When I learned that we would close out 2023 in Charlotte with the opening of two new Jewish delis on the fringes of Uptown, my Chicagoan heart skipped a beat. Growing up in the Windy City, I was used to Jewish delis; I always loved pastrami sandwiches and matzo ball soup on those cold days, of which there were many.
I also harken back to my early childhood when my bubbe (Yiddish for “grandma”) Becky would make potato or meat knishes. She didn’t speak English, but we communicated through her cooking.
I lived for 21 years near Manny’s Deli, an institution in Chicago for more than 70 years, and I was there enough that the pastrami slicer knew me. Since moving here in late 2019, I haven’t sampled some of the favorite foods of my heritage because Charlotte seemed to be lacking a good Jewish deli — which was surprising with the influx of New Yorkers who call the Queen City home.
Despite my annual physical in December calling for a stress test (perhaps from the excitement of the deli news), I wasn’t going miss out on trying both of our new local options: Joan’s Bakery and Deli in the Metropolitan and Schreiber’s on Rye in Optimist Hall.
In fact, I stopped at Schreiber’s right after the test to try out the matzo ball soup and a knish. Having just left the doctor’s office, I figured I’d hold off on the pastrami — at least until I visited Joan’s the next day. See? I’m thinking about my health as we move into the new year.
Schreiber’s is a new venture from namesake chef Larry Schreiber, a Moffett Restaurant Group veteran who’s also known as the executive chef behind Bao & Broth and Good Food on Montford.
At Schreiber’s, which I visited on Dec. 23, one day after its opening, I found a long line and items already running out just a few hours into the day. It looks like I wasn’t the only one in town longing for a Jewish deli. I ordered Opa’s matzo ball soup. Unfortunately, they were out of knishes already, as well as rye bread and potato salad.
The matzo ball soup came in a large container with three golf-ball-sized matzo balls, oodles of carrots, celery, a few slivers of onion and some small chicken pieces. The chicken soup broth left me neutral as it wasn’t bursting with flavor — not good, not bad.
They were obviously experiencing opening jitters, as the food wasn’t coming out in a timely manner and the ordering process wasn’t clearly defined. I was a bit disappointed with my first outing but planned to return the following week, as issues are to be expected upon opening any new venture.
Joan’s Bakery & Deli, which opened in Midtown’s Metropolitan shopping center on Dec. 15, was also hopping when I visited early on a Saturday afternoon. They are currently open from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and serving takeout only, with some tables right outside the door as well as others nearby facing the Little Sugar Creek Greenway.
Meshugganah, the deli concept inside Joan’s, was initially a pop-up by Rob Clement, who previously worked for Jon Dressler at The Porter’s House restaurant.
Dressler, owner of Joan’s and other restaurants in the Rare Roots Hospitality Group, told me they plan on extending hours in the spring. They will also provide food service at Lost Worlds Brewery once they open their location next door.
Learn more: A Farewell to Dogwood Southern Table … For Now
I ordered a 7-ounce pastrami sandwich (they also have a 10-ounce option), with the matzo ball soup, a schmear of chopped liver on the side and a potato-and-onion knish.
The pastrami included nice, thick slices, and I enjoyed the peppery bite on the ends, but I would have preferred more of that spice throughout as well as it being fattier, as that’s usually where much of the flavor comes from (stress test be damned).
It was served on good rye bread with a nice grainy mustard. It was definitely an above-average sandwich, though maybe not my dream date. The schmear of chopped liver was smooth and creamy, reminding me of the way my mother used to make it.
The corned beef was sliced thinner than the pastrami, and while I don’t usually like corned beef as much, it was a good iteration and a nostalgic one for me, as it reminded me of the one my best friend from Chicago favors at a deli near his house there.
The matzo ball soup was darker in color than any I had eaten before and I almost thought the broth was from a beef stock, but Clement assured me it was chicken. It included two good-sized matzo balls, more chicken pieces than Schreiber’s despite the smaller size, as well as the requisite ingredients you expect with this dish.
It was satisfying, and if you take it home and squeeze a fresh lemon in the broth, it becomes exquisite.
The taste was immediately apparent as I bit into the knish, with a potato consistency that I would describe as mostly mashed. It had a thick exterior crust that was a nice contrast to the softness inside.
I also sampled the rugelach, defined by Oxford as a bite-size cookie made with cream-cheese dough rolled around a filling of nuts, poppy seed paste, chocolate, or jam. The selection on this day at Joan’s consisted of chocolate and apricot flavors.
I also had the babka, a sweet, braided bread that may or may not contain any number of fillings. In Joan’s babka, I detected cinnamon and maybe even some chocolate in the mix. I was never fond of Jewish desserts growing up, but after tasting these selections, I might have been missing out.
What I have never missed out on is Mom’s cheesecake, a staple dessert from Dressler’s restaurants that comes from his mother’s recipe — his mother being the bakery’s namesake, Joan — that never disappoints.
I have at times gone out of my way to pick up just dessert from Fin & Fino, Dressler’s closest restaurant to my house, when I’ve had the urge for her cheesecake. Now I have another location for Mom’s cheesecake, not to mention the carrot, coconut, and chocolate cake options offered up at Joan’s.
The new location was run efficiently compared to my first encounter at Schreiber’s. There was no confusion as to where to order (given this is a standalone location and not a stall in a crowded food hall) and everything was ready in a timely manner.
I was now ready for my return visit to Schreiber’s to see how they had worked their kinks out over the past week and compare the pastrami and knish to Joan’s.
They apparently got their shit together in terms of inventory, as they weren’t out of anything I asked for. I ordered the Bowery, which features a half-pound of house-smoked pastrami with deli mustard on seedless rye bread.
Like Joan’s, the slices were thick, but they were fattier and had a more peppery taste. If this were a blind date, we would have clicked instantly. The potato knish had a more solid potato interior, and though I preferred Joan’s, you couldn’t go wrong with either.
Schreiber’s describes themselves as a New York-style deli on Facebook, but I would describe them more as a combo of a Jewish deli and sandwich shop, offering turkey and roast beef options, plus an Italian sub and a veggie sandwich. Perhaps a good way to hedge your bets among a consumer base not as familiar with or picky about Jewish delis as yours truly.
I ordered the Mullbery, which featured soppressata, capicola, mortadella, prosciutto and aged provolone, with the usual accompaniments of oil and vinegar with mayo on a hero roll.
The best part of the sandwich was the banana peppers, which provided the biggest taste pop I got. There wasn’t nearly enough oil and vinegar to awaken the rest of the ingredients, so the sandwich lacked flavor a bit.
Worst of all was the roll, which I found to be dense and flavorless with no crunch. The roll makes the sandwich, so this story was over before it started; I would take a pass on The Mullbery for that reason alone.
Unfortunately, the same hero is featured on most of their sandwiches, so I would advise Schreiber’s to find a better bed for their sandwiches or for guests to stick to the left side of the menu, which features a corned beef sandwich on rye and a combo featuring pastrami and corned beef served on knish, which knocks out three key menu items in one dish.
The good news for Charlotte is that our city now has two new solid choices when it comes to Jewish delis, so if that’s something you’ve been missing from your lunch rotation, I would give them both a try and see which you prefer.
Even better news for me is that I passed my stress test with flying colors, so I can safely venture back to both spots when the urge arises.
SUPPORT OUR WORK: Get better connected and become a member of Queen City Nerve to support local journalism for as little as $5 per month. Our community journalism helps inform you through a range of diverse voices.
This work by Queen City Nerve is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.