Orange County's delis try hard. True, they're not on the same level as Katz in New York or Ashkenaz in Chicago; effort alone is no substitute for the steady hand of an experienced counterman or the buttery texture of premium Nova lox straight off the boat. Maybe this is just God's way of compensating the eastern cities for not having Little Saigon and the rest of our dazzling culinary kaleidoscope.
In any case, the new P.J. Bernstein's in Laguna Hills recently vaulted into position as O.C.'s best deli. Katella Deli in Los Alamitos--no slouch itself--now runs solidly in secondplace.
The owner of P.J. Bernstein's, Alex Slonimsky, is a partner in the restaurant of the same name in New York City. He flies in beautifully ruddy hunks of pepper-edged pastrami, possibly the best in California outside the city limits of Los Angeles. If Slonimsky ever decides to serve the meat hand-sliced (his lox and the lake sturgeon are both hand-sliced, if not up to the lofty standards of Barney Greengrass in Beverly Hills), a sandwich here will be a true maykhl (that's Yiddish for an extra-delicious treat).
The dining room is rather neutral-looking, more like a South County coffee shop than the vibrant urban setting most good delis thrive on. One side of the restaurant is offset by a big glass counter, home to salamis, cheeses, smoked fish and the other usual deli suspects. The other side is all vinyl booths, wood-pattern tabletops and posters from classic Broadway shows like "Mame" and "Cabaret."
One look at the menu's Delancy Street section should convince you that this is a serious New York-style deli.
Here you find stuffed cabbage, kishke, kasha varnishkes (buckwheat groats with noodles) and even kasha knishes, as well as gefilte fish, herring in cream sauce, potato pancakes and a variety of fish. Most items are quite good, though the fish tends to be a little dry.
Undoubtedly, the menu's weightiest dish is what it calls hot smorgasbord, a trencherman combo of kishke, kasha and stuffed cabbage. The last is messily terrific: meat-stuffed cabbage leaves in a sweet-sour sauce loaded with plump raisins. The kasha is blanketed in thick brown gravy. P.J. Bernstein's calorific kishke, a sort of starchy carrot- and chicken-flavored sausage, is the best around.
The Fifth Avenue entrees are also worth a look. Good chicken broth, properly boiled chicken, soft noodles and a fluffy, delicious matzo ball make chicken in the pot a delightful cold-weather supper. P.J. Bernstein's hot brisket and Romanian skirt steak are trim and tasty. Beef flanken, essentially boiled beef flank, can be had on a plate with boiled potatoes, but I asked for mine in the same double-handled pot as the chicken, with the same noodle and matzo ball companions.
A home-style Vermont turkey dinner with all the trimmings is on hand for those who find the above dishes too unfamiliar. On the other hand, those who wish to delve deeper into Russian dishes can consider the borscht, a hearty beet and cabbage soup with abundant chunks of tender boiled beef (you could eat it Russian-style, with gobs of sour cream). Or the pierogi, big fried dumplings filled either with ground meat or spiced mashed potatoes.
P.J. Bernstein's is moderately priced. Appetizers are $3.95 to $13.95. Sandwiches are $4.95 to $8.50. Entrees are $9.95 to $13.95.
Turn right at the front podium of the giant Katella Deli and you're smack in the middle of hanging salamis and seven-layer tortes. Turn left and head down the stairs, and chances are you'll wind up at a squeaky-clean vinyl booth, eating off a frictionless green plastic table top.
The menu is encyclopedic at this briskly busy place, with page after page of such items as fried cheese, Cobb salad, chicken cashew stir-fry and Build a Potato. Hmm. Well, there are Jewish dishes here too. And they're mostly fresh, tasty and generously portioned.
Chicken kreplach soup is a meal in itself if you ask the kitchen to throw in a little rice at no extra charge. The kreplach are doughy, meat-filled dumplings. Just one takes up most of the room in a large crock of full-flavored chicken broth, and the soup already comes with a basket of rye and pumpernickel breads.
Katella's chicken in the pot is boiled chicken, matzo balls, noodles, vegetables and kreplach, making it a bargain at $7.95 (the P.J. Bernstein's edition is $10.95, and that's without kreplach). Dairy lovers should grab the cheese blintzes, three big crepes with a sweet farmer's cheese filling. Sure, the blintzes are grossly oversized and a bit unsubtle, but they're tasty with sour cream and a healthy schmear of strawberry preserves.
Katella Deli's roast chicken is a sizable portion, served with a dense square of noodle kugel, the Yiddish take on bread pudding. The potato pancakes are properly eggy and oniony, if heavy and on the greasy side.