View more photos in Anne Fishbein's “A Deli Grows In Glendale, Or Maybe Billy's Was There All Along” photo gallery.
When you are cruising the back streets of downtown Glendale, escaping from traffic or on your way to the mall, Billy’s Deli can seem almost like an apparition, an old-line deli plunked down among parking structures and vacant storefronts, a place you’d expect to find in Skokie or out on Coney Island Avenue, but not a bagel’s toss from the galleria. The outside wall of the restaurant is encrusted with glazed reliefs of challah, tureens of soup and hanging salamis, the sort of thing Luca Della Robbia might have sculpted had he been commissioned by pastrami merchants instead of popes, and the glaring neon is fashioned less with an eye for aesthetics than with the necessity of grabbing people in off the street.
When you wander into the restaurant, dodging burly rock dudes and an elderly couple clutching his-and-her oxygen tanks, the classic deli funk slaps you in the face like an expertly swung herring: pickled fish, cured meat and a sweet undercurrent of boiling chicken soup but most of all the blast of garlic, which is already working its way into your clothes like a guest who is planning to move in for a while.
The first time I visited, I thought I had found a deli grail, a forgotten sandwich shop that belonged with the greats. I’m as much a deli maven as anybody, unable to stay away from the overfilled platters of salami and lox wings that scented my childhood as much as anything from my mother’s stove. For some reason, I had never set foot in Billy’s until a couple of weeks ago, but with the first taste of the pickles set out on the table — crunchy yet slightly wizened things powerfully scented with dill and bay and garlic — I felt as if I had been going there for years.
Chicken soup was clear and strong, not oversalted, slightly sweetened with carrots; a huge, herb-flecked matzoh ball was fluffy and light, with unusual, distinct topnotes of egg and toasted grain. Whoever was behind the counter knew how to make a proper egg cream: Its creamy white head was marked with just a spot of chocolate where the Fox’s U-Bet syrup had been poured carefully through the froth. Chopped chicken liver: fine. Even the potato salad was right – a puree shot through with chopped celery and less-cooked chunks of potato for texture.
If you are a regular at Langer’s, Billy’s pastrami sandwich probably wouldn’t have knocked you backwards, but it was an honest sandwich, the well-steamed meat dense and smoky though not hand cut, a soft, many-layered mass probably sufficient to feed two; and the soft, seeded bread may have lacked the double-baked crunch of Langer’s rye but was good enough. The brisket sandwich was even better – the thinly sliced meat was greasy as hell, but the fat-lubricated meat was supple and rich, almost too luxurious to eat without a dab of deli mustard. This part of Glendale, once famous for the nearby West Coast headquarters of the American Nazi party, is an unlikely location for good deli, but it’s kind of great that it’s here. (I wonder if George Rockwell ever stopped in for an incognito knish.) It was a wonderful lunch.
But when I came back the next day, the grilled Vienna knockwurst was served on a desiccated onion roll; the lox was mushy, and a Reuben sandwich was as dry as the Negev. The day after that, flavorless matzoh brei and perhaps the only potato pancake I never got around to finishing. Chicken in the pot? Wonderful, the house broth and matzoh ball served in a compartmented tureen with noodles, half a chicken and a kreplach – Jewish wonton – the size of a manta ray. Brisket plate? Dry and gruesome. Brisket sandwich again? Magnificent. Did I ever get around to trying the Number 5 Diet Plate, which includes canned sardines? I’m afraid I did not.
Billy’s is a grungy place: worn, dark wood; high wooden booths; hanging meats; faded photographs of pre-boom Glendale – the restaurant dates back to 1947, which makes it one of the oldest in town, and the New York bray of at least one of the waitresses is of a sort that has faded away in Brooklyn itself. Billy’s is the real thing: a deli, a sandwich shop of the old school. And there’s cheesecake for dessert.
Billy’s: 216 N. Orange St, Glendale. (818) 246-1689. Open daily 7 a.m.-8:30 p.m. AE, D, DC, MC, V accepted. Beer and wine. Street and city lot parking. Takeout. Recommended dishes: matzoh ball soup, pastrami sandwich, brisket sandwich, cheesecake