Tucked away in Highland Park, a few blocks off the busy Ford Parkway-Cleveland intersection that holds well-trafficked establishments like Highland Grill and Chatterbox Pub, is Cecil’s Delicatessen, a sort-of Kosher deli located in one of the last Jewish strongholds on the St. Paul side of the river.
Opened in 1949 by Cecil Glickman and his wife Faye, the deli shipped in meats from Chicago, where the quality was the highest they could find. To this day, Cecil’s meats make their way north from Chi-town, including Vienna Beef, one of our family’s favorites (we have actually driven to Chicago for hot dogs before we found Vienna Beef retailers in the Twin Cities – it’s that good). Do I think they could find equally fantastic meat closer to home? Sure – but that’s not how it’s been done, and it’s not who they are.
And it tastes awesome – everything, I mean. They have a menu that matches their portion sizes: huge, that is, and I’m convinced there’s not an unremarkable sandwich to be found.
We started with latkes ($8.29) – really more like potato pancakes the size of a grown man’s hand – that come three to a plate with both sour cream and applesauce (and yes, I sing the song in my head every single time…). They’re “smooth,” according to my husband, and are easily a meal unto themselves. While I prefer my homemade, less “smooth” latkes, these come prepared, ready to envelop and comfort you in their fried goodness.
I ordered the Vegy Reuben ($9.29), two slices of caraway rye piled skyscraper-high with grilled peppers and onions, topped with gooey Swiss cheese, hot sauerkraut, and “Reuben sauce” (which I assume is similar to Thousand Island). This was honestly so delicious, I didn’t even miss the meat. Our waiter, Matt – an omnivore – said even he orders it because it’s so good. It’s simultaneously tangy (from the vinegary sauerkraut), creamy (from the cheese and sauce), and savory (from the grilling and the bread). It’s the size of a small child and would easily feed 2-3 people. They have more side options than the majority of restaurants, and I opted for their sweet n’ sour slaw, which did not disappoint. Made with a sweet vinegar and celery seed base instead of mayonnaise, it’s light and flavorful (with a fraction of the calories, no less!) and is particularly suited for steamy summer days.
My husband went with a traditional deli order of pastrami on rye with spicy mustard – his favorite thing to get at Katz’s in New York. It’s just how you want it to be, without any kind of vegetable fuss – just meat and bread. Next time we’re there, he said he’d skip the French fries – which were simply average crinkle cuts – in favor of something more interesting.
And, next time we’re there, I’m making him try the Sasha: hot brisket pastrami topped with a fried egg on grilled caraway rye, with Swiss cheese and a “zesty bird sauce.” All five of the people at the table next to us ordered it, and they enthusiastically recommended it to us (and really, how could anything topped with a fried egg be bad? Drool.)
So what makes this a Jewish deli? A lot and not much at the same time. It’s a Jewish family-owned business. The meat is all kosher when it comes in and they keep it as separate as they can (it has its own slicer, cutting board, and knives). They don’t serve pork or shellfish. It’s got matzo ball soup and brisket on the menu. They love having in big groups (and can easily hold 20-30 in the main restaurant seating area). And, it’s similar to east coast-style Jewish delis in ambiance and menu options.
But they don’t have a koshered kitchen or a mashgiach on staff. Not all the food they serve is certified kosher to begin with. They serve both milk and meat from the same kitchen, served on the same plates with the same silverware. For many, that’s good enough; for others, never fear! Manager Aaron Leventhal (Cecil’s grandson), is happy to accommodate those who observe a stricter level of kashrut observance, from the use of paper plates and plastic cutlery, to taking ingredients home (from the deli, primarily), to individual requests.
The verdict: I almost wish I hadn’t found Cecil’s Deli – I wish I only knew of it as a box lunch provider (which are good, but not something I would seek out). It’s the kind of place you could make a habit – a mostly artery-clogging, comforting bastion of as-good-as-your-Bubbie’s deliciousness-habit. It’s the kind of place dads take their kids, who then grow up and then bring their own children. The kind of place that college students are comfortable at a table next to Bubbie and Zayde. The kind of place I’ll be going back to – and I bet you’ll do the same.
Cecil’s Delicatessen, Bakery, and Restaurant 651 Cleveland Avenue South St Paul, MN 55116-1244 (651) 698-6276