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Tradition on Rye

by B.A. Nilsson on December 6, 2012 · 2 comments

Nosh, 1645 Western Ave., Albany, 464-6674, noshdeli.com. Serving 10:30-9 Mon-Sat, 11-6 Sun. AE, D, MC, V.

Cuisine: NYC deli

Entrée price range: $4 (jumbo hot dog plate) to $14 (smoked salmon platter)

Ambiance: deli noir

A Jew, a Greek and a Pole walked into a restaurant. “We’re still waiting for the punchline,” says Josh Wachs.

He’s one of the trio who transformed a shuttered Wendy’s into a sleek, black-appointed deli putting out sandwiches with all of the gusto of a New York City eatery and none of the attitude. Or at least not the annoying kind. When I visited, the server knew his menu items and was happy to help with the ordering strategy—and that’s not always the case with our local waitrons.

“I’m from the area,” says Wachs, “but I’d been working in the restaurant business in New Jersey for a few years. I wanted to come back, and when I was looking for a business to start locally, I saw that there was a need for the kind of traditional, New York-style deli that we had back in the days of Joe’s.”

Joe Kulik ran the iconic Albany deli for 55 years until his death in 1982. It was a monument to chopped liver and the triple-decker, and that’s what you’ll find at Nosh. “We’re predominantly sandwich-based,” says Wachs. “We researched delis in New York and New Jersey, and also looked at what Joe’s had.” While the menu isn’t geared towards any single ethnic group, Wachs points out that he himself grew up surrounded by stuffed cabbage and kugel and knishes, “and my mother came in for our first couple of weeks to show the guys how to make matzoh balls.”

Partner Nick Huban comes from a family of diner owners and has worked in the business for many years with the third partner, Michael Grzyboski. They jumped at the chance of taking over the vacant franchise building “because they always put them in a great location,” says Wachs, “and this one is close to the region’s biggest shopping mall. Plus, it has a decent number of seats and we knew we could give a cozy, warm feel to the place.”

Not surprisingly, the number one and two sellers are sandwiches with pastrami and corned beef, respectively, although you can indulge your craving for both with the Elliot ($12), named for Wachs’ late father and combining the two meats with Swiss cheese, cole slaw and Russian dressing.

Pastrami excites passion. Nosh gets it from Old World Provisions in Albany (which is also the corned beef source); so does Katz’s Deli on Manhattan’s Houston Street. To read online reviews of Katz’s is to witness the glory of emotionally driven debate, where all-or-nothing opinionizing is the rule. Similarly, when the Times Union reviewed Nosh not long ago, a blog-based furor erupted at the newspaper’s website over the fattiness of the pastrami slices, with a sadly misguided few suggesting that the flavorful fat is somehow unpleasant. O, ye of little . . . well, let’s just say the wrong cultural heritage. Pastrami might as well be a dessert. It’s an active foodstuff, injecting your palate with flavor sensations, each bite compounding the previous one. Fat is both tenderizer and flavor-prolonger. Remove it from a pastrami slice and you might as well try to make whipped cream from water.

“After we get the pastrami,” says Wachs, “it goes into the steam unit for at least two hours, and it’s sliced to order. That keeps it fresh and moist.”

There’s a choice of bread with sandwiches here, and it’s to the restaurant’s credit that they don’t insist that you leave if you choose anything other than rye.

Nosh’s pastrami sandwich ($10) is outstanding. It’s served with an excellent pickle and a choice of a side; the potato salad I sampled was a straight-ahead example of the stuff, with the tuber correctly doing more flavor work than the mayo. Other available $10 sandwiches feature beef brisket, roast beef, turkey breast, tongue or salami, and you can add another quarter-pound of meat for another four bucks. Considering that a single sandwich already is two meals’ worth, you’d be letting yourself in for a feast. Among the others: ham and Swiss or chopped liver sandwich is $8.75, a B.L.T. is $8 and “Mom’s Cold Meatloaf,” served on challah, is $9.

Triple-deckers include the 14th St. (corned beef, roast beef, turkey, Swiss, $12), the Orchard (pastrami, turkey, Swiss, cole slaw, $11) and the Canal (corned beef and turkey with Swiss, $11). Because it includes caramelized onion, my wife ordered the Houston ($11), which has a heart of excellent beef brisket, tender and lush with its bed of drippy onion, finished with cole slaw and Russian dressing.

A bowl of matzoh ball soup ($4) took me back to the diner at the Edison Hotel on 46th Street and cured an incipient cold. The knish I ordered ($2.50) went astray, but our server cheerfully blamed the delay on the kitchen, which quickly provided a hot, aromatic pastry when things got sorted out.

There are burgers ($9-$12). There are Reubens ($10). There are hot dogs ($4-$8). There is a take-out window (order at least a half-hour ahead). There is cheesecake ($6.25) made on the premises, and made correctly so that it’s majestically stiff. To add strawberries is to vandalize it.

The very first meal I was served at my new girlfriend’s mother’s house centered around a slab of boiled tongue. At the time I was married to someone else and unemployed, thus clearly not matrimonial material, although I’m not sure the culinary gesture was intended to dissuade me from my courtship. In any event, I did marry the girlfriend and we remain, nearly three decades later, implausibly wedded. Perhaps it was in celebration of that that Susan ordered a to-go of sliced tongue. “I know you’ll never eat it,” she declared, “so I can have it for my lunch sandwiches.” She assures me (in all innocence) that it’s as good as tongue has ever tasted. Perhaps that’s the punchline we seek.