You wouldn't expect a mom and pop Jewish-style deli to be one of Orange County's best pasta houses, but it is.
New York City Deli is on a sleepy Fountain Valley corner next to Mile Square Park--about as far from the island of Manhattan, both physically and spiritually, as it is possible to get in the Lower 48.
There isn't much of visual appeal here. The chief allusions to New York are a few framed photos of the Manhattan skyline and a pair of wacko oil-on-canvas collages centered on the Statue of Liberty. Other than those, and a blue yellow awning over the kitchen reminiscent of the Swedish flag, you're definitely in mini-mall U.S.A.
Owner Paul Hortobagyi has trod a long path to this modest location, however. He's a native of Budapest and was trained as a chef at Hungary's national culinary institute. He cooked in Italy for four years, then ran restaurants in Florida before moving to this area.
The experience shows; Hortobagyi has a bag of tricks you just don't expect from a neighborhood deli. He bakes a rye bread, for example, that rivals any around, including the famous Fred's corn rye of West Hollywood, and prepares a rose pink chicken paprikash that would make any Hungarian grandmother blush with pride.
But the subject, I believe, was pasta, so let's get back to it. Hortobagyi and his Czech-born wife, Marcella, opened their deli for dinner a few months back, adding a highly innovative and original pasta menu. The noodles themselves come fresh daily from Pasta Mia, a local supplier with a large restaurant clientele, but the inspiration is all in the family. You won't find these dishes anywhere else.
Take New England pasta--chewy spaghetti with a combination of fresh carrot and broccoli, smoked tuna and lightly sauteed Nova Scotia salmon (the same salmon, I might add, that is equally at home on this restaurant's bagels). This pasta is just great; smoky bits of flavor mingling subtly in a light butter sauce.
The chef is even prouder of a dish he has dubbed linguine Melrose (after Los Angeles's ultra-funky Melrose Avenue), and I can understand why. It's linguine al pesto with a twist, the twist being a heap of sun-dried tomatoes, marinated artichoke and chopped sauteed scallion. This is an intense, concentrated topping, flavors magnified by a thin blanket of freshly grated Parmesan. I'd call it the star of the show here.
Now you're ready for a couple of the more, let's say, eccentric creations. This man likes to dabble, as Thai fettuccine demonstrates. I am informed that this sweet sticky pasta is the restaurant's No. 1 seller, even if I do not care for it. Imagine pork tenderloin cut in julienne, stir-fried with snow peas, fresh mushrooms, curry spices and Piper indicum medium , Hungary's own piquant red pepper. Only a surfeit of sugar prevents this from being a masterful dish.
Perhaps Southwestern is your thing. Then how about jalapeno fettuccine tossed with avocado, green peppers and chicken in fragrant cilantro butter? No? Well, there's always spaghetti marinara, even if you do find this one just about anywhere else.
Maybe pasta isn't your thing. There's a whole lot more to eat here, revolving around competently prepared deli sandwiches and surprisingly ethnic soups. You might find a zesty beer cheese soup one evening, or a slightly grainy cream of cauliflower. But if you're really lucky, you'll come on the day Hortobagyi makes gulyas, the authentic Hungarian goulash soup. This is a ruddy, paprika-rich broth loaded with chunked potato, cubes of beef and sauteed peppers.
Sandwiches include a thinly sliced, well-stacked turkey breast, roasted daily on the premises, and a combination salami, corned beef and pastrami. The restaurant uses Hebrew National pastrami, which I've touted as Orange County's best, but this is not a real New York sandwich. For starters, the meat is machine-sliced, unless you make a special request for hand slicing. Further, Hortobagyi does not steam his meat until it falls apart.
There are also various dinner specials served nightly here, such as Oriental stir-fry (Wednesdays) and baked sea bass (Fridays). Saturdays it's paprikas csirke, the authentic chicken paprikash, served with feathery, bite-sized parsley dumplings (nockerli) that melt in the mouth.
This is your only chance to eat Hungarian food in Orange County, and I wouldn't miss it. And sometimes, when Hortobagyi is feeling homesick, he bakes up some baigly --a Hungarian nut or poppy seed roll--to serve for dessert alongside his all-American collection of homemade cookies.
New York City Deli is inexpensive. Soups are $1.95 to $2.50. Salads are $2.95 to $6.95. Sandwiches are $4.95. Pasta and dinner specialties are $4.95 to $7.95.
* NEW YORK CITY DELI
* 10964 Warner Ave., Fountain Valley.
* (714) 964-7400.
* Lunch and dinner Monday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday till 9 p.m.
* VISA and MasterCard accepted.