Father Mark Schultz, the charismatic priest at the San Antonio De Padua church in Penasco, jokes that the reason Catholics are required to abstain from eating meat on Fridays is not because there’s a shortage of cows. That’s certainly true. There is more beef on the (cloven) hoof in America than there are tax-paying citizens. That’s why it’s always puzzled me that sandwich restaurants in New Mexico are so chintzy with their meat (beef, lamb or pork) portions. You’d think there really was a meat shortage (and an excess of bread and lettuce) considering the the typical Albuquerque restaurant sandwich is comprised of thin shards of meat buried under half a head of lettuce and enough bread to choke a mule.
In the American megalopolises of Chicago and New York, sandwiches are piled skyscraper high with meat and it’s not a figment of your imagination when you actually experience the flavor of bovine, porcine or ovine amidst the constituent parts of a sandwich. You’d think Chicago and New York were closer to cattle ranches than New Mexico is, but I digress. This is a review of the Times Square Deli Mart right here in Albuquerque. <
That’s Times Square as in the crossroads of the world, as in Midtown Manhattan, as in the iconic landmark area that has become synonymous with the neon-spangled glitz and glamor of advertising to its Disneyesque excess. Several of New York City’s very best and most famous delis, including the Carnegie Deli, are situated at the north end of Times Square. One commonality among those delis is the profound portions of meat. Massive mounds of meat are piled high into each and every sandwich. The sandwiches at the Carnegie Deli, for example, are gargantuan, most topping the scales at one and a half pounds–and they don’t look like a salad burying a measly piece of meat.
When Carey Smoot, the erstwhile proprietor of the fabulous Downtown Gourmet and one of my most trusted foodie friends told me about the Times Square Deli Mart, the “Doubting Thomas” in me wondered if the name was as much, if not more, audacity than authenticity. Was this really be a Meaty Mecca or another pastrami pretender? Still, Carey has never steered me wrong, not when recommending the right cheese for a gourmet meal and not when recommending a restaurant.
The Times Square Deli Mart certainly has the pedigree to deliver where other delis have fallen short and not just in terms of quantity. That pedigree includes familial ownership of six delis in New York, one in Florida and since May 21st, 2007, in a strip shopping center on the southwest corner of Central Avenue and Yale in Albuquerque.
The man behind the counter at the Times Square Deli Mart is Manny Neshewat, the family patriarch. An avuncular Jordanian who greets everyone like a long-time friend, Manny has found a home, a place he loves in Albuquerque. He tried his hand at retirement in Florida then in Arizona, but after decades of working at a breakneck pace, he couldn’t make himself sleep in past six or so.
Three years after moving to Albuquerque, he and Helen, his better half, returned to the business they love–managing a combination deli and convenience store, the likes of which are commonplace in New York, but rare in New Mexico. Within a year, they also launched the Sahara Middle Eastern Eatery about a mile east of the Times Square Deli Mart. The reason it took that long is because the landlord was hesitant about yet another food business opening in an area replete with restaurants.
Despite prominent signage and an abbreviated menu posted by the entrance, you might not even recognize that the deli is open because there are bars on all windows and even on the door. Step past that door and what stands out immediately are aisles of convenience goods, refrigerators stocked with assorted libations and behind a long counter, racks of cigarettes.
On that counter, you’ll also find fruits and pastries including baklava and the oh, so New York black and white cookie. At least it’s a cookie in name. Texture-wise, it’s more cake-like than it is a cookie. It’s soft like a sponge shortbread cake, but it’s shaped like a cookie which is iced on one half with vanilla fondant and on the other hand by dark chocolate fondant.
The black and white cookie became a pop culture icon during an episode of Seinfeld in which Jerry Seinfeld utters the sagacious phrase “look to the cookie” in his analogy of race relations. A New York City transplant bakes these cookies and others specially for the Times Square Deli Mart. You’ve got to try one.
The deli portion of the complex is on the southwest corner of the capacious store, but the aroma emanating from that corner permeates its every square inch…and it’s a great aroma, the melding of spices, meats and cheeses. It’s an aroma familiar to anyone who’s lived on the east coast. It’s the aroma of a New York City deli.
The reason the aroma is so New York-like is the Neshewats have many of their products flown in from New York City. One exception is the bread which is baked for them by the TLC Bakery on Osuna. It’s an excellent sandwich bread. The crust is hard-crusted, but not overly so. The inside of the bread is soft, but not pillowy. It’s chewy without being gummy. Best of all, it’s delicious and it holds up well against sauces and meats without turning soggy. It’s got the New York sandwich bread texture and taste. It’s the perfect canvas for an excellent sandwich.
The Italian Combo is a good Litmus test for any bread and for me, a test of the Times Square Deli Mart’s “New Yorkness.” The Italian combo includes Genoa salami, Capicola ham, pepperoni, Provolone cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, hot peppers, oregano and Italian dressing on a ten or six inch sub roll.
The Italian Combo isn’t skyscraper high as I’ve had in some New York City delis, but contrary to a Bowflex commercial spouting “size matters,” the real size of this sandwich is in its flavor. This sandwich has big flavor. Much of that comes from the balance of flavors in the meats, particularly the Capicola and its light, delicate flavor and the more intensely seasoned (garlic, peppercorns, fennel, red wine) Genoa Salami, but the Italian dressing and thinly sliced onions contribute, too. The hot peppers turn out to be jalapenos.
Since leaving Boston in 1979, it’s been my one of life’s quests to find a pastrami sandwich and a tuna sub to compare with those with which I fell in love in the east coast. Pastrami in New York City and Boston tends to be fairly well marbled (translation: fatty as preferred by lifelong pastrami devotees such as Ed Koch, the former mayor of Metropolis), steamed to softness and piled high. The pastrami is piled into a medium cut grilled rye with a crisp crust and soft insides.
The Times Square Deli Mart doesn’t serve a pastrami sandwich per se, but pastrami is an integral component in two sandwich offerings, the “Made in Heaven” Ruben Grill and the “Coney Island.” The Coney Island starts off with pastrami (or corned beef) to which is added melted Swiss cheese, sauerkraut and hot mustard on grilled rye bread. It’s an excellent sandwich with pastrami piled high, but not quite as fatty as Mayor Koch (or I) would have liked. Pastrami is actually piled above and below the sauerkraut, a nice touch.
Sandwiches are accompanied by your choice of coleslaw, macaroni salad or potato salad. Most sandwiches are just slightly more than the five dollar sandwiches offered by Subway but they’re infinitely better.
The shelves are stocked with dessert options, but you should renounce your membership in the foodie club if you don’t try both the aforementioned black and white cookie and baklava. The baklava is replete with finely chopped pistachios which balance well with the sweetness of the honey amidst layers of phyllo dough.
The Times Square Deli Mart may be as close to New York City as most of us get a chance to frequent. We’re grateful for that opportunity.
Times Square Deli Mart
2132 Central Avenue, S.E., Suite C
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT:8 November 2008
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Coney Island, Italian Combo, Baklava, Black and White Cookie