Deli is Big Business : Jerry’s stock is publicly traded, but the food isn’t always a sure bet


The newest Jerry’s Famous Deli is a palace of excess, from a menu so densely written it needs explanatory footnotes, to the huge portions, to the sweeping aerial photos of the neighborhood (Woodland Hills) circa 1920. The first thing you notice is a sign by the front door boasting that the restaurant is now being traded publicly on the Nasdaq.

With its red wooden trim and vinyl booths, the dining room looks more Vegas than Valley. The walls are a veritable poster gallery for old movies and bygone Broadway shows. (Anyone remember that the original Evita on Broadway was Derin Altay?)

If the noise and intensity in the main dining area are too much, ask for one of the outdoor tables, situated on a makeshift sidewalk patio that spills out onto Ventura Boulevard. Another option is the huge pastry room, where you can sit at a long wooden espresso counter or at small tables with a view of a pastry case filled with hamantaschen, seven-layer chocolate cake and babka.


Reporting on a menu this large is like being assigned to write a book review of the Bible. Forgive me if I condense it to Classics Illustrated size. Of breakfast (served 24 hours a day), I can only say it features the usual pancakes and omelets and a mind-numbing selection of pastries.

A meal begins with a pickle tray full of half sours, pickled green tomatoes and sauerkraut. Then come the appetizers, the best of which, a flaky meat knish flown in from the East Coast, is easily the best knish in the city. Stuffed kishke is the usual sausage casing bursting with a stuffing made from flour, carrots and chicken fat. The potato pirogen mruvka, a sort of ravioli stuffed with potato puree and served with grilled onions, are delicious with sour cream. Jerry’s chopped liver is light, creamy and eminently spreadable.

Soups come with bagel chips, a nice touch. Many soups, notably chicken rice and chicken matzo ball, are extremely salty. The mushroom barley soup is better, but not the kreplach--a doughy, insipid meat-stuffed dumpling in salty chicken broth.

The menu abounds with salads and smoked fish platters. Jerry’s chopped salad is loaded with lettuce, carrots, garbanzos, cucumbers, bell peppers, green onions and cheese. The Greek salad has lots of crumbly feta--plus a choice of herring or anchovies. There’s even a Cajun duck salad.

Nova lox--fine, buttery fish--comes on good, firm bagels (for instance, onion bagel or one thickly crusted with poppy seeds). Sable and sturgeon, two white fish with a lower salt content and a higher price tag, are a bit delicate for their accompaniment of cream cheese and Bermuda onion. You can also get whitefish, chubs and gefilte fish.

Entrees include workmanlike stuffed cabbage, woefully overcooked short ribs and slightly dried-out rotisserie chicken. Chicken in the pot comes in a huge crock, but the components--kreplach, noodles, carrots, an NBA-sized matzo ball and what looks to be an entire stewed chicken--don’t have much flavor at all.


You’re on safe ground ordering pastrami here. This isn’t the soulful, hand-cut style you get at Langer’s in downtown L.A., but the meat is lean, tender and spicy with a peppery top crust. The corned beef is lean, too, though not nearly as moist.

I tried and survived the cholent. Think of it as Jewish cassoulet: barley, beans, yams, whole potatoes, kishke, dumplings and one enormous beef short rib. OK, I sort of liked it, but if there is a heavier dish in the Western hemisphere, I am not aware of it.

Pass on the pizzas, which take forever and aren’t particularly distinctive or interesting. If you have room for dessert, avoid anything layered or topped with whipped cream, which tastes artificial (though they swear it’s real) and get something simpler, such as fruit-filled hamantaschen, the dense pound cake or the good cookies and eclairs.

In the end, I am at a loss to explain this restaurant chain’s wild popularity, but it seems an entire generation is flocking to buy mass-produced ethnic foods at places like Rosti, Panda Inn, the sushi counter at Gelson’s and Jerry’s Famous Deli. I bet they’re all publicly traded like Jerry’s, and if I were playing my heart instead of my head, I’d sell every last one of them short.


Jerry’s Famous Deli, 21857 Ventura Blvd., Woodland Hills. Open 24 hours daily. Dinner for two, $20-$35. Suggested dishes: knish with gravy, $4.65; N.Y.-style pastrami sandwich, $9.85; nova lox on bagel, $9.50; cholent, $10.95. Beer and wine only. FYI: Parking lot. All major cards. Call: (818) 340-0810.