In the old days people would come to Miami and ask, “Where's the best deli?” Today they mostly ask where to eat Cuban food. But with the closing of Rascal House up in Sunny Isles Beach, there was a lot of hand-wringing about the disappearance of a culture. The last time I ate at Rascal House, Thanksgiving 2007, there was a birthday party behind us, and the young lady was celebrating her 91st birthday. I can also say with certainty that she was not the youngest person at the table. The alta-cocker culture may be drifting away, as are the people who once inhabited it, but there are still signs of vibrant Jewish culture here in Miami, along with some pretty decent food to match.
I started with The Old, Old, Restaurant Row, 41st Street on Miami Beach, AKA Arthur Godfrey Road. For those of you who don't know, Arthur Godfrey was kind of the Harry Reems of his day. Huge porn star. Not really sure why they named a street after him; but of course that was back in the fifties when porn was the most respectable industry in Miami (pre-cocaine, in other words). Jackie Gleason, for whom the Gleason Theater was named, was also an amazing lush, although, unlike Godfrey, he actually had talent, and his tag line, about beating the shit out of his wife, was hilarious. http://miamisunpost.com/041008bites.htm
But back to Rascal House. My constant companion, as it was Thanksgiving, demanded, and got, the full works-turkey with all the trimmings, as they say. The food was okay, a little bit better than good steam table fare, and the whole boat including matzoh ball soup and a glass of wine was $22.95 (tip not included, as our waitress informed us several times-guess she'd been burned more than once by those Canadian/Russian tourists). I got the flanken, or short ribs, which was done up old-school-Jewish style, i.e., boiled to death. It was the boiled dinner, after all, and the
carrots, potato, beans, etc., all seemed to have been put through the same de-flavorizing machine (apologies to the Woodman).
There was some taste, some taste-memory, in fact, that no amount of overcooking could kill. This piece of meat was not savory, but it was substantial, which, where I come from, takes precedence. The matzoh ball soup was a little thin, but the ball itself was light and eggy.
The gratis accoutrements, the half-sour, and sour pickles, the pickled tomatoes, the thick cabbage slaw, and the four or five bread items (dark onion-y bialy's, etc.), were fresh, and were the biggest hits of the afternoon. The service was also delightful, and our waitress satisfied our curiosity (which we didn't know we had) about every customer by informing us of their habits, both good and bad, in minute detail (“hates bread”, “only eats bread”, “they take the leftover bread home with them”-yeah-it was mostly about the bread, in retrospect). The picture of Gleason on the wall was priceless, as he's one of my all-time heroes, and the characters at the horseshoe counter were alternately calling for their waitress to either turn up or turn down the volume on the game on the TV (she never moved).
There are good things and bad about losing this place. Maybe restaurants past their prime, no matter the sentimental value, should be allowed to die a (semi-) dignified death, and go off into the night with fondness, as it were. (Especially in a world where many deserving restaurants struggle, suffer, and die an ignominious death, remembered by no one.) For example, the last time I was at Wolfie's, on South Beach, several years ago, the front windows were grimy, and the place smelled like old grease and rotting flesh. Probably remembered as a great deli (which it was in its heyday), now that it's gone, but inedible food and horrible service at its demise. At least Rascal House kept its nose clean, and kept on sending out those simulacra of good Jewish Deli food, right up until the bitter end. Of course, without anything to compare it to, it may be remembered as a lot better than it was. But like a good museum, where every single piece of art doesn't have to speak to every patron, the same goes for this old place. Just enough items to smell and taste good, to remember, and maybe not for everyone's taste, but comfortable as an Alexander Calder mobile, or a nice bowl of hot chicken soup.
See you at Sam's.