The Philadelphia region was once one of the best in the country for good Jewish delis—short for delicatessen, from the German/Yiddish word delikatesse (“delicacy”), also meaning the place to eat (“essen”) delicacies—but the number of real Jewish delis is rapidly shrinking.
The reason is up for debate. I think it’s that few former and potential deli store owners are willing to put in the long hours involved in cooking and preparing the myriad home-cooked deli meats and salads required. It is almost as if the great Jewish delis of the past have set the bar too high.
Thankfully, one of the holdouts is Paul Klein, a longtime Philadelphian and traditional deli man. He came out to the Montco suburbs four years ago and opened Pumpernick’s in the great Jewish deli tradition.
Klein owned the Broadway Deli at the Bellevue, had been a part-owner of Barson’s, and was the first proprietor of the Pumpernick’s at 17th and Arch streets.
Klein has two grown sons, Seth and Jeff, to help him run Pumpernick’s, which they proudly style as the “King of Corned Beef & Pastrami.”
If you have never been to a real Jewish deli, you don’t know what you’ve been missing. The two signature sandwich meats: corned beef and pastrami—not to mention the brisket of beef, beef tongue, roast beef and roast turkey breast—are what make or break a deli. Mostly, they are served hot for eating-in, but also cold, as in “cold cuts.”
Pumpernick’s cooks these meats fresh daily on the premises. The corned beef and the “Roumanian” pastrami are boiled and kept moist and hot in a special steam cabinet. Of course, kosher salami, kosher bologna, hard salami, various hams and liverwurst, from prime suppliers, are also available.
And then there is the cornucopia of smoked appetizers, including smoked and kippered salmon, whitefish, whitefish salad, sable, chopped herring, Matjes herring, chopped liver, shrimp salad and egg salad.
No self-respecting Jewish deli can be without garlic pickles, bright green half-sours and dark green sours. Pumpernick’s uniquely has a complimentary pickle bar, brimming with these beauties, all pickled on site, plus sliced cucumber salad, cabbage salad, pickled tomatoes, and sweet and hot peppers.
Have I mentioned the 30-some odd salad platters on the menu … or the 15 triple-decker club sandwiches ... the hot open face sandwich platters ... the fresh fruit platter … the dairy and bagel dishes … or the assorted hoagies and wraps … and the burgers?
Oh, you really feel like having breakfast food? Breakfast is served all day. (Only their mushy homefries are disappointing.)
I have gone to Pumpernick’s singly for breakfast and lunch many times, and with my now-famous LDC (Lovely Dining Companion) for dinner, too. We usually start with a bowl of the hearty vegetarian mushroom barley soup ($3.50). It’s as good as it gets.
While waiting for our order, we pony up to the self-serve pickle bar, fill a plate or two, and chomp on some delicious, juicy, green goodies.
This will typically be followed by her favorite, the classic hot corned beef special on rye, piled high with cole slaw and some Russian dressing ($8), and one of my favorites, either the hot pastrami on rye ($7), or the more esoteric beef tongue sandwich on rye ($9). These are among the world’s greatest sandwich inventions, and Pumpernick’s is holding the long standard high. You can add a soup for an additional $2.79.
Some might rank the great New York delis higher, like the Carnegie and the Stage. I’ve been to those, too. Though the sandwiches there are hugely filled, the price is double.
It is obligatory that we have the one and only Dr. Brown’s sodas with our sandwiches—me, the cream (diet nowadays), and she, the diet black cherry. Sometimes, I will add a side of potato salad, which is made with red bliss potatoes.
If there is a complaint here (besides the mushy homefries for breakfast), it is that with few other good delis in the area, Pumpernick’s is crowded a lot of the time. We went on a Sunday for an unusually early dinner at 4 p.m. and found the 150-seat dining room about 20 percent occupied. By 5:15 p.m., upon leaving, it was already 80 percent full. Last week, we went on a Wednesday at 7 p.m., and we had a moderate 15-minute wait.
Overall rating: mmm 1/2 (out of 5 m’s) One of the few good Jewish delis in the ‘burbs.
To contact Mitch Davis, email MdavisMainCourse@aol.com
Location: 917 Bethlehem Pike, North Wales
Cuisine: Delicatessen restaurant
Hours: Sunday through Thursday, 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Prices: Sandwiches, $5.50 to $12.50; salads, $8 to $15; platters, $8.50 to $14
Credit cards: All major accepted
Alcoholic beverages: Selection of bottled beers, domestic and imported.
Special features: Take-out and major catering, cakes, pastries, fruits, desserts