It's a typical rainy Miami afternoon and Naked Lunch is busy with workers and visitors at the University of Miami Life Science & Technology Park, where the deli/lunch spot is located. Although a young woman is handing out frozen blender drinks in thimble-size cups and the bar is full, the beverages of choice seem to be iced teas and milk shakes for the scrubs-wearing people who must return to work after this mid-day break.
If the thought of a hostess sampling cocktails at a lunch spot sounds unorthodox, you probably haven't been to one of chef Ralph Pagano's restaurants. The chef, known for his gregarious manner, weekly appearances on the Paul and Yong Ron radio show, and various TV stints, also owns South Beach party place, Naked Taco.
The restaurant, abuzz with lunchers, opened this past April and is a cross between the fictional Peach Pit from Beverly Hills 90210 and the famed Katz' Delicatessen in New York City's Lower East Side (home of the mile-high deli sandwich and the faked orgasm from When Harry Met Sally). Red vinyl booths line the room and chef Pagano's most loved sayings and quotes grace the walls. His favorite? "The early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese." Think about it.
The menu is filled with sandwiches, salads, and daily blue-plate specials. There's also house-made chicken soup, which arrives steaming. I instinctually eat all the carrots first, as I did in my grandmother's kitchen. At $4.95, this could well serve as a meal in itself, but I came for a pastrami on rye.
The chef starts with National Deli pastrami, which he calls, "The most authentic pastrami I know." He then steams the meat, then cools it. The pastrami is then sliced and steamed once more in duck fat. "Think of it as cheffy schmaltz," Pagano quips, referring to the rendered chicken fat that's a staple in every traditional Jewish home and used in most everything from matzo balls to a spread for crackers or matzo. The warm meat is piled onto slightly toasted rye. Served with a pickle, it needs only a bit of deli mustard as a foil to its richness. At $13.95, it's easily shareable, or makes a feast for one.
Though the sandwich doesn't come with a side (and, frankly, I didn't really need one), I was game to try the onion ring and fries combo ($4), served with a side of ranch for dipping. The rings were golden brown and gigantic, and the fries were crispy and seasoned with pepper. Unfortunately, I was getting to my limit and there was still a milkshake coming.
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SHOW ME HOW
You obviously won't find a milkshake in a traditional Jewish delicatessen. But, then again, you also won't find piña coladas being handed out by a chef, either. As the chocolate milkshake arrived, Pagano popped out from the kitchen. Spotting a gentleman finishing up his lunch, he asked if he was doing anything important that afternoon — like performing surgery (this is, after all, a medical building and it's a valid question). When the man answered in the negative, the chef ordered him a cocktail — on the house.
Naked Lunch is open Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.