I try to spare my readers too many similar reviews in a row, plus I like to switch up my cuisines up to keep this blog as interesting as possible. My readership is low enough as it is, am I right? But even though I discovered The Pastrami Project two weeks ago and made it the subject of my most recent review, I have since discovered another delicatessen in Orlando, mere minutes away from the Pastrami Project food truck. It’s a brand-new restaurant called Deli Desires (https://delidesires.com/), located one block north of Colonial Drive on Ferncreek Avenue.
For the last several months, Deli Desires ran a delivery-only business model over Instagram, similar to recent sensation Brad’s Underground Pizza, but started a soft opening in their new brick and mortar location last weekend and is continuing the soft opening this weekend. I don’t believe they are doing phone or online orders yet, but since I couldn’t find a menu online, I went in person to pick up an early lunch on Friday, not knowing how crowded it would be or what they would have available. Luckily, when I arrived around 11:45, there was no line, but a line grew by the time I left with my food. Just so you all know, at least during the soft opening, Deli Desires is open for breakfast and lunch only, and just on Friday through Sunday. It’s a small space with no seating — strictly a takeout operation for now, which is just fine with me. And I’m always pleased to see the full staff of a restaurant wearing masks at all times, and wearing them the right way, covering their noses. Wearing your mask with your nose hanging out totally defeats the purpose, like walking around with your schmeckle sticking out of your pants. And yet you see it all the time! (The noses, that is. During a pandemic, consider it just as bad.)
There’s a lot to look at inside Deli Desires, with large shelves on each side with gourmet groceries — local honey, hot sauce, fancy canned seafood, giant jars of Duke’s mayo (the only kind of mayo I will buy), T-shirts, and a whole rack of Herr’s potato chips, which are excellent, especially the ketchup chips. Directly in front, they have a display of Dr. Brown’s canned sodas (good root beer and cream soda, but I can’t recommend the Cel-Ray soda) and boxes of kosher salt.
You know what else is fine? All the food. Damn fine deli fare. Here’s the menu, since they didn’t have a website up at the time I wrote this review, just the Instagram page. It’s very unique for a deli menu — some classics, but definitely modern interpretations of the classics.
When I told my co-worker, a regular member of our Friday “lunch bunch” that I was going to a new deli and asked if she wanted anything, she asked if the menu was online, and I said I couldn’t find it and had no idea what they would have. She told me she likes Reubens, in case they have one. (Who doesn’t like Reubens?) Well, they didn’t have a Reuben, but they did have a different kind of corned beef sandwich ($10) — a “Big Mac”-style corned beef sandwich with shredded lettuce and pickles (in place of the sauerkraut on a Reuben), special sauce (already very similar to the Russian or thousand island dressings that accompany Reubens), and served on a soft, fresh-baked sesame seeded roll. I didn’t taste this sandwich I brought back for her, but she said it all worked well together. When I placed the order with the very patient and welcoming Tyson at the counter, he told me they make everything from scratch, including curing their own corned beef.
My regular readers know how much I love delis, especially all the smoked, cured, and pickled meats and fish. I saw a whitefish salad sandwich on the menu ($10) and had to have it. Whitefish is a large fish that is often smoked whole, until the skin turns a beautiful golden color. Then the flaky, oily, smoky flesh is scooped and scraped out, mixed with mayonnaise, dill, usually chopped celery, and other herbs and spices. I just love it, and I’m already overjoyed on the rare occasions I can find a whole smoked whitefish or “chub” in a store and make my own whitefish salad. But it’s a labor-intensive process, making sure to remove all the inedible hair-thin bones that look like clear plastic and can really get caught in your throat. That’s why it is even more pleasing when the professionals do the work. This was delicious whitefish salad on the same kind of soft seeded roll — big chunks of fish mixed with mayo (Duke’s!) and lots of dill. It was topped by crispy “celery salad,” with long, paper-thin strands of celery and red radish that must have been sliced with a razor-sharp mandoline slicer. They topped it with a slice of muenster cheese too, almost making it like their version of a tuna melt, that diner classic. Of course the sandwich was served cold, as it should be.
While I was there for the soft opening, I wanted to try a second sandwich, so I could eat a little of both at work and finish them for dinner. I decided to go with the scrapple sandwich ($8), although it was a difficult decision. This was an excellent breakfast sandwich that would be a welcome meal at any time of day, not just in the morning. For those that don’t know, scrapple is a breakfast meat that is made by the Pennsylvania Dutch in the mid-Atlantic states, kind of like a sausage or meatloaf, but a looser consistency. It is often made with pork scraps, herbs, and spices, and then some fillers like flour and other grains, and served sliced and pan-fried. I’ve had it before from one of the Amish food stands in Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market, one of my favorite places in the entire world. I don’t know what Deli Desires puts into their scrapple, but I definitely tasted sage, making it reminiscent of a more crumbly pork breakfast sausage. (Hey, they have a BLT on the menu too, so they never claimed to be a kosher deli!) They also included a perfectly fried over-medium egg that held up perfectly until I got back to work and tried cutting the sandwich in half with a plastic knife, when it started to run. But it was nice dipping the bialy in the warm, rich, runny yolk.
What’s a bialy, you ask? They are similar to bagels, but unfortunately, a lot less popular. I love ’em, though. Bagels have that smooth, shiny outer coating because they are boiled in huge kettles of water before being baked. Bialys aren’t boiled, just baked, so they have more of a traditional outer crust, but are still soft, chewy, and fluffy on the inside like bagels. They lack the holes that help make bagels bagels, but they do have an indentation that usually contains diced cooked onions and poppy seeds. Deli Desires makes a very good bialy, and they are few and far between. (Bagel King, our regular standard place for bagels, much closer to home, also bakes their own bialys.)
But I had to get two bialys to enjoy later: a standard one with caramelized onions in the center (left) and a smoked jalapeño and muenster bialy (right), the same kind the scrapple and egg sandwich came on. These bialys were $3 each.
I saw they had potato salad ($3), so as long as I was already running amok with carbs (glorious carbs!), I wanted to try that too. These were small redskin potatoes, very tender with some nice texture from the skins, mixed with mayo and lots of dill, for almost a Scandinavian style of potato salad. But I have remarked before that the Scandinavians and the Jews share some culinary traditions — the aforementioned smoked, cured, and pickled fish, dark rye bread, lots of dill, and potato salad too, apparently. This was a generous helping of potato salad that I finished in two sittings, but probably could have made last even longer. It was just too good, though.
And even though I had no intention of ordering dessert, Deli Desires had an assortment of fresh-baked desserts under glass domes on the counter. There’s something about a pie under a glass dome, like at a diner, that makes it even more tempting to me than a pie in a fridge or sitting on a windowsill, like in old-timey cartoons. It’s kind of like putting a statue on a pedestal… or putting a very attractive person on a pedestal, for that matter.
One of the daily desserts was right up my alley — a cara cara orange pie on a graham cracker crust topped with whipped cream and a chewy, sticky dried orange slice. Conceptually, it is very similar to Florida’s beloved key lime pie, and very close to my all-time favorite dessert, a tart and creamy “Atlantic Beach pie” that I make with fresh-squeezed citrus juices on a buttery, salty crust made from crushed Ritz crackers. This slice was $6, but I just had to try it, for science — to compare it to my Atlantic Beach pie recipe and see how I stacked up to a seasoned baker.
Needless to say, it was good. Firmer and less runny than my similar pie, and I’ll have to figure out how they do that. However, it was served at room temperature, and I think it would have been even tastier served chilled, like how I serve my pie and pretty much any key lime pie from anywhere. Of course I could have stuck it in the fridge for an hour, but even after eating everything else I ate, once I opened the box and tasted my first tiny taste of the slice, I couldn’t wait. Also, cara cara oranges are more tart than our standard, familiar navel oranges, but the pie didn’t have that acidic tartness I love so much in citrusy desserts. But don’t get me wrong, I liked it!
I considered waiting a week or two after my Pastrami Project review to publish this one and running a different piece in its place. But since Deli Desires is still in its soft opening phase, I wanted to get the word out that Mills 50 district has an exciting new deli in a permanent location, and it’s open for business and excellent, right out of the gate. Check with them first, in case their hours change in the days and weeks to come, but everything I tried was terrific, and I look forward to returning and working my way through the menu.
Many of their offerings are fresh, new takes on traditional New York/Jewish delicatessen fare. You could almost call it “hipster deli,” but I don’t want that to sound like a diss in any way. Delis have long been an endangered species among restaurants, decades before this pandemic started threatening the entire restaurant industry. It breaks my heart to read about these august culinary landmarks closing down in big cities around the country, sometimes after half a century or longer in business. But I get it — neighborhood demographics change, urban rents skyrocket, and a Jewish deli might seem stodgy and stale compared to some of the hot new food trends, especially for those who didn’t grow up in a family that loved that kind of food, as mine did. But there is always hope! Over the last decade or so, even as some of the iconic delis have baked their last bagels, cured their last corned beef, and plated their last pastrami, a young, hip, adventurous group of chefs has started revitalizing and rejuvenating the entire concept of the deli, reaching out to younger, hipper, more adventurous diners, offering some twists on the old standards, elevating and reinventing classic dishes while still paying homage to the old ways. That’s what chef-owner Hannah Jaffe is doing here with her delicious, delectable, decadent Deli Desires, and it it’s going to catch on here in Orlando. We’ve needed this for a long time, and now it’s here — and not that far from my day job either. *I* need this. Don’t let me down, people. You will desire this deli, take it from me.