[from November 2007 issue]
Some days, like a recent rainy Friday, are New York kind of days and demand some down-home, uptown food. I'm thinking Carnegie Deli or the long-closed Sixth Avenue Deli, Manhattan destinations for over-stuffed pastrami sandwiches, sour pickles, and divine cheesecake. Well, if you live in DC and you run out of options for that pastrami/cheesecake fix, head to Morty's Delicatessen on upper Wisconsin.
Stepping indoors is a little like slipping into a community meeting hall -- everyone seems to be on a first-name basis, and if that table of eight, old-pal gentlemen is any indication, Morty's substitutes as the neighborhood kitchen/dining room. Even the cooking aromas remind one of someone's home, and that's before you sit down and get the steel bowl brimming with the freshly made pickles -- green, crunchy and just sour. Oh, memories of the Big Apple.
But before you get seated, pause at the glass counters up front to get an eyeful of goodies: plump, cake-like black-and-white cookies in one corner, fruity rugelach on the top row, and baked goods that wink and beckon like caloric sirens waiting to pounce. Fortunately, all of this is takeout fare, so stock up with a week's worth of NY eats before you leave.
True to the character of such New York places, the menu rounds up all the usual suspects, from the fish platters of nova salmon and belly lox to the ubiquitous salads and diet platters, starring the humdrum melon with cottage cheese, diet hamburger, and grilled chicken breast with cottage cheese. Just this once, tell yourself, forego the calorie counting and order one of those big-deal, New York-style dishes that make this restaurant tick.
Start by flipping to the sandwiches sections for the restaurant's two-fisted selections -- these are seriously big sandwiches. With an I Love New York mindset, I ordered the hot pastrami. What else, though maybe the hot corned beef? Juicy and with just enough fat to bolster flavors, the pastrami is fine solo, but squirt on some of the mustard from the table-set condiment selection. It accents the salty, juicy meat with just enough bite to conjure up memories of Manhattan's Lower East Side in the rain.
Other best bets: any one of the sandwiches are crowd pleasers, and if you are nostalgic for your favorite DC neighborhood, consider “The Chevy Chase” (corned beef, roast beef, turkey, and Swiss) or the simpler “The Bethesda” with only pastrami, tongue and salami. The list goes on, and the combos are hard to turn down. Best of all, Morty's even offers the New Yorker's delight -- the Reuben with fries, an artery-clogger for sure, but what a way to go.
Bigger plates for bigger appetites: sturdy, no-frills entrées include braised brisket, chopped beef steak, stuffed cabbage, and sautéed beef liver with onions. You can't get any more Lower East Side or Bronx than that -- unless you want to start off with a bowl of chicken noodle soup with matzoh balls with a side order of chopped chicken liver, smoked whitefish salad, or a knish. Maybe I don't know enough about kasha, but as a filling for a knish it yields a dry, crumbly mouthful that was really unappealing. Maybe the potato or spinach knish.
All of this fare is just a preamble for the big-deal cheesecake, a soft, creamy wedge with a curl of whipped cream and a crunchy crumb crust. I don't know if this resembles the Carnegie Deli version, but it's pure New York-style, minus the berry or cherry topping. Smart folks must remember to take some home, even if they just stopped in for breakfast. And, yes, Morty's offers the breakfast standards, such as pastrami and eggs, corned beef and eggs, and a Western omelet, all served with fries.
If you knew of Mel Krupin's in the good, old days, and have mourned its passing, word has it that Morty is Mel's brother, and is overseeing the management of this favorite stopping place. Maybe that's why it still feels a little like home.
Morty's Delicatessen / 4620 Wisc. Ave., NW; tel., 686-1989. Hours: 8am-9pm daily. Entrée price range: $11.95-$15.50. Major credit cards.
Copyright (c) 2007 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Alexandra Greeley. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited, except as provided by 17 U.S.C. §107 “fair use”).
Alexandra Greeley is a food writer, editor, and restaurant reviewer. She has authored books on Asian and Mexican cuisines published by Simon & Schuster, Doubleday, and Macmillan. Other credits include restaurant reviews and food articles for national and regional publications, as well as former editor of the Vegetarian Times and former food editor/writer for the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong.
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