I woke up Sunday morning with every intention of going to Pie Girl for brunch. After hearing so many wonderful comments on the quality and selection of quiches, soups, and sweet pies, I could hardly wait to visit the little shop on West Seneca Street. You can imagine my disappointment when I pulled into the abandoned, snow-covered parking lot and read “In Texas until June” on the door.
Rather than giving up, I asked my native Ithacan friend for advice. She suggested trying Hal’s, the only Jewish deli in Ithaca. I was perplexed. Almost four years in Ithaca, and I had never heard of such a place – sounded like an adventure to me!
This hidden jewel of a deli is located on Aurora Street, just a few doors away from Viva Taqueria. Hal’s opened in 1961 and represents one of the few restaurants in Ithaca run by its original owners. Running a Jewish deli in Ithaca isn’t as simple as a normal diner or sandwich shop. Hal’s bread hails from Syracuse – the crusty, deli-quality rye bread necessary for a decent pastrami or Reuben sandwich can’t be found anywhere in Ithaca. Additionally, Hal’s meats have to be shipped from New York City. As Hal’s daughter says, “It isn’t easy running a kosher deli in the middle of Upstate!” It might not be easy, but the quality of ingredients is worth it.
Like in any self-respecting deli, the massive display case full of meat and cheese seduces customers upon entry. Hal’s has plenty of seating, and each table is adorned with the standard glass bottle of ketchup, white sugar container and cup of brown mustard. The five-page menu includes breakfast and lunch items, all ranging from $2-$7. Service was speedy and super friendly. Our food was plated less than ten minutes after we ordered.
Ithaca boasts plenty of great Sunday brunch spots, most of which serve omelets with filling ranging from avocado to tofu. But Hal’s is the only place in this vegetarian-loving town that will serve an omelet filled with corned beef or pastrami. The side dishes are equally wonderful. I ran into an acquaintance who told me a sad story about craving a Hal’s knish so badly that he hiked all the way from Cornell in the snow only to discover that they were sold out. After sinking my teeth into the crispy outer crust and basking in the smooth, onion-infused filling of this traditional potato dish, I understood: Hal’s serves up one of the best knishes I’ve ever tasted. The miniature potato pancakes, or latkes, are equally delicious and impossible to pass up. Unlike the knish, which is like a fried mashed potato, the potato pancake is shredded potato melded together with flour and egg, and flavored with onion and other seasonings. This was definitely not your average mashed up tater tot. Finally, a restaurant outside of New York that serves potato pancakes the way my dad makes them!
I recommend ordering one of Hal’s special sandwiches, such as the Howie (corned beef), roast beef, or pastrami, all served with a fat dill pickle and chips or fries. Normally, I won’t touch a Reuben with a ten-foot pole, but the Reuben at Hal’s was amazing. The corned beef had just the right chewy texture and flavor and wasn’t as salty as most. If you order a turkey sandwich, keep in mind that Hal’s uses smoked turkey, which tends to have the smooth consistency of a package of Healthy Choice rather than the more textured oven roasted version. Triple-decker sandwiches with heart-attack inducing mixes of pastrami, corned beef, chopped liver, and salami add the finishing touch to a menu chock-full of deli delights.
In addition to the tempting menu, friendly wait staff, and convenient location, Hal’s also offers delivery service and accepts CityBucks. Can eating downtown get any easier for a Cornell student? Keep in mind that you won’t find a Jewish deli unless you’re willing to drive two hours to Rochester or Albany. I’d much rather walk the ten minutes down Buffalo Street for a knish.