It isn't easy to create the right deli aesthetic. For some, like the old-school Jewish delis, things naturally fall into place. But how to ring in the modern, the new? Some on my list have stood the test of time; others have reinvented. Sandwich purists may find a better option or two that exist elsewhere, but these are all package deals. To define what needs to be sold at a modern deli — by yours truly — I'm expanding beyond cold cuts to include breads, salads, and cheeses. At minimum, each place must serve a sandwich, and at least with these four, they are all ones to remember.
Spend a little more time at Marty's Deli, and you may notice kitschy details that elevate Marty's Deli from a New York-style, classic Italian deli to one that expresses the colorful voice of its owner, Martha Polacek. The soothing mosaic by the door, the nautical blue accents, the fancier take on checkerboard-patterned wrappers. The provisions — Minnow tinned fish next to petite bags of La Molisana pasta and Duke's mayo — alongside a flowering wall of deli chips, and beside it a riot of hipster sparkling waters and CBD soda. Savage Garden playing in the background.
And the sandwiches, some of which are clever riffs on deli staples like chicken salad, an Italian hero and BLTs. My favorite among them happens to be Polacek's, too: The Pool & Yacht ($15) leavens good chicken — a Wild Acres breed — with capers, pickled fennel, arugula and a red onion pepperoncini. It's familiar yet somehow elevated. Don't miss the Uncle Pete ($15), the BLT play, either. While there is Peterson Farms bacon in there (and it's glorious), the stars here are the cold, crisp lettuce and that perfect, thickly cut beefsteak tomato. And the pimentón aioli.
But really, it's her housemade focaccia. A little chewier than usual, and in the right thickness, the bread is a pleasure to eat — with or without the filling. That's probably why Marty's has that special something that will make my visits there more frequent than at other solid delis in this style.
Polacek transformed a tattoo parlor in this brick-and-mortar location into something where all can frequent — and linger. Marty's has come a long way since her days peddling sandwiches via a '73 VW bus. Stop by.
400 Lowry Av. NE., Mpls., martysdeli.com; open 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Wed.-Fri., 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Sat.-Sun. Breakfast served until 11 a.m.
The decor, I'm told, has not changed much in Emily's 50-year history. But endearing things — the old-school cash register and display case flanked with large glass jars of sweets, among others — don't age, especially with prices in check. The most expensive thing on the menu is an excellent lamb shish kebab meal, for $22. But the sandwiches are $11, and for about $5, you can subsist well on the cabbage rolls and tabouli salad, both my go-to picks.
The tabouli, made in-house daily, is more vibrant than typical, with the kind of acidity that can disintegrate rust — a good thing, done well — and there is plenty of parsley within the nooks. That may be why patrons repeatedly frequent the shop and buy it to go by the pint. But it comes as an optional side to entrees, too. During a recent visit, I enjoyed the Kafta burger; the patty, wedged between housemade buns, was juicy and threaded with spices.
It'll take more than a few visits to discover all the gems on the menu. The not-very-Instagram-friendly cabbage rolls are one of them — soft and nutty — but on a prior visit I sparked joy with the Lubin, a housemade Lebanese yogurt ($3.25).
641 University Av. NE., Mpls., 612-379-4069, emilyslebanesedeli.com; open 9 a.m.-8 p.m. every day but Tuesday.
Mi-Sant may look a little too primed for a franchise — there are two locations, one next to an Applebee's — but proves it can be done appealingly. It looks like Belle's house from "Beauty and the Beast," except in the form of a gift shop. See: beautiful display cases emblazoning glossy fruit croissants, faux marble countertops and sleek branding.
Purists may think twice about a bành mí purveyor that isn't manned by a sweet old lady negging you to lose weight. They may ask why one of the bành mí options on this menu contains fried egg. And why this isn't like Trung Nam, another favorite of mine — albeit more traditional.
But the housemade baguettes closely rival the ones there, with a surface resembling a cracked sand dune and an interior that has the right chew and airiness. On the display counter are whole loaves, as tall as walking sticks, that you can — and should — purchase, but not without first ordering the Mi-Sant special ($9.50), which is special because of the grilled pork (tender, with a hint of smoke), char siu pork (mildly sweet), that fried egg and all the fixings. The mayo announces itself but doesn't linger, acting merely as a binder. Days when I crave a little something extra from a bành mí, I think of this one. Fondly.
Also of note: the grease-weeping bulgogi kimchi fries ($7.19), those tightly wrapped, thin-skinned spring rolls ($10.75-$12), and the hefty bowls.
8540 Edinburgh Centre Drive, Brooklyn Park, 763-355-5947; 1881 W. Hwy. 36, Roseville, 651-444-8107; mi-sant.com; open 9 a.m.-8 p.m. Mon.-Sat.
Kramarczuk's Sausage Co.
Leaving Kramarczuk's Sausage Co. without buying any of their sausages is like visiting Disneyland without seeing the castle. No matter how often you frequent the park, the castle is a must because it's always magical. At Kramarczuk's, there are 35 reasons (sausage varietals, as of press time) encouraging you to return. My most recent visit was my 12th.
I wouldn't leave without ordering their Reuben ($14.95), either. It's Kramarczuk's not-so-secret gem, a real winner: 13 generously cut slices of corned beef, piled as high as the bed from "The Princess and the Pea." It's deceptively easy to eat because the beef is tender and the sauerkraut is mellow. A swipe of Thousand Island dressing on warm, slightly nutty housemade pumpernickel is all that you need to hold all this glorious meat. Yes, it's the best I've had in the Twin Cities.
For a more unadulterated, even meatier experience, consider the pastrami brisket ($16) griddled on caraway rye. The meat, as red as velvet drapes, is thinner, chewier with just the right band of fat; if we're doing an apples-to-apples comparison, the one at Cecil's is more virtuous. On another night, the St. Paul institution's Sasha sandwich was on my mind (a better pastrami, Swiss cheese, fried egg, and that secret "bird" mustard-mayo sauce — a delicious meld).
But Kramarczuk's cafeteria-like system, brisk ordering and pierogies give it a slight edge. So, too, does the endearingly impatient service. Nothing hits "home" — my six years in New York — like crisp deli tenor.
215 E. Hennepin Av., Mpls., 612-379-3018, kramarczuks.com; open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue., 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Wed.-Thu., 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Fri.-Sat.
Jon Cheng is the Star Tribune's restaurant critic. Reach him at email@example.com or follow him at @intrepid_glutton.