Benji’s Deli, Milwaukee
The word delicatessen didn’t appear in the English language until the 1880’s. Not coincidentally, that was around the time when the Jewish population began migrating to New York City in large numbers, bringing their favorite foods with them to set up their culture in their new homeland. Since that began, the deli has become associated with the Jewish culture, mainly because it’s hard to do it better than the juicy, meaty sandwiches that a good, locally-owned deli provides.
It’s also hard to do it better than Benji’s, which is nowhere near the Big Apple but is the quintessential Jewish deli in every sense in its Milwaukee location. It’s a small, no-frills restaurant that serves high-quality and large sandwiches and serves as a daily stop for several residents of the city. In fact, it’s so low-key that if you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for and where you’re going, there’s a great chance you’ll miss it, because signage is not really something Benji’s is big on having.
Missing it would be disastrous, because Benji’s serves some of the best and biggest sandwiches you’re going to find. It doesn’t get any bigger than Benji’s Hear O Israel, which is a half-pound sandwich filled with four kinds of meat (corned beef, pastrami, salami and pepper beef), Swiss cheese, cole slaw and 1000 Island dressing on the classic rye bread. It’s big enough to be a food challenge on a smaller scale, and I wasn’t going to be foolish enough to try to get that much sandwich into my body.
Instead, I went with the classic Reuben, loaded with corned beef, Swiss cheese and sauerkraut. I’m actually not a fan of sauerkraut, and corned beef is not something you’re usually going to find me eating, but the flavors just work together so well here. It’s been voted the best corned beef in Milwaukee (aside: how do they come up with these categories?) and I can certainly see why. The hand-carved meat is cut to perfection, and with some dressing thrown on along with the kraut and Swiss, it’s a heck of a sandwich. The rye is toasted, adding a layer of texture that takes the flavors to an even higher level.
I was not fortunate enough to be able to try a soup of Benji’s I surely would have enjoyed, the mushroom barley soup. Unfortunately, this soup is only served Saturday, Sunday and Monday, and I showed up on a Wednesday. Oh well. When the mushroom barley soup isn’t there, you’ve got options of chili, borscht or their mish mosh soup, chicken broth with the works. Apparently, the works is quite a lot of stuff, because they say it’s too big to serve in a cup. Not sure how soup manages to achieve that, but whatever works.
Other Benji’s sandwiches include the Gonzo, a smaller version of the Hear O Israel served with corned beef as the only meat, and the Benji, which is solely corned beef on rye. The Jewish staple of latkes can also be found on the menu (although it’s listed as potato pancakes so as not to confuse those who don’t know what the term means), as well as several different deli meats as a sandwich and several traditional American staples.
Benji’s also serves breakfast all day and features a menu of omelettes, benedicts and their special, the Hoppel Poppel, which is a blend of scrambled eggs, fried salami and hash browns. It can even be upgraded to a Super Hoppel Poppel with the addition of vegetables and cheese. The omelettes and benedicts aren’t your typical fare either, as lox and corned beef become options.
I’m not completely sure why the deli became associated with Jewish culture, but I’m glad it did. Benji’s certainly knows what makes a great sandwich, and the result is something everyone can enjoy regardless of culture.
Time to go: Breakfast/lunch, but really any time of day is good for a visit. It does close at 8 p.m.
Wait during my visit: None. This place might be famous and ooze culture, but it doesn’t usually get packed.
Location: Benji’s is at 4156 N. Oakland Avenue in Milwaukee.
Cost: Sandwiches run about $10, soup is about $3 or $4.
Parking: There’s a lot there. You’re set.
Specialty items: Sandwiches