Pickle Barrel Deli – mistakenly referred to as the Pickle Barrel sometimes – wasn’t Sy Ginsberg’s first. That honor goes to Mister Deli on 7 Mile near Evergreen in Detroit. But Pickle Barrel – his second – would make him a star in the Detroit deli scene, and ultimately lead him down his true path as a processor of the finest corned beef in the country.
Located at 12 Mile and Evergreen in Southfield, it was the embodiment of everything that a classic Jewish deli should be. It was open almost 12 hours every day of the week, and the menu was huge. If you could find it in a Jewish cookbook, you could find it at Pickle Barrel.
It was the grueling hours and work of running a successful restaurant like Pickle Barrel that made Sy dream of doing something else – like make a better corned beef. So he ultimately sold out and became the corned beef king we know today.
But we thought it would be fun to share some memories of what Pickle Barrel was. So we are recreating the review of the store by the “Anonymous Gourmet” at The Detroit Free Press, which was published on April 20, 1978. Yes, it’s about a specific restaurant, but it offers a lot of insight into what a customer could expect at a top-notch Jewish deli. “Thanks, Mrs. Ginsberg” is recreated here exactly – including the misspelling of Faney Ginsberg’s name.
This deli’s long on taste but short on cost
The AG got a tip on a delicatessen last week from someone who, at a glance, looks like the type to order a corned beef with mayo on white, untoasted. Having checked on the tip, the AG learns an old lesson once again – namely, that the proof of the pudding is not in the glancing but in the eating.
The pudding at the Pickle Barrel, solid rice and moist, plump raisins in an indecently creamy custard invigorated with grated orange, is ambrosial. It ended a gargantuan Sunday noon feast that left both diners packed to what they guessed were the armpits. Still, when it arrived in its frosty stainless parfait cup, the click of spoons dipping in for “just a taste” never stopped till the self-styled tasters reached bottom. Was it orange? Or was it lemon? Maybe both? And so it went. And so the pudding went.
Before the pudding, there were an order of blintzes, a dressed-up tongue sandwich, gefilte fish, chicken soup with matzoh ball and who knows how many slices of new pickle, cut thick enough to crunch and offered by the mini-barrel at each table to keep the diner’s mouth busy while he tries to make up his mind.
THE PICKLE BARREL is not the place to go for a quick pastrami on rye. It is a place that requires one to make decisions. Pastrami on rye ($2.30) or pastrami, corned beef and tongue with eggs, pancake style ($2.80)? Pastrami, corned beef, Swiss cheese and Russian dressing on an onion roll (Pickle Barrel Treat, $3.15), or pastrami, liverwurst, Swiss cheese, tomato, onion and Russian dressing in a four-decker on rye ($3.40)?
The pastrami predicament is typical. The Pickle Barrel’s menu is enormous, featuring all the standard delicatessen items and then a few, in several alternative combinations.
Once the decisions have been made, the food comes lickety-split and, since the open kitchen sits smack in the center of the C-shaped dining area, most customers can watch their orders being assembled.
The chicken soup (75 cents a cup, 95 cents a bowl) shows up the way children like it, not quite salty and peppery enough for adults, but with a matzoh ball that spans the taste of generations by giving way at the slightest pressure from the side of the spoon. The correct building of a matzoh ball – from matzoh meal, chicken fat, egg and soup liquid – is no mean trick. Miss something in balance or timing and you may as well use the thing next time you tee up.
GEFILTE FISH ($2.50), a formed but still fluffy mousse of carp, pike, whitefish, stock, onion, egg and carrots, is even trickier. The stuff from jars is leaden and devoid of sublety compared to what one gets from home kitchens and the Pickle Barrel. The AG wondered aloud how such homey gefilte fish got to the restaurant. The waitress smiled knowingly.
“This IS a home kitchen,” she said.
Fannie Ginberg’s home kitchen, to be precise – Fannie being the mother of Sy, one of the restaurants owners. That would explain the featherweight matzoh ball the and delicate gefilte fish, the way the outermost layer of blintz (delicatessen’s answer to crepes, cannelloni, and egg rolls) stays crisp while the inner folds go noodly and soft, the crackling crust on bread with spring-back fresh innards, the rice pudding’s zesty citrus accent. Just like home – on a good day.
GO HUNGRY and be prepared to wait – before the meal and after. The Pickle Barrel is a big place, but it also has a big menu and offers big portions, both of which take some time to digest.
In addition, its patrons have a golden opportunity to revive the time honored Two Cents Plain ritual. Two Cents Plain (seltzer water, for the uninitiated) is imbibed during and especially AFTER the meal, as an aid for the overfed faced with having to get up and walk to the door.
And midday feast for two, from soup to pudding, came to a measly $12 at the Pickle Barrel. For two cents more, as listed on the menu, a person has a right to sit and sip and digest – or so Fannie Ginsberg, bless her, still believes.
Do you have a memory of Pickle Barrel – or maybe Mister Deli – that you could share? How about another old fashioned deli?