Hello, relatives, nice to see you now lets go eat some deli

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In the suburbs of Detroit and Cleveland, they know good deli. Me? What could a Bay Area resident from the age of 4 possibly know? But this time I had an edge. A week before a Rosh Hashanah visit with relatives in Michigan and Ohio, I had an e-mail conversation with “Save the Deli” author David Sax.

Our “official” interview for the article on page 25 was still a couple of weeks off, but I wanted some “insider tips” for my trip.

So I told Sax which delicatessens I had gorged myself at, er, dined at on previous visits, and asked him to make some other recommendations. I really wanted to expand my chopped liver horizons, not just get dragged along to the same old go-to spots.

Not only did Sax deliver, but as I read his book on the airplane, I became obsessed with having a deli-dominated trip. The update on Aunt Judy? Uncle Eddy’s latest fall? Bwah. Five minutes after my wife and I arrived at my inlaws’ house in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. — groggy from our red-eye flight — I turned the topic to deli.

Thanks to the chapter “Motown’s Deli Blues and Michigan’s Suburban Jews,” I was able to happily jog the memories of my mother-in-law and her husband with names of old delicatessens long since forgotten: Nate’s, Brothers, the Avalon.

Soon it was time for lunch, and we piled into the car. But instead of driving to their regular deli, we headed toward a place they had never been, one of Sax’s suggestions: Tony’s Embers Deli, about 10 miles away.

Oy vey! You’d have thought we were driving to Alaska, with all the kvetching. “I hope you’re going to e-mail the guy back and tell him how this place sucked,” my mother-in-law said — before we had even arrived!

The 20-minute drive was worth it. I’ll spare you bite-by-bite details, but the blintzes (handmade by the 80-year-old widow of a Detroit deli king) and the rye bread (do you know about Detroit’s signature double-baked rye?) were the best I’ve ever had.

While there aren’t many reasons for a trip to Detroit, double-baked rye is definitely one of them. As explained in “Save the Deli,” it is “baked until almost ready, cooled and then finished off again in a hot oven shortly before slicing.” The result is similar to sourdough, with a crisp crust and an inside that is a bit doughy — ideal for supporting a huge pile of meat (and mustard).

We were met at Ember’s by my skeptical sister-in-law, who informed us she ate there once and got sick. The inlaws, meanwhile, were wary of the weak service (we had to ask for pickles) and the restaurant’s Albanian ownership (which is actually a trend in Detroit-area delis).

But everyone absolutely loved it, from my mother-in-law’s pastrami to my side order of veggie chopped liver (a concession to my vegetarian wife). They — the big deli experts — had to admit it: It was one of their best deli eating experiences ever. How smug was I when they did?

I ended up dragging various relatives (and my deli-enabler wife) to four delicatessens in a 72-hour span: three in the Detroit ’burbs and one near Cleveland.

The junket concluded with another tip from Sax, Jack’s Deli, which isn’t far from my 95-year-old grandmother’s condo in Beachwood, Ohio.

On previous visits, I was shuttled straight off to Corky and Lenny’s. Every time. Don’t get me wrong: Corky’s is great. But it was time to branch out.

At Jack’s, the food was excellent — house-cured corned beef that lived up to Cleveland’s reputation for having the best; old and new pickles on the same plate (and we didn’t need to ask); 50-cent rye heels. I was in deli heaven.

And then it happened. As I was taking my last bites, my mom and my grandma couldn’t contain themselves anymore, bragging to the waitress: “He’s from California and he’s doing a big article about delis!” A huge to-do ensued. The waitress spelled her name for me. The owner paid our table a special visit.

I turned as red as the borscht, but much to my joy — sorry Mom — our meal was not comped.

Andy Altman-Ohr
lives in Oakland. Reach him at [email protected].

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.