The NYC deli is a peculiar beast. It separates the boys from the men, or rather, the lifers from the transplants. Rarely have I felt more intimidated than when stepping into a New York deli.
First of all, they have everything. I mean that exactly as I wrote it: everything. Want an egg salad sandwich with four kinds of cheeses, pickles, ketchup, hot sauce and salt and pepper? You can have it. Want a tire iron and some sweater lint thrown in there? You can probably have that, too.
What you can't have is a) time to decide or b) indecision. You get whatever sandwich your darling heart desires, but you'd better know what that is *before* you walk in the door.
Most NYC delis have a menu board hanging from the wall with somewhere between 20-200 predetermined options. Salami on rye. White fish on a bagel. You can order those things and be happy. But when you order them, you may get a suspicious look from the guy behind the counter who suspects you're a spy sent in for nefarious reasons. Because most New Yorkers do not order off the menu.
Why would they? There are hundreds of meats, cheeses, spreads, sauces, wraps, breads, vegetables and other accoutrements displayed under fluorescent lights and glass, a smorgasbord of options. Do you really want salami on rye? Or are you only ordering that because it's been presented as a predetermined option in a list of other predetermined options?
My first tentative trips to New York delis were crash courses in decisiveness. They were also stark lessons in understanding that I've never really and truly known what I wanted to eat. I've just eaten what was offered.
For instance, I went to a midtown deli with a friend after a very long night of tequila and cigarettes. We were both barely alive, just walking hangovers, still harboring the stench of the previous night. I ordered a #1: one egg and cheese on a bagel. She, however, ordered egg whites with jalapenos and plain cream cheese on a whole wheat wrap.
I scanned the list of 100+ menu options and saw that no where on the list. Instead, she made up her own sandwich, ordered it with assertiveness, and that's exactly what she got, no suspicious looks included.
That's because that's how you are supposed to do it! Menus are for the weak! But when you've never even considered how you like your sandwiches because you've always just eaten what was offered, this realization is a revelation.
Some odd years into this ride that is New York, I watch with amusement as others do what I once did. My favorite thing is when the guy behind the counter asks, "Whaddaya want?" and some tourist replies, "What do you have?" You can hear the collective sighs of everyone in line over the honking of cabs outside. Me, I look for a chair, because I know there is about to be a show.
In New York you can have what you want, but you'd better know what that is. And don't dawdle. Because there are approximately 2 million people in line behind you who *do* know what they want, and by God, you are in their way.