Dine Quixote: Racing to grab great deli food

As we end the year, I just have to tell you this about myself: My favorite holiday movie is "Love Actually," and each year I sit down with Sherri Panza and the children to watch this British romp about love, life, death, politics, rock and roll, and Christmas. Subtract all of the comedy and my favorite segment still is when the Liam Neeson character rushes his stepson to Heathrow Airport so that he can profess his love to one of his classmates before her plane leaves for the United States. No spoilers here, but there is a race to and through the terminal that ups the tension before the ending we all know will happen. (Come on, it's Christmas!)

Well, I got a little taste of such a race as Sherri and I headed once again up to Milwaukee to visit our daughter. Having read one of the most popular food books of the year, "Save the Deli: In Search of Perfect Pastrami, Crusty Rye, and the Heart of Jewish Delicatessen," David Sax's breezy recounting of his search for Jewish delis in the U.S., Canada and other places to which we Jews have tended to migrate, we decided that once past the Indiana border, we'd make a beeline for Shapiro's in Indianapolis (shapiros.com). This establishment, which has two locations in the metro area, was not one that hosted Mr. Sax's pastrami-craving tongue, but it has been a legend in the Midwest for years because of the quality of its meats and the thickness of its rye bread.

Our drama was, the clock was ticking. The Downtown Shapiro's closes at 8:30 p.m., while the newer branch in the northern suburb of Carmel shuts its doors at 9. Because we could not leave Pittsburgh until Sherri finished work, we set departure for 2 p.m. This would allow for a short visit with my parents in Dayton, Ohio, and then we'd hustle to the northern meat nirvana.

It should have been easy. Sherri got out of work early. We had no children traveling with us. The van was already loaded with books and furniture. The weather was beautiful. But for some reason, and for the life of me I can't deduce it, I didn't fire the ignition until a half-hour later than planned.

And the race began across Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio, allowing for nothing more than a short stop for gas near Columbus and 10 minutes with my mom and dad (and if this isn't an insult to loving parents, I don't know what is). But my parents said they understood. They were the ones who taught me about good and bad deli food.

Darkness fell as we neared the Indiana border and we started to worry that we might not make it. As we hit the Indy bypass exit it was 8:20. I had figured on 15 minutes to the Carmel exit and we were right on time, but once we turned off the road I was stumped. After turning right and left and right again we could not find it. The numbers did not make sense. It was 8:45.

I was ready to throw in the towel and come back for breakfast, but leave it to Sherri to figure -- we had a cell phone! It was now 8:50 and the phone was ringing. A woman answered and assured us that we were only a half mile away and no, we need not get sandwiches to go because they would stay open for us.

What we learned, after we walked through the doors at 8:55, from Wayne, the counterman, was that if we had called two minutes later, the doors would have been locked and they would have had finished cleaning and left.

We ordered a corned beef and a pastrami, and grabbed cole slaw, a hunk of cheesecake and two Dr. Brown's black cherry sodas from the cafeteria cases and thought about how lucky we were. Oh yeah, the pastrami was magnificent and the corned beef, even this close to closing, was juicy. The cole slaw's mayonnaise base was tangy and not too sweet. The rye bread was as thick as I remembered. A true gift before trying to find our hotel, where we enjoyed the hunk of coconut cream pie forced upon us for free by Wayne.

Now, readers and lovers of food, I have to tell you that following my last column I was chastised for not having revealed more of the fantastic ethnic fare served in Milwaukee's high and low dining establishments. And you aren't going to read about them in this column, either, because I was able to satisfy another of my food desires in Chicago. I wound through the streets there until I reached Superdawg, a hot pooch emporium run by Maurie and Florrie Berman near the intersection of Devon, Nagle and Milwaukee (superdawg.com). It is the ultimate high end of kitsch, the building topped with huge sculptures of Maurie and Florrie hot dogs and the parking lot crowded with working car-hop stations.

They tuck their de-lish dogs -- adorned with the traditional mustard, relish and sport peppers, resting on a bed of fries -- into cute cardboard boxes When we stopped in they once again were attracting the national media because after dozens of years of gestation, it was time for the birth of another outpost of Superdawg. Not wanting to franchise or let control out of the family, the Bermans opted to wait for someone in the family to run one. And now they have a granddaughter who will do just that.

The return trip reinforced something I knew: Trust in the concept of divine mischief. While creeping northward through Chicago we'd chanced to see a hot dog shop on the west side of the highway -- just perfect for breakfast on our Sunday morning return. We already had jumped off the highway near Lebanon, Ind., to check on the quality of flapjacks, which was touted on a billboard, and discovered a place that provided solid fare -- pancakes, eggs and such in a packed dining area. But there was that little voice inside urging us to do something naughty ... and what's more naughty than hot dogs and fries at 9 in the morning?

Of course, when heading south, we couldn't see our hot dog stand. I got off the highway and promptly got lost, getting a first-hand view of the renovations of the old Jewish and then African-American Maxwell Street shopping district but not finding a place to eat. Impatiently I shook my head and pointed the van up the road and readied my hungry self to get back to some serious driving.

As I finally neared the entrance ramp, I started laughing: To the right were two hot dog stands offering up a different tubular delicacy -- the original Maxwell Street hot dogs and kielbasa tucked into buns with dark mustard, hot kraut and grilled onions. With free fries!

Taking a bagful of succulence, we were back on the road again.

Larry Roberts , who shoots the We Are Pittsburgh photographic gallery for PG+ when he's not out foraging for road food, can be reached at lroberts@post-gazette.com .


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