Having eaten sandwiches from Pittsburgh to Paris, from Kittanning to Kiev, from Rankin to Roma, Brooklyn to Blawnox, and, as of last week, in the musty deep of the U.S. Steel Tower, we here at Munch HQ know a thing or two.
About sandwiches, I mean.
In case that wasn't clear.
For example, did you know that the sandwich was invented by Pittsburgh's very own Rick Sebak? It's true! One day, many years ago, way back during the Joe Barr administration, Rick was sitting at his desk, a stack of chipped ham in one hand, a loaf of Wonder Bread in the other, a bottle of mustard in one of his trouser pockets, and a slice of Swiss cheese stitched into his sportcoat lapel for snacking emergencies, when he was struck by inspiration.
Hmm. Upon further review, maybe our sandwich expertise isn't as thorough as it ought to be -- but we know enough to tell the difference between a sandwich place and a deli. And Sal's City Deli is no deli, at least not in its highest, truest, Kosher-style sense -- no matzah ball soup on the menu. No schmaltz. No cured fish. No kishke, even!
Why make a stink about semantics? The "deli," as a species, is an endangered thing (see "Save The Deli" by David Sax for more on that). All the Neo-Delis and Hipster-Kosher places in the world won't change that. You can re-imagine the deli if you wish, but the truth is, Jewish cuisine is fading bit by bit, and its guardians have been -- and ought to be -- protective of that word, "deli." Every time a Panera opens, Abe Lebewohl spins a little in his grave.
Maybe, if we're really stretching it, you could call it Sal's Goyish Deli, but even that's a reach. It's a sandwich place, and a fairly formidable one -- and that's absolutely nothing to be ashamed of.
Take the beef on weck ($8.95). No, not beef on Wecht, I said beef on weck. You can't find that outside of Buffalo, for the most part, but you can find it at Sal's. The key to the sandwich is, of course, the kummelweck bun. This one wasn't quite salty enough for my tastes -- those salt corns should be spilling off the roll, if you ask me -- but that's not enough to undermine the final product. It's a fine sandwich, properly presented (flanked by a pickle spear and a mug of prepared horseradish).
The "rachel" (a turkey reuben, $8.95) is sturdy and tangy, and the standard reuben holds up nicely against local competitors. Red potato salad ($2.75) provided a sweet balance to all the sauerkraut on the menu, and the quinoa salad was a polite nod to something trendy and healthful, I suppose.
A few salads, a few soups, the obligatory French dip, toss in an elegant muffuletta, and that's the menu in a nutshell. Total check, for two sandwiches, three sides, two drinks and a salad -- $50, including tip. Gonifs! Er, a bit steep, I mean, but you get what you pay for, and this is a higher class of sandwich than you can get at most Downtown takeout spots.
Sal's now occupies a high-traffic corner on Liberty Avenue, the successor to the Le Cordon Bleu culinary school kitchen and a convenience store whose identity I've already forgotten. It's a clean space, appointed in soft reds and golds, with seating for a few dozen and a separate takeout counter on the north side of the building. Ronald Herbinko, a veteran of the Common Plea and a longtime culinary instructor, runs the kitchen, while Michael Tarquinio handles the business.
Perhaps I'm being too hard on the place. The term "deli" has been drained of much of its 20th-century cultural and urban heritage, and that's not Sal's fault, is it? Smallman Street has a deli. Carson Street has a deli. Foodland has a deli. If you serve meat and cheese on a bun, you can call yourself a delicatessen, I suppose.
Still, I confess to hoping for more -- Pittsburgh is not what you would call a strong deli city. I'm not sure Sal's will change that (this place is more Italian than it is anything else, to be honest -- look for cannolies, cappuccinos and Italian hoagies on the menu). But we are a strong sandwich city, and in this regard, Sal's will fit in quite nicely. Ess gezunt to all that.
Sal's City Deli is at 245 7th St., Downtown; 412-434-1100 and www.salscitydeli.com.