By the time Joshua Marcus and his partners opened Chow Down Grill in Surfside during the spring of 2010, he had already exhibited his talents at a number of well-known Miami establishments, including La Sandwicherie, Timo, North One Ten, China Grill, and BLT Steak. Last year, Marcus debuted a second Chow Down Grill, in South Beach, and two months ago he converted the original Surfside location into Josh's Delicatessen & Appetizing. If this all seems a bit much to absorb, sit down and have a bowl of chicken matzoh ball soup.
The firm, almost-baseball-size matzoh ball at Josh's Deli is unique in that it's spiked with ginger beer and enriched by schmaltz culled from duck, not chicken, which makes for a much more flavorful sphere. The other components of the soup — deep chicken stock, twirled egg noodles, and bits of carrots and celery — captivate in a more customary fashion.
Décor differs little from the space's Asian incarnation: some tables are arranged by the storefront window, and a long counter occupies much of the remaining rectangular room behind it. The main change is that a wall in the dining area now hosts framed photos of old-time comedians with faux autographs scrawled on each — like in classic Noo Yawk delis (Marcus hails from New York's Westchester County).
Not even big-city delicatessens are as authentic as Josh's, which boasts Josh himself, who at times runs the restaurant as a one-man show. You will never see a Carnegie delivering knishes to the table at the Carnegie Deli.
About Josh's knish: It's a generous square of thin, egg-glazed pastry dough plumped with steamy, onion-imbued potato mash and served with sweet/spicy homemade mustard.
All knishes are noshes, but not all noshes are knishes. Nearly all of Josh's noshes — including the knishes — are made in-house: sour pickles, chopped liver, stuffed cabbage, gefilte fish. Even the bagels are prepared on premises, which is getting obsessive (in a good way).
Meats and fish are cured and smoked here too. It's truly amazing to see thick cuts of house-cured pastrami gleaming with moisture and capped with ribbons of fat. The pastrami comes from an Angus brisket cured for ten days, smoked, and then steamed. It evokes enough smoky flavor (with a hint of sweetness) to put it on a peppery par with great barbecue, although a closer parallel might be with the style of pastrami served in Montreal. It's way more flavorful than the stuff that other delis use, which comes in Cryovac bags and gets sliced like paper on an electric machine.
Josh's corned beef, too, is miles apart from the thin, pallid, fat-free strands of almost plastic meat that nowadays pass for the original cut. Angus brisket meat is again used here: cured, braised, and thick-sliced into juicy, chewy wedges.
We were all set to try a tongue sandwich next, but the meat still had a day or two of brining before being ready. So we returned a few days later. The warm, lean meat is sliced thin (roast beef is the only other meat to go on the slicer) and, once more, is a stellar standard for other local delis to aspire to. Josh also prepares the meat "Polonaise"-style as a special — not the French sauce Polonaise, with chopped, hard-boiled egg, but a mildly sweet-sour tomato sauce with plump raisins, the same kind used to bathe a textbook rendition of stuffed cabbage.
There are also Reubens and special sandwiches. The quick favorite to become a signature is the "Jewban" — Cuban bread pressed with pastrami, roast pork, Swiss cheese, pickles, and mustard.
Even better is the "Kevin Cory" (named for the chef/owner of Naoe), a delectable mix of tuna salad, whitefish salad, and velvety slices of cured salmon crusted with peppery pastrami spices — enlivened further still with wasabi mayo and layered into one of those homemade bagels.
Most sandwiches come on thin slices of seed-flecked rye bread; all are accompanied by half of a wholly sour pickle (which I find preferable to a whole half-sour) and a mound of fresh, vinegar-based coleslaw. (I'm a fan of the creamy type.)
Chopped liver is usually ground, but Josh's version is coarse and wet with livery sauce — perhaps because it had just been made when we tried it. The texture is totally unexpected, but it tastes like the real thing, except fresher. Lightly fried bagel crisps are served as dipping chips for the liver as well as for an exemplary smoked whitefish salad — brined tilapia hot-smoked for three hours and mixed with onions and celery in a mayo/sour-cream binding. A sliced hard-boiled egg, cucumber rounds, and pickled onions are plated with the liver and whitefish.
I would be remiss not to praise the gefilte fish, a puffy dumpling of white-fleshed fish (carp, pike, and other customary gefilte filler are tough to get down here) flecked with minced onions and vegetables. The vast majority of gefilte fish eaten at home or served in restaurants comes from a jar; the fresh, nonfishy flavor of this version will be an eye-opener for those who've never had the real deal.
Potato latkes are topped with apple chutney or crème fraîche, smoked salmon, and salmon caviar. The latkes are of the thin, crisp variety; I like the thicker type, with a bit of soft potato filling inside.
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That's less a criticism than a suggestion. I have two others: Forget the roast beef and put brisket on the menu. And if you're going to offer Dr. Brown's black cherry and cream flavors, you have to carry Cel-Ray — not only the world's best celery soda but also the definitive deli beverage.
Josh's Deli is mostly a lunch place, but breakfast here is not exactly chopped liver. I mean, you can get chopped liver for breakfast if you're that sort of person, but you can more sensibly order any of the previously mentioned smoked fish accompanied by cream cheese, capers, tomato, onion, and bagel. Or try the city's tastiest corned beef hash, made with chunks of meat and potato. You can also opt for matzoh brei, or juevos hebreros — fried latkes, poached eggs, and cholent (a beef, barley, and bean stew traditionally served on the Sabbath).
Years ago, before he passed away in 2008, Jerry's Famous Deli founder Isaac Starkman told me he lamented the replacement of old, fatty cuts of pastrami and corned beef with "cleaned-up" meats. He said you just couldn't sell the real stuff anymore because of modern-day health concerns.
Nowadays, any caloric worries (and really, who goes to a deli for a healthful meal?) are balanced by the public's infatuation with the type of throwback artisanal regional American cuisine being served at Josh's Deli. Marcus is putting out foods he grew up around and feels passionate about, and he's doing it on his own terms. The love comes through.