Step back in time to a calmer age, circa 1953, when the way-cool Crestview MiniMax was the anchor of a small strip center in what was then almost north Austin. The strip center now thrives as a neighborhood anchor for the gentrified/gentrifying Crestview area. Pre-1992 finds Jonathan and sharp-tongued but witty Lucretia Doyer running a small mobile sausage trailer on the edge of the parking lot; in 1992 they secured a spot on the south end of the strip, creating Little Deli. Known for sandwiches and soups and welcoming ways, Little Deli established itself as a neighborhood fixture. Cut to 2006, when friend, neighbor, and local chef (by way of Jersey and NOLA) Tony Villani buys the spot, adding a pizza kitchen in 2009. Rest easy, it's all just as good as it always was, just with good pizzas added.
The staff couldn't be any friendlier, and the eclectic music (Ella, Pretenders, Sinatra, Bob Wills, George Harrison, etc.) seduces you into a mellow mood. The space is small: six tables, plus more outside if weather allows. The website posts the soup menu for the month, and our tomato basil ($2.75/3.25) was divine: rich, thick, and tomato-y, with a kiss of basil and excellent toasted garlic croutons. We tried our standard review pizza, half Italian sausage and half plain (14" for $11.50, 17" for $13.50). The crust makes the pie, and Little Deli's is superb: crisp and lightly charred, thin, slightly chewy, and flavorful. The sausage is assertive, the cheese of high quality. If we had any comment, it would be that a bit more crushed tomato would have balanced the generous cheese.
Little Deli's popularity was built on great sandwiches. It bakes its own sandwich breads daily, which is reflected by the taste; also, all of the meats and cheeses are first-rate. The Vegetarian ($5.99) already made it into our 2009 Top 10 Sandwich list: avocado, artichoke hearts, roasted eggplant, mozzarella, Swiss, provolone, cheddar, onions, tomatoes, lettuce, tapenade, and Parmesan on a kaiser roll. The Muffalatta ($5.99) is Genoa salami, mortadella, ham, provolone, and tapenade, served on ciabatta bread (get it warmed). It would have benefited from some pickled veggie tartness, so next time I'll request some of the cherry pepper relish added on. The Italian Sub ($5.99) – salami, capicola, ham, pepperoni, provolone, onions, tomatoes, and lettuce, sprinkled with olive oil and red-wine vinegar – was delightful, but the hoagie roll was a tad past its prime.
The Reuben($6.29), with lean corned beef, sauerkraut, and Swiss, with Thousand Island dressing on toasted rye, is one of the best in town, although a bit of fat in the corned beef would make it perfect. The Cheese Steak ($5.99) was the huge surprise. Delicious and authentic, it's made from thinly sliced grilled top round and melted provolone, served on a grilled hoagie roll, then topped with a delicious red cherry-pepper relish.
Many of the sandwiches can be ordered half-sized for $3.49; get that with a cup of soup and it's $5.79. Every other Thursday Little Deli does an authentic crawfish étouffée special ($8.95), and every other Wednesday plan on luscious homemade lasagna ($6.49, $7.49 with meatballs). Villani plans on adding Saturday to the schedule starting sometime in January, so check before you go.
When we left the last time, we were reminiscing about how every neighborhood used to have a small restaurant or cafe like this, and how sad that corporate fast food has displaced that local goodness we all used to love. But for the Crestview neighborhood anyway, fresh, delicious, affordable, local food lives on.
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