After six holiday seasons outside of the US (one in Costa Rica, five in Germany), those annual December trips back to Cleveland look basically the same on paper. We alternate time spent with our respective families, and there’s a minimal amount of schlepping across town involved to ensure everyone is pleased with our visit.
We rarely do anything that’s purely selfish when in town. Once we spent a night at a downtown hotel near where we used to live, but even that ended up being for work. This year, I planned a surprise Airbnb overnight in the building next door to our last US address only for the host to ghost me on check-in day. (I got a full refund but never an explanation.) But the sudden surge of COVID cases drastically changed what that overnight would’ve looked like anyway. My planned night out at my wife’s favorite neighborhood restaurant with surprise appearances from extended family and friends warped into grabbing take-out and some beers to bring back to the Airbnb.
(If I’m honest, I’m partly spelling out the surprise I planned for posterity. I don’t do many things particularly well, but I can plan a fucking thoughtful surprise.)
At best, we get to check out a new restaurant and maybe a couple of old favorites. Even that’s been limited in recent years due to family illnesses and, in case you haven’t heard, the pandemic. But this year, I remained determined to finally stop by Larder Delicatessen and Bakery in what would’ve been a few minutes’ walk from our old apartment.
A Little About Larder
Larder opened in 2018 and quickly found itself up for a couple of James Beard awards (Best New Restaurant and Best Chef, Great Lakes in 2019 and 2020 respectively). They started serving up pastramis on rye, Reubens, and matzo ball soup as an unabashedly Eastern European delicatessen at a time when I first started exploring my Eastern European (aka, Ashkenazi Jewish) culinary heritage. I felt cheated to miss out on having a deli around the corner from our old abode. I went long enough basically ignorant of my Ashkenazi heritage, eschewing bowls of matzo ball soup with shredded chicken and pastramis on rye at a time when I ate meat without a second thought. The Man behind the burning bush had to throw this in, too?
Finally, in the year of some people’s Lord 2021, I made it to Larder. My determination was unshakeable. Usually, I’d scoff at driving across town to do just one thing, preferring to walk to this or that corner. But I’ve noticed over the years that holiday visits are like seeing myself in an alternative reality where we never left the States. Everything I do starts by getting into a car. Dinners are centered around a meaty main dish. I dress in sneakers, blue jeans, and a 15-year-old hoodie of my alma mater with a trucker hat settled on my head like a crown on my way to a television to catch the weekend sporting event between an onslaught of car commercials. To protest by trying to live my day-to-day like I’m back in Berlin, relying on anemic suburban public transportation and turning down dinners with meat, would be like trying to run my best 5K but in a swimming pool. Not to mention, I’d be an unbearable person to be around.
Greetings from Cleveland
This is a long-winded way to say that I didn’t care if it meant driving to Larder and back from our familial suburban bunker for the sole purpose of picking up a doggy bag. Fortunately, I did make a little more out of the trip by planning a run around some of the new urban trails that have popped up in our old neighborhood since we left. We dipped down into the Flats, running alongside a flock of trucks making their way to this or that warehouse to cross the new pedestrian Wendy Park Bridge that would’ve connected us to the lakeside volleyball courts for summer matches in the sand.
After sufficiently crossing the bridge and checking that off of our list, we doubled back and followed the Centennial Lake Link Trail to the neighboring Tremont neighborhood before circling back to the new-ish Red Line Greenway where I chased a train for a few blocks like a kid watching their father get shipped off to the front lines before popping back onto the streets of Ohio City to finish the loop at Larder. (Although we did make a game-time decision to end our run early to sneak into Great Lakes Brewing Company. Melanie caught an Instagram post announcing the early release of their Conway’s Irish Ale, so we did the responsible thing and picked up a six-pack.)
Then, with my fingers wrapped around the cardboard handle of our newly acquired six-pack, we finally made our way to Larder where I had a date with deli destiny.
The Date with Deli Destiny
Larder is housed in a gorgeous old red-bricked firehouse built in 1854 that’d been refurbished even during our time but still had the aura of renovated urban development thanks in large part to the slew of other apartments and businesses that’ve popped up over the past five years. Walking through the door etched into the former garage, a wave of peppery spices slide into my nostrils like so many horny strangers into your private messages after posting a thirst trap. I’m already swooning.
A line had already formed that stretches from the counter to just a few steps ahead of the entrance. Mini Polaroids of smiling guests adorn the wall over a retro sink turned tray and trash collector. Shelves upon shelves are stocked with glass jars of various sizes fermenting everything from matzo ball miso soup to all of the pickles.
Now, what you may have read was that they have a lot of pickle jars. But what I’m saying is, they have all of the pickle jars. Later reading reveals that Larder focuses on koji-culturing, a method typically used in producing fermented treats such as soy sauce and Japanese sake. The koji enzymes are what allow them to cure pastrami in just 48 hours instead of the typically seven-plus days.
Melanie runs ahead and takes a picture of the chalkboard menu for us to deliberate as we inch forward. My eyes scan, picking up deli staples like the pastrami, the Reuben, and matzo ball soup. Seasonality and using local ingredients are important to Larder. This is likely why the whitefish I saw on the menu when I intended to visit in May wasn’t there for my late December rendezvous. Based on this glowing write-up, I have and will continue to miss out on Larder’s frequently changing menu, like the daily catch and various foraged wild goodies.
In a display case, there are stacks of sweets and other savory treats, like a beastly black and white cookie that’s at least a half-inch thick. I contemplate ordering extra eats for later, but I already have limited time to clear out leftovers at my in-laws before traveling back to Berlin. (There are few sins more serious in my book than wasting food.) Alas, I decide to stick with one lunch order, like a fool, lamenting the fact that I’m not equipped with a second stomach.
Although there’s a delicious-sounding vegan mushroom burger, I quickly sense I’d be making an exception to my rule of vegetarianism. At home in Berlin, I don’t cook with meat. (Unless it’s for a chicken paprikash story where I’m searching for a memory of my grandmother. I don’t feel bad about that one.) And I very rarely order anything with meat. But as I’ve already detailed above, this was me in an alternative universe. In this alternate universe, I can put down one meaty sandwich a year without feeling like I’m singlehandedly propping up all that is horrid about the meat industry.
I go with the Reuben––a monstrous sandwich with more origin stories than a Marvel character. Most accounts say it comes from Jews in the US working in the food industry with the sandwich making its debut sometime in the 1920s. To me, it symbolizes everything about how some Jews in the Old Country saw the Goldene Medinah, the land of opportunity, back then. It’s full of excess, layering more slices of corn beef than what some people would’ve eaten in a year. Then, you’ve got the melted cheese on top in blatant disregard of kosher laws with the mixing of meat and dairy, seen by some Jewish immigrants of the era as relics of the old-fashioned way of living they strived to get away from. These essential elements are stuffed between thin slices of rye bread, proofed in a smoker at Larder, with pickles and Russian dressing.
For The Masses
There’s plenty of indoor seating, but we’re still feeling a bit squeamish about dining indoors given both our pending return to Berlin and the fact that Cuyahoga County was bouncing around third worst county in the country for the latest COVID outbreak. I’m bummed I won’t get the full deli experience complete with the gray trays and whatever the eavesdropping equivalent is for eyeballing what everyone else is eating. But Larder has eluded me for far too long to continue waiting for the perfect experience.
The drive back to the in-laws can’t go fast enough. My impatience is tempered by the smell of heaven flowing out of the to-go bag resting between my feet. Back at the house, I throw my coat off and plop my sandwich on a plate, unwrapping the parchment-esque paper around my sandwich with the giddiness of tearing open a new Donkey Kong Country videogame when I was 10. I chomp into the beast and a moan slips out. I’ll keep it PG and say it’s the kind of moan when someone massaging your back hits the right spot. Wherever else your mind went to you is your problem.
Not being someone who seeks out meaty dishes, it isn’t the beef that gets me. It’s the spices. A perfect blend of black pepper and paprika, if I had to guess. Whatever it is, I’m left wanting to study it so I can at least bring that back to my own kitchen for seasoning. Half a sandwich would suffice, but I’m apparently a glutton in this alternative universe and plow through the rest like Godzilla spotting an upright building.
Melanie, meanwhile, works through her lighter, arguably more sensible lunch. She went with the matzo ball soup and a salad. Before ordering the Reuben, I negotiated sampling rights to the soup and she graciously agreed. Taking her up on the agreement, I take a few modest slurps of the broth and a bite of the matzo ball about the size of a baseball. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever had in the realm of matzo ball soup. This isn’t your typical Jewish penicillin with chicken broth, egg noodles, and shredded chunks of chicken. This tastes like the kind of soup you’d get as an appetizer at a Chinese restaurant. The matzo ball itself reminds me of the inside of a wonton. (I mean this all in a good way, for the record.)
That Reuben stayed with me for a while. I winced moving my ass around the house in a kind of masochistic glow. I don’t regret it a bit. It reminds me of a sign I saw at the deli. I think it was a black and white shot of a portly gentleman, his naked ass in full view as he looks out over a wonderful vista. The slogan on the image reads something like, “For the masses, not the asses.”
I’ll happily worry about my ass another day.