Caters to Changing Needs of Community for More Than 60 Years
If you read our January 27 issue, you know the last restaurant I featured in my column was Mort’s Delicatessen. The scheduling wasn’t exactly intentional, but to be honest, I wasn’t unhappy about it either, because the cuisine of my childhood remains my favorite guilty pleasure—well, perhaps my second-favorite guilty pleasure. Mort’s and Cecil’s Delicatessen are very different restaurants, so I will resist the impulse to compare the two. If you can find poetry in the subtle earthiness of a root vegetable, and if you believe that hot pastrami can thaw the coldest heart, you will find contentment within the walls of either establishment.
The very best cuisines in the world borrowed techniques and ingredients from multiple ethnic influences, perfected them, and incorporated them into their own traditions. Jewish kitchens were influenced by Greek, Italian, Russian, Spanish, and Middle Eastern cooking techniques. The result is an intensely-flavorful yet mild comfort food that seems to please everyone.
To illustrate, Cecil’s is in St. Paul’s Highland Park—a fairly Catholic neighborhood. As our server happily informed us, “We wait on more priests than rabbis.”
Jewish culture is intertwined with its food. In my family, dieters often drew the vocal disdain of their passionate, round-hipped hosts. However, Cecil’s wouldn’t have been in business for 60 years without catering to the changing needs of its community—even dieters.
So, the Ever Popular Cecil’s Salad ($7.79) makes for a very satisfying meal, with fresh lettuce and diced tomatoes, along with chopped deli meats, turkey, and hard-boiled egg.
Sweet and Sour Cabbage Borscht ($3.65 cup/$4.59 bowl) is another heart-healthy option. If you never have had it, I highly recommend it. Borscht has a truly awful name, and every now and then—depending on how prepared—looks exactly like it sounds. However, this soup is bewitchingly-tangy and potent. The flavor builds with each hot spoonful. The smell alone is tantalizing beyond belief. If the Sirens had made a big pot of borscht instead of spending their time singing, they would have had poor Odysseus and his crew at their mercy. It’s the sexiest soup you ever have had…if you just can get over the name.
The sandwich selection at Cecil’s is vast, and one easily could get lost in it. We tried three sandwiches, which were accompanied by a side of mustardy potato salad and a very crisp lightly-dressed cole slaw.
The Reuben ($9.39) is made on very dark, soft rye (it helps that Cecil’s bakes its own bread), and the sauerkraut is allowed a refreshing prominence.
The Sasha ($9.19), consisting of hot pastrami and Swiss cheese, topped with an over-medium egg and a zesty sauce, on grilled caraway rye, is so good, it robs your brain of words—or at least ones that are admissible in print. A newer item on the menu, it already has become a best-seller. Our server warned us that it would be “a little sloppy” because of the egg—it was, and we didn’t mind in the least.
The Attazoy ($8.79)—cold roast beef, red onion, lettuce, and spicy dressing—is a bit more buttoned up, and perfect for a boxed lunch.
With our sandwiches, we sipped a Chocolate Egg Cream ($1.95)—the egg is in name only—and a Raspberry Phosphate ($1.95). If you haven’t had an old-fashioned soda, you really should make a point of trying one. It isn’t the same as its overly-syrupy canned cousin, but is lighter and more refreshing.
To further tempt your sweet tooth, I highly recommend Blintzes ($8.39)—a quartet of cream cheese crepes served with jam and sour cream. Proper blintzes? Here? Absolutely! The kitchen staff members at Cecil’s didn’t fly in from Austria—in fact, they’re Hispanic and Indian—but they have been trained so well on these old family recipes that they’re probably better at rolling a matzo ball than my own mother.
We also grabbed a few take-home deli treats called hamantashen—delicate, triangular filled cookies traditionally made during Purim.
Something about Jewish food seems to heal what’s ailing you. My dining partner had been going through a grieving process, and eating was difficult these past few weeks. However, I couldn’t help noticing that in addition to finishing the Sasha, she did quite a respectable job with the other sandwiches and the borscht before very quietly polishing off her half of our shared blintz. By the time the hamantashen came out, she opened the box lustfully, suggesting that instead of splitting up our varied selection, we break each in half to taste them all at our respective leisure.
I’m not saying a little hot pastrami fixes everything in just one day. But over the course of a few weeks, who knows? Cecil’s delivers throughout the greater metro area, so I’ll make sure she has the number.
651 S. Cleveland Ave., St. Paul