Given the manhood-shriveling weather last weekend, I would’ve happily cocooned myself at home had I not been tasked with ferrying 25 folks on a journey to intoxication. I was slated to lead another homebrew tour, wherein I usher attendees to three different area brewers’ homes. There, everyone meets the beermaker, samples the liquid wares and, as the afternoon wears on, listens to me slur.
"Is it OK for tour guides to be drunk?" I asked my friend Matt, a licensed New York City guide. "It might be frowned upon," replied Matt, who, in a reversal of roles, was taking my tour. "Maybe it’d be a good idea to eat a big lunch beforehand."
This was easier said than done. The tour’s first stop was Marble Hill, in the Bronx. It was once the northernmost neighborhood on the isle of Manhattan till the Harlem River was rerouted, thus attaching a chunk of the 212 to the 718. I asked the Marble Hill brewer for a lunch recommendation. "Unfortunately, Marble Hill is not known for its cuisine," he wrote. "You basically have three options: Arturo’s Pizzeria, McDonald’s or Applebee’s. If you are down for crap food, then those are your best bets."
I’ve devoured my share of crappy grub, but I prefer to be totally trashed before I shove a Big Mac into my mouth—it’s shame food, best forgotten by morning. I decided to spread my lunchtime search farther afield, to neighboring Riverdale. My dad grew up in the heavily Jewish ‘hood and as a kid, my clan took numerous pilgrimages to Riverdale to visit my Grandma Helen and Grandpa Moses’ apartment, where I ate garlic-studded roast beef and fork-tender brisket and drank tons of Tropicana orange juice. It was my grandfather’s favorite drink, and in time it became mine. In the case of nature versus nurture, my preference for pulpy OJ is clear-cut.
My grandmother passed away in 1985, my grandfather in 1991. I have not returned to Riverdale since. Without familial love to lure me to the Bronx, the neighborhood became a dim, distant stop on the Metro-North, seemingly on another continent. Heck, I’ve been to Beijing twice since I last visited Riverdale. But that’s another tale, another time.
After some Internet sleuthing, Matt uncovered Liebman’s Delicatessen (552 W. 235th St. betw. Oxford & Johnson Aves., Bronx, 718-548-4534), a circa-1953 Jewish deli located a 20-minute walk from the Metro-North stop at Marble Hill. "See, I could do this food write-y thing," Matt said. "And today I’m the tour guide," I replied, as we arrived in Marble Hill. Some neighborhood names refer to a distant past. For instance, Greenwich Village was once a rural hamlet. Brooklyn’s
Boerum Hill refers to the Boerum family’s colonial farm. But Marble Hill remains, most definitely, hilly. When we reached Riverdale Avenue, we huffed up what felt like a 45-degree incline—dozens of kids were sledding down the abutting Ewen Park, screaming whee and glee.
We arrived at Liebman’s, panting and sweating beneath bulky clothes. The restaurant’s name was illuminated in red neon, and through the plate-glass window I watched kosher hot dogs grow plump and blackened-crisp on the grill. After sliding past grandparents purchasing cold cuts and salads, we slid into a booth and perused the menu. Like a good Jewish deli, Liebman’s crafts its own knishes, corned beef and pastrami: my holy trinity of kosher cuisine.
Unlike other Jewish delis (namely Katz’s and Carnegie), only the food, not the prices, will cause a heart attack. A pastrami on rye runs $9.99, and a buck-fifty will super-size the sandwich to a half-pound of flesh. "Should I get it overstuffed?" I asked the waiter. He sized up my 5-foot 4-inch, 140-pound frame. "Not you," he said. "You’ll be fine."
I settled on pastrami. Matt opted for a brisket-pastrami combination. We both received a complimentary mountain of coleslaw and a platter of pickles, a mixture of half-sour and sour pickles so profoundly garlicky, they’d stop the Twilight vampires at 50 feet. The coleslaw was also winningly crisp, not a gloppy nightmare. And the sandwiches? Though the rye bread wasn’t as pungent as I prefer, the thinly sliced meats were masterpieces of beef, tender and peppery and fatty in all the right places. With a smear of coarse-ground mustard, and sips stolen from Matt’s can of Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray soda, my sandwich disappeared on the double.
I patted my belly, full and round, an impregnable fortress against the boozy onslaught to come.