Saturday mornings had a very reliable rhythm in my New Jersey youth. My brothers and I would park in front of the TV to watch cartoons while my mother stepped out for her weekly therapy session at the hair salon. She would return refreshed, scrubbed free of whatever we'd done to irritate her, and gleefully loaded with new gossip.
Crowned with a freshly lacquered set and wearing an expression of feigned tedium, she'd place a large paper sack on the kitchen table, open it, and instantly perfume the air with the essence of her own youth.
These bags were filled with hauls from our favorite Jewish deli, operated by the son of one of her best friends, who always tucked in an extra container of sharp mustard for my dad. Bulging sandwiches wrapped in grease-stained butcher paper—and, if hot, folded into foil—emerged, along with kosher hot dogs loaded with steaming sauerkraut, huge half-sour pickles, and, on occasion, a tub of chopped liver so good that arguments would erupt if someone had the nerve to finish it in secret.
No deli I've experienced in the Triangle ever came close to delivering such luxurious excess. But this and more rushed back from long-stored memory upon my arrival at Lucky's Delicatessen, Matt Kelly's deeply satisfying new eatery, which is located two doors down from Mateo Tapas on West Chapel Hill Street in Durham. Drew Brown, a former co-owner of Piedmont restaurant and staff chef at Firsthand Foods, is Lucky's executive chef.
The place has the familiar feel of a Jersey deli, complete with counter ordering, and creates a pleasing amalgam of my experience and what my Italian neighbors preferred. My first sight was someone slicing a hefty mortadella, the real deal imported from Bologna, which tumbled into a pillowy mound of porky goodness.
My brother Alan, who had arrived at RDU from New Jersey barely an hour before, also marveled at the sensory overload. "When was the last time you heard 'Down by the River' in a deli?" he asked, as bemused by the Neil Young soundtrack as by our sweet, tattooed server, who politely apologized that the early lunch crowd had depleted the popular roast pork. More disappointing was the discovery that the whitefish salad, which has created considerable buzz, had also sold out.
We started with an assortment of house-cured pickles ($6), including crunchy green tomato wedges, and an order of herbed gravlax ($14), a cured salmon that arrived in shimmering slices with labneh, onion, and capers, more pickles, and hearty bread from Weaver Street Market. The gravlax looked suspiciously sushi-like to Alan, but he could not resist the pickles. "Ordinarily, I don't even like pickles," he said, popping a garlicky tomato bite in his mouth, "but these are great."
Alan quickly settled on his favorite deli fare, the corned beef reuben ($9). While not as overflowing as you'd expect in a northern deli, the meat was lean and tender, with the accompanying kraut, Swiss cheese, and Russian dressing neatly stuffed between grilled slices of rye bread. Tempted by one of the vegetarian choices, I opted for the roasted beet sandwich ($7). Next time I'll skip the Kaiser roll and enjoy this stack of slippery beets, herbed ricotta, pickled onion, and savory pistachio pesto on the optional bed of greens.
Without question, the showstopper of our order was the open-faced chopped liver sandwich ($7). While I couldn't help but imagine my mother spinning at the idea of chopped liver topped with a dollop of chow-chow, the vinegary bite provided the perfect counterpoint to the silky richness of the still-pink liver. "It's not the easiest sandwich to eat," observed my husband, as the layers of liver, chow-chow, and hard-boiled egg slid around his plate. "And it's a shit-load of chopped liver," he added appreciatively, garnishing his prize with onion slices from the fish plate. "I'm pretty sure that's the correct technical term."
While we confined our choices to the familiar, Lucky's menu is rich with affordable indulgences. Heroes delivered to other tables left trails of intoxicating aromas. Aside from the roast pork, options include a classic Italian (salami, mortadella, ham, and provolone), pork-and-beef meatballs, and eggplant parm. At $7.50 for a six-inch sandwich or $14 for a foot-long, these hearty behemoths are a bargain. All-beef hot dogs can be enjoyed with sauerkraut, relish, or slaw ($3.50 for one or $7 for two, including a fountain drink). You also can opt for chili or cheese sauce for an extra buck each.
Lucky's offers a selection of beer and wine, but I suggest that there is no better accompaniment for a great deli lunch than a cold can of Dr. Brown's cherry soda. If by some miracle you have any room left, consider a tempting fresh baked cookie for dessert.
Sadly, Lucky's is only open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday–Saturday, making dinner the stuff of dreams or sensible pre-planning. Deli salads, sliced meats, and cheese all are sold by the pound, and you can enjoy Lucky's pickles, olives, and soup in take-out containers.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Jersey Strong"