Casual Kosher

HEB Serves Up a Kosher Cafe, Austin Style

The Kosher Deli at HEB Far West

photograph by John Anderson

HEB Far West

7025 Village Center Dr., 502-8445
Sun-Thu, 7am-8pm; Fri, 7am-4pm

Small grocers and family-run restaurants traditionally champion ethnic cuisine. Large markets may appease occasionally adventurous cooks; they rarely satisfy the truly specialized ones. In Austin, however, several larger stores nourish select cultures that lack ethnic grocers in their midst. One of these, HEB's new kosher store, is particularly noteworthy. It serves previously kitchen-bound observant Jews strict kosher food. The Randalls store on Balcones first satiated appetites for kosher food in Austin, serving breads and sweets in its kosher bakery. The bakery's success spurred HEB to offer staples not available from Randalls bakery. As a result, HEB's Village Center Drive store now showcases Austin's only fresh kosher meat market and cafe.

A kosher diet requires, among other things, the near clinical separation of all meat and dairy products both in cooking and as components of meals. Kosher certification, such as on select goods, identifies foods inspected as having met these and other guidelines. Such an endorsement assures consumers, for instance, that a cookie's dairy cream filling uses vegetable shortening instead of lard. In the case of meat, certification notes the ritualistic care with which a "schochet" (kosher butcher) kills, inspects, cuts, and cleans the animals we eat.

Until recently, many observant Austin Jews ate strictly vegetarian meals, as the only available kosher meats were a few frozen cuts. HEB now sells fresh cuts, in variety. The supervised staff cuts shipped-in "primals" of front-quarter meat for on-site butchering into salable cuts - deep rooted veins disqualify hind-quarter meat as kosher, for their required clean removal would overinflate labor costs. Kosher meat's renowned quality makes it popular among meat eaters, despite its higher price. HEB encourages business with occasional discounts on kosher beef, chicken, lamb, and veal.

These butchered meats, along with soups, sandwiches, sides, and pastries, fashion a casual menu for HEB's kosher cafe. Here, 40-plus people can sit comfortably at four-top tables or along a window-lined counter. Even with little publicity, lunchtime finds the tables full and employees busy. The phone rings often, with special orders for deli trays from rabbis and synagogue groups. Employees' meticulous attention keeps tables clean and plastic challah displays in constant rearrangement. Weak but kosher coffee lures passersby into the family-filled, grocery-lined niche. Packaged goods that one is not likely to think of as kosher - such as Pfeffer's salad dressings, Dr. Brown's sodas, and Bazooka gum - sit highlighted on the shelves. Chanukah displays of dreidels and gelt (traditional kosher chocolate coins) rest by the register for holiday sale.

Patrons from the neighborhood find familiar faces among the small crowd which gathers here. Their conversations include mention of Martin Buber, Elie Wiesel, and the local rabbi - not unusual for a cafe, and that's precisely the point. HEB's cafe offers a casual, if a bit sterile, meeting place for strictly kosher food service, a logistical feat and community service.

The cafe's menu includes a hot dog-French fry kids meal, lox and non-dairy cream cheese, and other lunch meat sandwiches, for less than $4.50 or around $6.00 with a side. It sports some traditional Jewish staples, such as hard salami, pastrami, and corned beef. Still, this tranquil cafe is no "Jewish deli" in any nostalgic sense of the phrase, as my own experiences testify.

I entered the cafe half-expecting unabashedly large cuts of hanging meat and aggressive employees, impatient with indecision, barking orders. At HEB's kosher store, there are no vats of pickled herring, specialty sandwiches paying tribute to notable personalities, or barrels for pickle fishing - essential components, I've experienced, of a true deli.

But this is an Austin cafe, I knew, not a luncheonette in New York. I resolved that its food's merit should be judged by quality, not my personal gauge of authenticity.

So I ordered lunch: some welcomed sides (including whitefish salad, chopped liver, and cucumber salad); a knish (a bialy-shaped, usually potato-filled pastry); and an adaptation of my own version of my favorite corned beef on rye.

Also, to accompany my side salads, I ordered a bagel. Weary of blueberry and jalapeño and seeing no onion or marbled rye for sale, I opted for a plain bagel. Petrovsky's bagels, in St. Louis, provides the deli with pre-shaped kosher dough, which it proofs and bakes here. HEB boasts of Petrovsky's fine reputation, although this final product undermines the bakery's applauded efforts. Austin-made bagels are notoriously dense and unyeasty, and these are no exception. At least the plain bagel had a hint of sweetness that carried whitefish and cream cheese well. But not chopped liver.

Unfortunately, the cafe's version of this traditional "salad" needs more than a bagel's assist. Its mealy texture, with an indelicate, unharnessed liver taste, leaves granules on the tongue, kind of like uncooked bits of rice in Spam. Some loving seasoning - perhaps some onion or egg - and attention to consistency could rework this staple deli item. Chopped liver isn't pâté, but it should still aim for the quality and robustness of its French counterpart.

I hesitantly eyed the side of whitefish salad. The last time I had whitefish salad in Austin, I nearly rioted; its yellowed mustiness sagged down the sides of a hapless bagel. Like inexpensive sushi, it left too much to the imagination. Yet HEB's whitefish smelled fresh and tasted sweet, although it deserves a small dose of minced onion, if unaccompanied by a slice on the side. Happily, I ate no bones. Because of the cafe's generous portions, I slathered a generous dollop on my bagel and still had some to take home.

The spinach knish and cucumber salad deserve equal recognition. A knish looks like a toasted bialy. This one is dense like halvah, with a salty, spinach-and-potato-saturated pulp. One alone cures brunch-time hunger. With soup and salad, it completes a full meal. The cucumber salad is simply addictive. Half-inch thick kosher dill slices bathe in a sharp yet sweet brine. It is inspired finger food.

My corned beef sandwich, however, proved less visionary.

HEB's helpful employee encouraged me to build up my foundation of corned beef and rye. Yet my condiment choices included green onions, mayonnaise, mushrooms, avocado, jalapeños, and canned black olives, not the thick yellow onion, thicker tomato slices, coarse mustard, cole slaw, sauerkraut, and succulent Mediterranean olives for which I'd hoped. Corned beef's rightful place, in my opinion, is in a Corned Beef Special, where cole slaw (the only good use for mayonnaise in a deli) and Russian dressing (Thousand Island to the uninitiated), tops thinly sliced, slightly fatty, moist, and sometimes peppery corned beef, bursting between two stiff, caraway-saturated, stubbornly crusted pieces of rye. HEB, however, reserves Russian dressing for salads and cole slaw only for a side, unless (I later discovered) they're specially requested for condiment use. They remain otherwise hidden from view.

Against my better judgment, but eager to be open-minded to my choices, I requested red onion, cucumber, and sauerkraut (found stashed by the hot dogs) added to lean corned beef on thin, caraway-less bread. I should have taken the employee's raised eyebrows as warning: My attempts to broaden my Jewish palate crafted one disgusting sandwich.

I glanced furtively around at other customers, wondering what food expectations, like me, they had brought to this place. As people conversed over coffee, lined up for jalapeño-studded subs, gnawed on kosher beef jerky, and took numbers for rotisserie chickens, they expressed strong support for a kosher cafe; they didn't want for a Jewish deli. I remembered to note the distinction.

Merging the notions of "Jewish" with "kosher" sets up inaccurate expectations about people and food, often with misleading, even if delicious, results. In some sense, kosher food is no more "Jewish" than vegetarian food is Buddhist. A traditional reuben (grilled pastrami with sauerkraut, maybe tomato, and melted cheese) isn't kosher, because it combines meat and cheese, just as Tropicana orange juice isn't particularly Jewish, because it's a commonplace drink. More so-called "normal" foods, largely unrecognized as kosher, creep into our daily diet of packaged goods. They include Casbah instant foods, Evian water, Terra Chips, and, recently, Oreos. And fresh meats sold at HEB include mostly chicken and turkey, with just a few packages of pastrami and tongue.

Austin might one day restore reubens, corned beef specials, bagels, and chopped liver to their rightful deli prominence. But HEB's kosher store is under no immediate obligation to do that. As it is, it's sustaining a growing population dependent on and attracted to kosher foods with fresh meats and effortless, inexpensive meals - an important community advancement, one that even Jews of the New York deli, secular persuasion ought to esteem.

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