Thursday, December 10, 2009

Bagels and Cream Cheese in Paradise

There’s no denying that with the holiday decorations up, latkes in the frying pan, local parks being flooded for skating rinks, and Leon’s circa 1989 “Ho Ho Hold the Payments” commercials back for their annual rotation, winter is in the air.

And to many Canadians, nothing says winter more than Florida. So, as a bit of a departure from the norm here at the National Nosh, I present one of my favourite stories that I’ve written. (Is it gross to say that? Am I allowed to admit that?)

Herewith, a taste of the good life in Fort Lauderdale.

The Early Bird Gets the Flanken

By Amy Rosen, enRoute magazine

“I don’t know…the coffee makes me jittery.”

“Put water in it.”

“I don’t know…”

“Try it. Just put water in it.”

“Why doesn’t she try the decaf?”

“I don’t like it.”

“Then try the water.”

Overheard at Flakowitz in Boynton Beach, Florida.

They’re popular and they’re cheap. So why are Early Bird Specials only frequented by retirees of a certain age? Isn’t this something we should all take advantage of now instead of waiting a few decades? This is my thinking as I enter Pomperdale New York Style Deli in Fort Lauderdale.

I’ve officially begun my research into Early Birds – cut-rate dinners served between 3:30 p.m. and 5:45 p.m. – by eating a crack-of-dawn breakfast. Located in a strip mall, Pomperdale is a seemingly members-only deli with low ceilings and wood panelling. Its tightly packed tables are occupied almost exclusively by Jewish blue hairs eating lightly toasted sesame bagels. These are my people, and this is our de facto Promised Land. I am confident they will help me in my Early Bird quest.

We take our seats and wait a few moments for menus to be delivered. “Oy, so cute!” shouts one to the rest. “They thought someone was going to serve them!” Five minutes in, and the Pomperdale clan has already labelled me adorable. “It’s a crazy kind of place here,” explains another. “You order upfront, pour your own coffee, wrap up your leftovers and pay when you leave.”

I do make several attempts to pour my own coffee, but a number of the Pomperdalians insist on doing this for me – and this, even before I’ve wooed them with my prowess at canasta. Everyone here knows everyone: It’s like Cheers for the geriatric set, albeit with no booze and a lot more Yiddish. Most Early Birds, they tell me, include a starter, main course, cold beverage (they ding you extra for coffee) and dessert – a huge amount of food for about US$12.95. “And you can take home whatever you don’t finish,” someone proudly announces.

As I dig into scrambled eggs with Nova lox and onions that are a bisl cold and salty, and served on a paper plate with a plastic fork – not that I’m complaining mind you – one woman suddenly pokes me and shouts, “They have the best chicken soup here! Oh my God, out of this world!” But there’s a trick, she explains, now employing a whisper that is somehow louder than her speaking voice. “You order the matzo ball separately. That way, there’s no displacement of the soup!” I love this woman. When I ask her opinion on the best Early Birds in South Florida, the entire Pomperdale clan launches into a sort of vaudevillian act:

“J. Alexander’s, Houston’s, Sage…"

“Do you like Italian? Bongusto is delicious.”

“But they’re closed on Mondays.”

“Charley’s Crab near Oakland Park…”

“Do you like fish? 15th Street Fisheries is very nice – a little expensive, but excellent service.”

Later in the day, I head to 15th Street Fisheries, a legendary Early Bird eatery where they offer Sunset Dinners on the Waterfront between 5 p.m. and 5:45 p.m. Located at the Lauderdale Marina, it has a waterside setting that’s flawless, but the room has seen better days – say, back in the early 1980s. Still, for those who frequent Early Birds, the deal is more important than the decor or the food. Just like golf, schmaltz and shopping, it’s a way of life.

At $18.95, the Pomperdalians were right that the 15th Street Fisheries’ Early Bird is pricier than most. But it gets you, among other things, the Fisheries salad: iceberg lettuce tossed with sliced strawberries, slivered almonds, crumbled bacon and baby shrimp, all coated in a sweet creamy dressing that proves that the grossest sounding combinations are often the tastiest. Other high notes include an inspired intermezzo of ginger-orange sorbet and “bread girl” Meagan’s sunflower-wheat and jalapeno-cheddar offering. After dinner, at 5:57 p.m., a woman with a towering blond bouffant and a yellow sweater with sequined panda bears brushes her teeth in the bathroom. She swooshes and spits, then turns to me. “They really give you a nice piece of fish here.”

Another day, I visit Flakowitz, a deli and bakery in Boynton Beach with 70-year-old “bread boys.” It’s a home away from home for Jewish snowbirds who make sure they’re seated by 4:30 p.m. for the Early Bird, which entitles them to precisely $1 off the main course.

We order chicken soup (matzo ball on the side, please), cabbage rolls and blintzes. Dinner arrives exactly two minutes later and the bill, a minute after that. Don’t get me wrong. This abrupt service isn’t insulting; that’s just the way it’s done here. Why wait when you could be eating? Why linger when you could be playing shuffleboard?

The soup – the colour of a young hen – is wonderful, and the matzo ball, properly yielding. The cheese blintzes have a crispy exterior with a warm, vanilla-scented filling. The cabbage rolls are sweet and sour, just like my boobie used to make. All told, it’s the real deal.

I have to admit that the food tastes pretty good. Still, despite the deals, I think for now I’m willing to pay the extra buck to finish off the workday before heading to dinner. But a few decades from now – God willing – I can imagine myself here, kibitzing with pals. Like the woman a few tables away, resting her foot on a chair. Although she appears to be in agony, but all accounts she’s prone to histrionics.

“Oooh, oooooh,” Mary groans.

“What’s the matter with you?” Sol asks, with fake concern.

“Oohhh, I started limping yesterday.”

“Well, you’re limping better today.”

I should only be so lucky.


Arjun said...

They really give you a nice piece of fish here. Comic gold.

Amy said...

I wish I could make a living writing about eating with old Jewish people in Florida.
Or maybe my next story could involve chiropodist waiting rooms in Boca.