For a decade in the 1950s and '60s, a sign in the small town of Lancaster, Calif. — on the edge of the Mojave Desert — announced to all who ventured that direction: “Letzer's Deli ... the ultimate sandwich.”
The owner of that authentic Jewish delicatessen was Marty Letzer. He subsequently moved to Los Angeles, where he managed such famous delis as Jerry's, Brent's and Vroman's. His employees included his then-young son, Sheridan.
Marty passed on, and Sheridan moved with his family many years ago to Oregon. He retired last year after 15 years with Home Depot — the last nine of them in Bend — and a few months later, on July 6, established his own delicatessen.
Of course, he named it Letzer's Deli. His father's original sign hangs over the front entrance. And he is ably assisted by his son, Gabriel, and nephew, Aidan.
Located in the former Big O Bagels shop in Scandia Square on South Division Street near the Jackalope Grill, Letzer's lives up to its considerable pedigree.
We are presently in the week of Hanukkah, the annual eight-day Jewish “festival of lights.” In Central Oregon as elsewhere around the world, families celebrate by lighting the candles of the menorah, spinning the dreidel, and eating copious quantities of latkes (potato pancakes) and other traditional foods.
As Bend's only dedicated Jewish delicatessen, Letzer's finds itself in particular demand at this time of year, especially in terms of catering. “We're getting great support from the local Jewish community,” Sheridan Letzer said. “And we're doing some things with one of the temples in town.”
Especially popular for the holiday are kosher meats and such foods as knishes, potato-and-chicken dumplings that are traditional snack fare.
Meats, including beef tongue, liver and smoked whitefish, are always available by the pound.
Knishes appear on the original deli menu at just $3 a pop, but they will likely be removed at the next revision and offered only on special occasions. “People just weren't ordering them,” said Gabriel Letzer.
That's odd, because they certainly are ordering everything else.
“Nobody else in Bend has this unique product, in terms of quality or quantity,” trumpets Sheridan Letzer. “We offer the right product at the right price. ‘The ultimate sandwich' was our tagline all the way from Lancaster, and it's still true today.”
Sheridan might be forgiven for his promotional pitch. In my years in Bend, I have never been served a larger sandwich than I have at Letzer's.
To be honest, I was stunned at the size of my first Letzer's sandwich: corned beef, pastrami and Swiss cheese on crusty but untoasted rye bread, dressed with minced tomatoes and Thousand Island dressing.
Even though the sandwich was cut diagonally in half, there was no way that I could put my mouth around the whole thing for even a single bite. My companion gauged its thickness at 6 inches with a small tape measure. I was forced to disassemble it.
This was not a travesty. It was awkward only because the two meats were separated by a third slice of rye — made, incidentally, by Dave Cohen of Rockin' Daves Bagel Bistro — and I had to use the cheese as a substitute cover for half of my sandwich. The meal turned into two lunches in successive days, thanks to a take-home box.
And I loved this sandwich not just for its layer after layer of thinly sliced meats: perhaps a dozen layers folded one on top of the next. It was lean, tasty meat, the kind that told me the Letzers are very careful in purchasing, as Sheridan said, a top-quality product.
The meal was accompanied by a large dill pickle (sliced lengthwise) and a pickled wedge of green tomato. It also came with a choice of potato salad or coleslaw. I was glad to have chosen the former, which had just the right amount of mustard and mayonnaise to keep the salad dry, but not too dry. I sampled my friend's slaw, and we both agreed that it had a strong vinegar flavor and was not as moist as we prefer.
My companion, who is herself of Jewish heritage and who has eaten at many of the well-known delis in Los Angeles, had some distinct opinions about Letzer's food on two separate visits.
Her chopped liver-and-egg salad sandwich, she said, was “almost as good as Mom's.” She appreciated that the liver had been mixed with chicken fat, and that the flavor was appropriately rich but not overly salty.
Although I liked the matzo ball soup, my friend was somewhat disappointed, as one often can be when comparing a recipe to Mom's. The unleavened dumpling, she said, lacked seasoning. But I found the chicken broth delicious, made with lots of dark chicken meat and bits of onion, celery and carrot.
We both found the knockwurst delicious. But neither of us cared much for the generous portion of sauerkraut that accompanied it. Like the coleslaw, it was dry and heavily flavored with vinegar. I like kraut when it is sweeter and more peppery.
A sandwich of pastrami, turkey and Swiss on challah bread was as large and as good as the others. This one was of interest to us because it was served in braided challah, an egg-rich bread that is ideally light and honey-sweetened. We found it heavy and not as sweet as we like.
It's hard to go wrong, however, with lox (sliced, smoked salmon) and cream cheese on a toasted bagel. Served with slices of tomato and onion, it was very good.
And the New York-style cheesecake, dubbed “Laurie's luscious cheesecake,” was superb. Marvelously creamy, made with sour cream and wrapped in a Graham-cracker crust, it was the sort of dessert that every pastry chef should have as a part of his or her repertoire.
Other than the cabbage dishes, my only complaints about Letzer's are focused on its ambience — or lack thereof.
The atmosphere is strictly functional. Six tables seat about 20 people, and there are another few seats at bars facing outward toward the parking lot. Little attention has been given to putting anything on the walls, with the exception of a few framed photos of patriarch Marty Letzer at his original California deli.
There's a cooler with soft drinks and a soda machine, but no cups for water, which patrons must request when they order at the counter. There's a large glass case where deli meats might be displayed, but on both of my visits, it was empty.
But Letzer's doesn't need adornment to draw attention away from what it does best. Orders are quickly and courteously taken — by Gabriel, on both of my visits — and prepared in the kitchen by Sheridan, who keeps an eye on proceedings through an open window.
Grandpa Marty would have been proud.
Spork , the mobile kitchen that most often parks its Airstream trailer on 14th Street near Commerce Avenue, has closed for the winter and will not reopen until March. In the interim, executive chef Jeff Hunt, previously of Marz, and his partners, former Grove Cantina owners Chris Lohrey and Erica Reilly, will be available to work holiday parties and other special events. 541-390-0946, www.sporkbend.com .
Cheerleaders Grill and Sports Pub is now firmly established in its new location beside the Riverhouse Hotel&Convention Center on Bend's north side. Breakfast and lunch are priced in the $6 to $10 range. Cheerleaders previously was located on Third Street near Greenwood Avenue, in a site now occupied by Taylor's Sausage. Open 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. every day. 3081 N. U.S. Highway 97, Bend; 541-330-0631.
Shari's Restaurants (B+): These family-friendly restaurants, part of an Oregon-based chain, are known for their distinctive, six-sided design. Casual and well-lit, they feature solid comfort food at reasonable prices with homespun service, and are open 24 hours daily. 61135 S. Highway 97, Bend (541-389-2405); 3098 N. U.S. Highway 97, Bend (541-382-0674); 1565 Odem Medo Road, Redmond (541-923-0400; www.sharis.com.
Rivals Sports Bar, Grill & Poker (B+): A good option for enjoying a light meal while watching the big game, Rivals is succeeding in a venue where other restaurants have failed. Reasonably priced burgers, prompt service and a laid-back ambience extend to a large poker room in the rear. Open 11:30 a.m. to 2 a.m. Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 2 a.m. Saturday and Sunday. 2650 N.E. Division St., Bend; 541-550-7771, www.rivalsbend.com.
Anthony's at the Old Mill (B): Despite a highly professional wait staff, Anthony's falls short of its considerable promise. Grilled fish and chowder are good but the recipes are unimaginative, the menu overpriced and the ambience lacking in intimacy. Open 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 4 to 9:30 p.m. Sunday. 475 S.W. Powerhouse Drive (in the Old Mill District), Bend; 541-389-8998; www.anthonys.com/restaurants/info/bend.html.