This was a deli, a culinary genre defined by an atmosphere of geniality, like the open kitchen of a close family friend who happens to charge you for raiding the fridge. The words delicatessen and new have a nearly oxymoronic relationship when used to describe a single eatery; the most memorable characteristic of good corned beef, matzo ball soup, and coleslaw paradise lies in their familiarity, their universal sense of home.
My initial interactions with the Bergstein’s staff revealed fleeting indications of a newly christened restaurant. The place lacked that sense of establishment that stems from decades of good work chatting with regular customers in raised voices over the shouted orders of bagels with lox. All understandable, as this Bergstein’s location—the second, after the original Chicago Heights location—just opened on January 23. However, after filling out my meal ticket and settling down to a dark wooden table and chair, the strange newness of the place was shattered as I heard my name sing-songed from across the shop.
I’d ordered “The Good Life,” a classic roast beef and provolone sandwich topped with roasted red peppers and nestled in a fresh onion roll. Well-balanced and filling, the addition of the red pepper to an otherwise meat-dominated sandwich added a layer of finesse to an otherwise simplistic meal. Bergstein’s also offers soups, fresh salads, and vegetarian options. In order to keep up with its New York label, it also offers bagels with lox and cream cheese . My fellow ladies-at-lunch ordered a couple other items on the menu, including the salami and turkey “Second City” sandwich and the “Saffron CPR,” a vegetarian option.
Over several years, Bergstein’s has gathered a following among UofC lunchers at the forefront of Chicago’s food truck culture. Their disappearance from the noontime Ellis Avenue food truck army last January, due to city regulation changes, helped to solidify their plans for a more permanent location on Woodlawn and 55th Street.
“When the university was looking for businesses to fill their property, the faculty requested us because they missed our food truck,” Store Manager Josh Widen said. “We weren’t even necessarily looking to open a second spot, you know? They came to us and we were like, ‘we can’t say no to that.’ People were looking for our food, and that’s awesome.”
Bergstein’s stresses a high quality standard in terms of taste and ingredients in exchange for higher prices. The kitchen prepares salads daily rather than serving already-prepared, repackaged dishes. A family recipe for matzo ball soup, as well as fresh New York-style bagels, separate this deli from other less expensive options.
As I finished my conversation with Widen, Etta James’s “At Last” began to roll out from the speakers like butter over the low drone of meat slicers and chatter from customers. This was a good omen; and an even better omen soon followed, when Widen began preparing a to-go order of hot matzo ball soup.