Two sandwiches and a slice of babka, to share

The pleasures of a modern-day Jewish Delicatessen.

If you don’t watch The Circus, you should. It’s a documentary-style series that follows reporters John Heilemann, Alex Wagner, and Mark McKinnon behind the scenes of the current political moment. Each Sunday airs a new episode covering the last week’s events. Their access to key figures is remarkable, and the show’s entertainment value is palpable.

The best part of the show is how each episode begins, over a shared meal between the three hosts at a great restaurant, usually in New York or D.C. There’s some b-roll of the bustling atmosphere and dishes coming out of the kitchen, and then the trio sets the scene for the episode ahead, over caviar and tater tots at Union Square Cafe or spicy roasted rice cakes at Kāwi. They talk about what’s been shocking or intriguing and make predictions for the week to come. There are other meals sprinkled throughout each episode, too, as they split up and criss-cross the country to talk to politicians, government staffers, Washington vets, and voters, oftentimes over food and drink.

It’s how I learned about Perly’s, a Jewish delicatessen in Richmond, Virginia. It was season two, shot in 2017, and the meal was breakfast with former governor Terry McAuliffe. I took note of it then, saving it for whenever I made it to Richmond. That turned out to be last weekend.

After 30 minutes of waiting, you slide into a booth and scan the menu, hungry, hemming, and hawing. It’s 1 pm and you landed at Richmond International Airport just over an hour ago. Eventually, you decide to share: two sandwiches, a hot one called Oy Vey and a cold number named Goy Vey. Perly’s has a clever Yiddish tongue.

The first is made of 8 oz pastrami, 8 oz corned beef, and deli mustard on rye. Jewish rye bread is underrated, and Perly’s is appropriately fragrant with caraway seeds and so soft that you must pick your half up swiftly and carefully, otherwise, it will fall apart from the weight and moisture of the sliced cured beef. That flavor and texture, combined with the web-like architecture and melty mouthfeel of each meat—one smoked, the other boiled, both pleasantly salty—and cut with sharp mustard, is iconic for a reason. You dig your thumbs into the bottom slice and your other fingers into the top, securing the sandwich for a perfect first bite. Then you think of Katz’s and Schwartz’s because Perly’s is on par. 

God forbid that you forget that challah is fantastic sandwich bread. Mildly sweet and smushy, it melds to the giant mound of fresh turkey breast under two squares of cheddar cheese, crisped bacon, a slice of tomato, and a half-handful of romaine, with the help of a smear of mayonnaise. Your sandwich could’ve been a tad juicier, with a smaller portion of white meat, but it tastes like your childhood; of turkey, cheddar, tomato, and mayo wrapped in a store-bought flour tortilla and enjoyed in the summertime, before heading to the beach.

Skip the creamy coleslaw — coleslaw is either one of the world’s most underwhelming and poorly executed foods, or you’ve never been fortunate to have had the good stuff. Either way, this is a reminder to stop ordering coleslaw anywhere it’s not purported to be game-changing. Do opt for the fried brussels sprouts, one of fall’s great savory treats, served here atop thick and tangy yogurt. It works.

Stuffed with sandwiches, you’re ready to take on the city as first-time visitors, but there’s babka to be had, and you can’t resist. So you call for an order to go and get handed a brown paper bag stamped with the tagline “IT’S Yiddish FOR DELICIOUS.” You grab it and head for the door, satisfied with the weightiness, which promises proper density.

An hour later, and one museum exhibit in the books, you tear into the thick slice of bread marbled with rich, gooey chocolate, as you walk down the sidewalk. Each strand that isn’t fluffy challah boasts the consistency of a fudgy brownie. No one wants the regret that comes after eating dry, bready, babka and this one is concentrated and sugary, a little bit flakey, crumbly on top, and fully indulgent. Perly’s gets it right. L’chaim.

111 E Grace St, Richmond, VA 23219
(804) 912-1560

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