Good food, nostalgia at New York Deli in Harlingen – MyRGV

HARLINGEN — The slow Saturday afternoon eases my mind as I park on a quiet street and step into a place of memory and flavor, of neon lights and “Drag City” playing and the smells of brisket and salami.
Only two or three tables at New York Deli are filled and it’s quiet and I have been here when the murmur of many voices filled the air.
I often say that the continuously shifting movement of people defines a restaurant’s personality. However, I have already seen the vibrant personality of New York Deli with all its patrons at 122 N. A St., so today I enjoy the slowness and the quiet of New York Deli so I can reflect and consider more deeply the essence of this place.
The New York Deli isn’t just any restaurant. It’s a time capsule, but not a sealed capsule where everything sits in one place in a hole in the ground awaiting its recovery in 100 years. No, this time capsule is a living breathing place of patchwork remembrances from different times moving forward after World War Two.
The bold neon lights and the old license plates and the aging advertisement for Chesterfield cigarettes and a sign that reads “Western Union Telegraph and Cable Office” invokes a sense of time and place from decades ago.
The music, rich in artistry and nostalgia, weaves a constant thread of history into the dining room where red and white checkered cloths cover the tables.
“There she was just walkin’ down the street, singin’, ‘Do wah diddy diddy dum diddy do,’” sing the Exciters from 1963.
The waiter places a menu in front of me and takes my order for water and a Dr Pepper.
The Beach Boys sing “Surfin’ Safari” from 1962 and then I see a picture of The Big Bopper and I hear him singing “Chantilly Lace” from 1958 and then I’m in 1959 when the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens and Buddy Holly died in a plane crash.
The menu offers a tuna salad plate and a bison burger — yes, they do serve real buffalo meat — and veggie subs and French dip. Under “Grilled Specials” I see such curious offerings as the Billy Burger and the Brody Burger and the Sgt. Pepper Burger.
The Sgt. Pepper Burger brings to mind the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and I see a poster of John Lennon and his performances at the One to One benefit concerts in the early 1970s.
The photos of The Big Bopper and the playing of Chantilly Lace also take me into 1971 and Don McLean singing about the ‘day the music died’ in his now iconic song “American Pie.” And then I’m in the 1980s in a movie theater and I’m watching “La Bamba” and there’s the scene in which the radio announcer says Ritchie Valens and Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper have died.
It is in these sort of snippets of history we can slip into a nostalgic dream of what was and what some long to see. In my work with local youth I have often heard kids talk about the 1970s and how they wish they could sit in living rooms with friends and watch M.A.S.H.
They ask about how the older generation used to socialize with ease at each other’s homes and they say it in a manner which reveals they don’t move about in the same way and they feel saddened by this loss.
Some of surprised me by revealing they have turntables and listen to vinyl records, and I sorely chastise myself again for giving away my stack of vinyl “Styx” albums before I left for the Army in the early 1980s.
If anyone would like to get a feel for those days and what it was like in those times, New York Deli is the place to do it. They can relax here and absorb the nuances of year’s past and enjoy some fine food. I had a small bowl of soup and a delicious brisket melt with cilantro and sauteed onions and pepper jack cheese and Russian dressing. It was a fine meal and I look forward to eating there again.
And again … and again … and again …
New York Deli is open 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and closed Sunday and Monday.
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