"Delicatessen" was once as evocative a dining term as taqueria or bistro. The name held the hearty promise of German-Jewish specialties, delicacies both hot and cold. But as the word was shortened to "deli" and spread to places where most people can't tell a matzoh ball from a snowball, it came to mean little more than a take-out sandwich shop.
Smallman Street Deli began as such a latter-day deli, in the Strip District of course, albeit one offering house-cured cold cuts. A few years on, the owners got ambitious and decided to expand to Pittsburgh's home for traditional delicatessen, Squirrel Hill. In the move, they took on the fuller meaning of the term, adding hot dinners like beef brisket and turkey and gravy, with special pride in their latkes, Yiddish potato pancakes. The establishment's slogan: "Deli the way it used to be."
The space, in the heart of the Murray Avenue business district, is ample, with a retail counter along one long wall and the eat-in counter at the back. A blackboard runs this entire length, chalked up with a dizzying array of offerings, including butcher-cut meats and cold cuts to go, as well as breakfast, lunch and dinner. If you show up without a specific item in mind, be prepared to spend some time taking it all in.
Angelique occasionally enjoys a nice pastrami sandwich, so her decision was easy. This is one of Smallman Street's "signature sandwiches" ("They're BIG!"). It packed a loose stack of shredded meat between slices of "special rye," about which it was hard to say what was so special, not that there's anything wrong with ordinary rye. Angelique added provolone and mustard. The sandwich held no new revelations about this traditional deli concoction, but it did meet all of Angelique's expectations for perfectly acceptable pastrami on rye: salty, savory meat (greasy, but that's par for this course), and plenty of it, on nutty rye bread with a bit of mild cheese and spicy mustard for contrast.
With winter's chill on, Jason was in the mood for something hot and comforting. Brisket and gravy fit the bill, especially with chicken noodle soup to start and latkes on the side. For a hint of green, he also picked Israeli salad, usually a chunky mix of chopped cucumbers, peppers and onions.
The soup was the beginning of a meal that was bland at best, and at its worst, unpalatable. The chicken broth was mild to a fault -- a liberal sprinkling of table salt did not begin to address its need for seasoning -- and held limp noodles, scant and too-soft chicken, and too-crunchy carrots and celery. For his brisket entrée, the meat itself was in thick, tender slices, but they lacked the fall-apart texture that is the hallmark of this slow-cooked dish. Meanwhile, the beef gravy was just that, plain beef gravy and nothing more, adding little if any flavor to the meat itself.
The Israeli salad consisted of limp veggies which a vinegary dressing failed to brighten, while a heavy hand with dried herbs created an unpleasantly harsh taste and texture. The latkes, made with coarsely shredded potatoes and onion, were crisp on the outside with some tenderness within. Though the best part of Jason's meal, they weren't enough to win him over.
Nor was a dining companion's stuffed cabbage. Though the cabbage leaves were tender, suggesting that the kitchen has some facility with hot foods, the filling of rice and ground beef was, again, underseasoned.
Smallman Street Deli's Murray Avenue outpost offers sandwiches as good as its progenitor. But our experience was that its hot dinners aren't sufficient to revive dormant memories of the great delicatessens of yore.