When you leave a city, you never know what about it you'll miss the most. In my experience, homesick culinary longings are never attached to meals in upscale restaurants. More often, it's the cheap food you eat regularly and never think much about that ends up tugging at your heartstrings the hardest.
That's certainly true of my relationship with the food of New York. I lived in New York City and Westchester County on and off for years, from high school through my mid-20s. And as much as I loved having access to some of the world's best restaurants, what I crave most often is a turkey sandwich from a New York bodega. For some reason, whatever alchemy is achieved between bread and mayo and cold cuts on every block in the Tri-State area cannot be replicated anywhere else. Or if it can, it's very, very rare.
When I first arrived in New York at the beginning of my senior year of high school, one of the first kids in school to befriend me was a girl named Jackie, and her means of bonding was to take me to the deli on Beekman Avenue in North Tarrytown and buy a hero for us to split. Her regular order was turkey with lettuce, muenster cheese, mayo and salt and pepper. The sandwich was such a revelation to me that it's been my deli order ever since.
And for all the years after, no matter where I was in New York City or its vicinity, I was able to get a version of that sandwich that satisfied. There were slight variations, but the basics were the same: Boar's Head turkey, sliced thin. Iceberg lettuce, shredded so as to give it buoyancy and crunch, and pack in more cooling lettuce snap. A soft white roll, with a little tug but not much. Enough mayo to make the whole thing creamy. Salt and pepper for tang. This is not a sandwich you'd get at a proper Italian or Jewish deli — those sandwiches are higher quality and better in almost every way. But they're not what I want every day. They're not as cheap. They don't satisfy this particular craving.
So when I saw that a small neighborhood shop and deli had opened in Leimert Park, just a half-mile south of the Baldwin Hills Mall, I decided to check it out. Brooklyn Deli and Mini Mart claimed to sell authentic New York deli sandwiches, and the setup looked promising: a tiny storefront, a sparsely stocked minimart with a few household supplies and grocery items, and a deli counter in the back. They stock only the basics: seven meat choices (all Boar's Head), four cheese options, two bread options. In most New York corner stores, there's much more choice than this, but the spirit of the thing seemed correct.
And I wasn't disappointed. Apart from the lack of muenster cheese (I went with provolone instead), the sandwich was that exact one I had on Beekman Avenue all those years ago, the exact one I got on corners in Manhattan and Brooklyn and Yonkers for years after. The right heft. The right smoosh. The bread with the right softness, the lettuce with the right crunch. The best $6.99 I've spent in months.
The folks at Brooklyn Deli are super friendly, and the store is kind of sweet. There's a suggestion basket for people to write in items they'd like to see at the minimart, and a case selling jewelry made from denim. A sign on the wall proclaims their dedication to environmental responsibility: biodegradable forks, recycled to-go containers.
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But to me, the most altruistic thing they provide is that sandwich.
Brooklyn Deli & Mini Mart: 4308 Crenshaw Blvd., Leimert Park; 347-981-8408.