There’s an old Yiddish proverb that goes Troubles with soup is better than troubles without soup. I know it’s true because I read it on the menu at Goldbergs’ Famous Delicatessen, and it’s sage wisdom to keep in mind when dining at this funhouse-ride of a restaurant. Plopped between a Nordstrom Rack and a conveyor belt sushi place in Bellevue’s Factoria Mall and lit up like the set of a ’90s Hollywood rom-com, Goldbergs’ makes a superb matzoh ball soup, but you gotta endure a lot of kitsch to enjoy it.
Look, nobody expects serious Jewish deli in the Pacific Northwest, just like nobody’s hoping for fisherman-fresh oysters in Flatbush. As the Florida-born son of expatriate New Yorkers, I’ve learned that Jews will happily settle anywhere, but we will not settle for what we eat. We’ll make do, sure, because that’s what we do. But all the while we cling to a savory truth established long ago on the Lower East Side, and we transmute inevitable disenchantment into pleasant surprise (aka “It’s not bad!”). Call us the deli diaspora, yearning to return to the motherland of Katz’s.
In location and in execution, Goldbergs’ is far from that sandwich Shangri-la, and with ownership from the secondary deli hotspots of LA and Detroit, its touchstones are the Stage and Canter’s. Like so much frontier culture, Goldbergs’ is more imitative exaggeration than true original (its claim to fame is a ridiculous five-lb reuben), but that doesn’t mean it’s entirely artless. Up front, the counter is stocked with kugel and knishes, rugelach and halvah. Sour pickles arrive at the table as soon as you sit. The matzoh ball soup is delightfully light on the tongue but dense with chickeny flavor; not one but two bready, baseball-sized dumplings swim in the bowl. My dining companion had never tried a matzoh ball and happily shaved off curling slivers with his spoon as if he were sculpting soft clay. Goldbergs’ latkes are also good, though a fried potato pancake is hard to screw up.
I asked my server, who was swamped but patient with orders from T-Mobile employees, about the meat in the pastrami sandwich. She told me that except for the corned beef, which “we do ourselves,” it all comes from the East Coast—“the meat, the pickles, the lox. So it’s local there.” As for an explicit producer, she couldn’t say: “They don’t give out that information.”
That’s fine. I’ve had good reubens and corned beef at Goldbergs’. But pastrami is my deli-sandwich barometer and, on my most recent visit, it was drastically off. By appearances it was close enough—a generous mound of thin-sliced pastrami. Thin, lightly crisped caraway rye bread. Gulden’s Mustard, pedestrian but decent.
The meat, however. It looked nicely singed on the edges, which should’ve been the result of smoking (pastrami is Jewish barbecue: corned beef that’s slow-smoked). Instead what I tasted was cooking gas, as if the meat had passed under a gas-fired broiler and emerged infused with the essence of propane. My friend took a bite and agreed. I left half of my sandwich on my plate unfinished, like a sin against my mother.
Let it be known that the point of this story is not competition but rather celebration, because I recently learned of another (the only other?) Jewish-style deli in the Seattle area, and it, too, is in Bellevue. “Old Bellevue” specifically, a four-block strip of chichi shops, mid-rise condos and terracotta roofs that’s old only if you were born yesterday. Trafficked at midday primarily by ladies-who-lunch types, this prefab Main Street is identical to retail-residential developments all over Fort Lauderdale, also a legitimate bastion of deli. And so sitting outside Gilbert’s on Main with a bountiful plate of bagels and lox feels right, especially on a brisk, sunny Sunday in the fall.
Gilbert’s, according to my matronly server, claims a bistro/café vibe, with no blintzes or knishes or other deep-deli fare on offer. According to the website, each batch of matzoh ball soup is made with “26 quarts of water and six unfortunate chickens.” I believe it! Ovular slicks of fat floated on the surface of my soup, nudged by rafts of sliced carrot and celery, and the broth was spectacularly rich. One ball in this bowl, big enough for two.
Still, this is Bellevue. Gilbert’s bagels come from Einstein’s, the pastrami from Boar’s Head. My sandwich was large—yes!—and the meat warm and tender and pleasingly greasy, if underwhelming in flavor. As my mother would say, I’m not mad, I’m disappointed. But I’ll get over it.
3924 Factoria Blvd. SE
10024 Main St., Bellevue
Photos by Dan Paulus