The Jewish Deli: The Bagel vs. Manny’s

The old school deli cannot be beat. Whether Kosher, Jewish or simply European, the deli brings with it a rich tradition of corned beef, pastrami, latkes (potato pancakes), rye breads, matzo ball soup and a hundred other menu items that epitomize old world cooking. Unfortunately, the deli is not a restaurant model that’s thriving at the moment. It requires a lot of work, traditionalist chefs and a ritualized mastery of ingredients that borders on sacrilege if prepared wrong. There’s nothing more offensive to me then a bad bagel (I’m looking at you Lenders!). While New York maintains its choke hold on this tradition, Chicago has its share of delis and the Jews that keep them running. Highland Park and Skokie have their contenders in the who’s who of Chicago delicatessens, but I’m going to focus on city-based establishments. It’s the north side versus the south side, the dinner versus the cafeteria, Devon versus Maxwell Street… it’s The Bagel versus Manny’s Coffee Shop and Deli!

The Bagel

Originally located on Kedzie and Lawrence in the 50’s, they later moved their shop to Devon Avenue and for a stint served up their legendary matzo balls to the large Jewish population occupying the North Side of Chicago. As the tribe kept shifting north they eventually opened a new location at the Old Orchard Mall in Skokie and then shifted their Devon operation down to Broadway St. This is where little David comes into the picture. While I loved my grandma’s kugel (Jewish noodle casserole) on Yom Kipur, nothing got me more excited about Jewish cooking then trekking through Lakeview for half a corned beef sandwich and a matzo ball soup at The Bagel. It didn’t matter that everyone there looked old enough to be my grandma. Quite the contrary. This is where grandma would go out to get her mishmash soup; the only people who made it better then her. If you’ve never had a matzo ball then I cannot emphasize more the importance of trying it here.

Their corned beef is nothing to scoff at either; though over the years I’ve slowly relented to the fact that Manny’s does it better. Just make sure you get it on a dark bread and go heavy on the mustard. Try ordering white bread or mayo in a Jewish Deli and you’ll have more than matzo balls floating in your soup.

Gefelte Fish is an acquired taste, but if you dig it then get it here with that bright pink horseradish on the side. Lox (smoked salmon) or Chubs (smoked white fish) with all the trimmings on a house made bagel is an art form practiced here in full. Blintzes, frankfurters, Hoppel-Poppel omelets, liverwurst and onions, so many delicacies that deserve a chance in your culinary vocabulary. If you’re eating Foie Gras at Hot Doug’s but you refuse to try a liverwurst then you’re a hypocrite of the worst kind. And if nothing else wins you over at The Bagel, the pickles will. Quartered slices of crisp dill pickles served in little metal trays for free with complimentary baskets of challah bread — still better than any pickle I can get my hands on. If you want to know what it’s like to eat like a Jew, this my friend is your window of opportunity.

Manny’s Coffee Shop and Deli

While I give The Bagel the edge on traditional Jewish cuisine, Manny’s is a Chicago powerhouse on lunch meats. Like The Bagel, they opened shortly after WWII and have changed locations a few times, but always remained centered around the open-air market of Maxwell Street. Now located on Jefferson and Roosevelt, this place is the supreme lunch room cafeteria. If The Bagel is full of aging Jews, Manny’s crowd is far more diverse with cops, politicians, lawyers, tourists and South Loop business men. I suggest anyone who wants to go to do a little research first. You grab your tray and start sliding down that steel wrack and you’re immediately confronted by burly mustached men wielding knives on innocent hunks of steaming meat, slicing heaps upon heaps of corned beef, pastrami, turkey pastrami, brisket, roast beef, etcetera. Then these men look at you as if you’ve been standing there for hours and ask with unrestrained impatience “well whadya waant?” God help you if you don’t know or at least don’t have the chutzpa (audacity) to give him shit right back.

Once you’ve chosen your lunch meat you’ll get more of it then you’d ever ask for with a veritable mountain of shaved meat piled between marbled bread. After that it gets easier since most of the food is on little dishes hanging out for you to grab. This brings us to the latke, or potato pancake. Both The Bagel and Manny’s do wonders with this little disk of starch but Manny’s wins on size and crispiness. You’ll get your apple sauce and sour cream with it and be ready to chow down.

Now, be warned: Manny’s isn’t cheap. Like its N.Y. counterparts, traditional deli prices have been creeping up and up over the years and now a Manny’s sandwich will run you $11. I call it the price of a dying art. And in their defense, you won’t leave hungry — pricey or not you get your moneys worth.

I speak of both The Bagel and Manny’s in the same breath because they are both branches from the same tree and I don’t believe you have the full picture on Chicago’s Russian or Polish food scene until you’ve been to both of these places. I’m willing to bet there’s plenty of Chicagoans out there who will disagree with my culinary opinions in full, quite certain that Manny’s makes a better matzo ball and The Bagel is the only place for corned beef. I welcome your disagreements. Like a good schmaltz, it’s an argument I’m happy to conduct forever.

The Essentials:
Manny’s Coffee Shop & Deli
Location: 1141 S. Jefferson
Phone: 312.939.2855

The Bagel
Location: 3107 N. Broadway
Phone: 773.477.0300

David Frankel McLean

About David Frankel McLean

I’ve been thinking philosophically about Chicago since I was jaywalking the streets at the age of 10. I don’t root for both baseball teams and I don’t put Ketchup on my hot dogs. When someone says they’re a Chicagoan they are speaking of a heritage and a doctrine, not just a location. What that doctrine is I’m not entirely sure, it’s constantly changing with the growth of the city and I’ll spend my entire life trying to figure it out.

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