There are delis in many parts of San Diego—Italian delis, German delis and just plain old sandwich shops that put “deli” into their names or ads. But, to me, “deli” can refer only to Jewish delis, the kinds where salami is drying in the window, where pickles are brought immediately to the table and where, historically, large waitresses insult your order.
Of course, in our politically correct culture, the insulting waitresses are hard to find (some delis still feature them) but most of the other defining features are evident.
The Jewish deli really had its beginnings in New York’s Lower East Side, where immigrants often found their first homes after arriving at our country’s “golden shores” that they reached after passing through Ellis Island. Katz’s Deli, perhaps the oldest still in business, opened in 1888. The history of the growth of the deli business is recounted in “Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli” by Ted Merwin.
The word “deli” is short for “delicatessen” which, as Merwin points out, means “luxurious eating” in German (when the words are separated). In the old country where the meats were so expensive, portions were small. Eating them was a luxury. It is only in this country where the cost of the meat was manageable, and that sandwiches could be piled sky-high with the good stuff. In many deli, double and triple-deckers were so large one could hardly get one’s mouth around them.
From their beginnings on the east coast, delis were opened all over the United States. The number of delis peaked in the ‘50s and ‘60s but many have disappeared during the last 20 years. Changes in culture and dietary concerns may have contributed. Many traditional delis are located in the east and Midwest. Business Insider recently rated the 26 best “traditional” delis in the country and, amazingly, five of them are located in Los Angeles.
Today’s deli, the ones being opened these days to cater to new generations of “luxury eaters” while staying with l “traditional” menu items usually modernize and upgrade their interiors and made their décor more contemporary. That is, except perhaps for Canter’s Deli in Los Angeles, which hasn’t changed in 60 years. And I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the waitresses were working there at the restaurant’s opening.
San Diego has several notable “Jewish” delis —DZ Akins near SDSU, Elijah’s which moved to Clairemont Mesa near Walmart, and Milton’s in Del Mar, just off the 5 freeway. Of those, DZ Akins is perhaps the best known and most popular. It is family owned and run and serves up amazing food in large portions which all come out of a very efficient postage stamp size kitchen. Both DZ Akins and Milton’s have been in business many years. Milton’s opened in 1995.
Milton’s is located in Flower Hill Mall, a very successful shopping center just west of the freeway exit. The upside is that there is a big parking lot. The downside is that a parking space can be hard to find, especially at premium times.
The deli is actually below grade. There is a short staircase down to the entrance. There is also a unique elevator for handicapped patrons. This leads to the entrance and a small below grade patio.
The take-out counter is on the left of the entrance. All Jewish delis have such counters displaying meats, fish, cheeses and other delicacies. And, a section is usually devoted to cakes and desserts that are as tempting as they are caloric.
The restaurant sections are to the right of the entrance and stretch the length of the interior with inviting tables and chairs. Lighting is bright. This is a place for casual, quick dining, not for intimate dining. Eat and get out.
The menu is extensive and flexible. For example, breakfast is served all day and there are both vegetarian and gluten-free items on the menu. Many of the items listed are made from scratch in-house.
Breakfast items include a choice of omelets and pancakes. But true deli aficionados will gravitate to the lox and smoked fish selections. Bagels, cream cheese and lox are a traditional favorite, as is the smoked whitefish platter.
If one has a cold or respiratory illness, try Milton’s “homemade” chicken noodle soup with matzo ball. It has remarkable curative powers that have actually been verified scientifically. Not necessarily Miltons’s servings, but the dish, in general. My mother was a great believer in what chicken soup could do and fed me her delicious broth every time I sniffled.
Lunch and dinner selections include a good choice of sky-high and triple-decker sandwiches. Brisket, salami, turkey and corned beef are favorites. And, where else can one get a tongue sandwich? For purists, one can choose from a list of hamburgers and a giant Chicago hot dog.
Traditional dinner offerings include liver and onions, chicken schnitzel, and Hungarian stuffed cabbage.
Service is quick and friendly. But the quality can be spotty, particularly in the pastrami and corned beef sandwiches.
Sometimes they are fabulous. Sometimes they are dry. But. Given the condiments and pickles, they are okay.
Prices are moderate to high, as is usual for good delis. But generally, the quality and quantity and uniqueness of the dishes justify them.
Milton’s also does catering and distributes some bread items at Costco.
Milton’s opens early in the morning and stays open till early in the evening. It is great place for family dining, and even offers a “kids menu”. Close, comfortable, and tasty, Milton’s is a good casual dining choice.