turkey with gravy; with a coin toss, he picked turkey, and he hit the jackpot. Instead of gravy as such, the topping turned out to be a cheddar sauce, creating a homey version of Pittsburgh's own turkey Devonshire. And where the mac and cheese was mild, this sauce was sharp and savory, reminiscent of wintry cheddar soup. It was tasty on the high-quality deli turkey, but we were especially pleased with how it dressed up the taste of the accompanying fries, which were a bit thicker than shoestring, golden-crisp on the outside and fluffy on the inside.
Happily stuffed for about six bucks apiece, we got one more Isaly's specialty to go: triple-dipped milkshakes. Angelique was especially happy to customize hers, requesting both chocolate and raspberry ice cream, an opportunity afforded by that big cooler. And while they were a few ice chips away from perfection, the flavor was rich and creamy. From now on, we will remember Isaly's.JR: