In Appreciation of Cecil's
What follows is probably old news for a lot of readers: Cecil's Delicatessen in St. Paul has received plenty of accolades from MPLS-St. Paul Magazine, among others.
However, discovering the deli was a moving experience for me, and it may be for others as well.
My mom grew up on Long Island, not far from New York City. And while I was raised in Wisconsin, there were touches of her upbringing homemade chocolate egg creams, egg bread (not challah, but an egg bread / white bread hybrid available at Kohl's foods stores), Hydrox cookies, Dr. Brown's Cherry soda, etc. that helped define my childhood diet.
To this day, if I can order a decent chocolate egg cream somewhere, it's oddly thrilling.
Fast forward to last week. While biking to the Nook in St. Paul, my wife and I pass Cecil's, on Cleveland Ave. It catches the corner of my eye. What, exactly, is it? A corner store? A little cafe with two or three outdoor tables? Could it really be a Jewish deli? We return, a couple days later, and open the door.
Past shelves, bakery cases and freezers stocked with hamentashen, knishes, Dr. Brown's soda and all manner of culinary Judaica is a dining room that seems as though it was conjured straight out of Brooklyn. It's busy as hell. It's loud. There are old dudes all over the place who are vibrant, who clearly belong in this setting. A big, beefy waiter is telling people where to sit, minus any pleasantries: "You, sit there. You two, sit there." He takes our order in a few seconds flat, cutting right to the chase.
There are egg creams on the menu. Corned beef. Serious Reubens. A "Monte Cohen" variant of the Monte Cristo. Egg bread like I remember it.
An older gentleman takes our drink order, and, through his determination to get me my drink and some quirk of the busy dining situation, I wind up with two egg creams: one in a glass, another in a metal shake-style cup. I'm double fisting the things, and literally getting misty eyed.
And the food is delicious. Delicate corned beef, the light, melt-in-your-mouth kind, the kind you crave. It feels like home, not just any home, but my home. It takes no imagination whatsoever: I step into Cecil's, and I'm back in New York.