Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The History of the Family Owned Ashkenaz Restaurants and Delis of Chicago, Illinois. (1910-2012)

The Ashkenaz restaurant, at 1432 W. Morse Avenue in Rogers Park, was one of the authentic delis, serving Vienna corned beef, Rosen's rye bread, Litberg bagels, and Vita lox.
1432 W. Morse Avenue in the Rogers Park community of Chicago, Illinois.
As you enter, there is a long delicatessen counter on the right filled with trays of amber smoked chubs, chopped chicken livers, potato salad, perogen (small baked pastries filled with chopped chicken livers and onion, etc.), gefilte fish, kishkes, and pickles. Gleaming red Vienna salamis hung from a rack on the wall.

One wall of the restaurant is somber brown; the other is a mosaic of green, blue, and yellow tiles, an imitation ─ intentional or not ─ of the colors used by Marc Chagall in his evocative paintings of Jewish life in the villages of old Russia.

Beyond the counter in front is an open kitchen manned by four cooks who prepare short orders and sandwiches. The waitresses were blonde buxom and inured to the constant chirping: "Sweetie, how about another cuppa?"

A steady hum of conversation is assertive, argumentative, and studded with friendly insults and retorts. "When are you going to retire?" a customer asks of a cook working at the meat slicer. "When I have your money!" the cook shoots back. A portly man with a Nikon camera says thru a mouthful of sauerkraut: "Was I busy? Today I shot two weddings and a bar mitzvah."
Meanwhile, everybody eats. Orders were ample, with the potato salad partly hiding the smoked fish and moderate prices. The Ashkenaz menu lists over 100 dishes, and 35 dinners are served weekly. 
Not all the items are Jewish cuisine ─ beef stew is listed next to gefilte fish, and barbecued spareribs next to stuffed kishkes with brown sauce.

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Comedian Shecky Greene was a once-famous son of the Rogers Park neighborhood. We know the true nature of Shecky Greene’s attachment to Ashkenaz and of the Shecky Greene sandwich because long-time New York Times sports writer Ira Berkow is also a native of the Morse Avenue neighborhood and wrote about it for the Tribune.

Berkow wrote,  "The Shecky Greene sandwich was named in his honor at Ashkenaz as the neighborhood's ultimate tribute to a local boy made good. The sandwich consisted of a double-decker of corned beef and egg, lettuce, tomato and a generous dollop of potato salad spilling onto the plate. That and their barbecue beef sandwich with the special Ashkenaz hot sauce that made you cross-eyed with the first taste were favorites in the mid-1950s."
Shecky Greene Comedian, 1965.

Kishkes with Brown Sauce
At the counter's far end was an archway leading to a dining room served from a second kitchen in the rear. The atmosphere in the dining room is relaxed and casual, and the diners chat from table to table. The tone is that of a family gathering.
Sam Ashkenaz at the Deli Counter.

Sam Ashkenaz, the owner, had a gentle manner that masks his shrewd business ability. He looked and spoke somewhat like entertainer George Burns, with a raspy but soothing voice and a twinkling expression. It was often hard to tell whether he was serious. One of his favorite topics of conversation was the origin of the restaurant.

His parents, George and Ada Ashkenaz, immigrated from Russia early in the 1900s and first opened a small delicatessen store near Roosevelt and Karlov in 1910. 

When the Jewish population moved north and west to the suburbs, the Ashkenaz family moved to Rogers Park, opening their first deli on Morse Avenue. It was a small restaurant, 10 by 30 feet or so, in which Ada Ashkenaz cooked in a tiny kitchen at the rear. During the mid-30s, they acquired a space at 1432 West Morse Avenue and opened a new restaurant. It burned in 1939, and the couple had no insurance.
Noodle Kugel
Sam Ashkenaz graduated from Purdue that year with a degree in electrical engineering. He joined his parents to help recoup the loss, borrowed money from the restaurant's suppliers, fixed the restaurant and was back in business in 1940.
Potato Latkes
At Ashkenaz, a typical dinner may start with an appetizer such as chopped chicken livers, various kinds of herring, or a piece of small gefilte fish with red beet horseradish.
Gefilte Fish
Homemade Chicken Soup with Kreplach
Next is chicken soup with matzo balls made entirely of matzo-meal dough or kreplach (a meat-filled dumpling for chicken soup). Chicken soup was served daily, and then there were the day's soups, such as barley, potato, bean, or cabbage ─ thick, rich, with a minimum of liquid. "We don't serve a cup of soup," said Sam Ashkenaz with contempt. "Ten-ounce bowl with the dinner, 12-ounce bowl a la carte." 

The best-seller was Corned Beef and Pastrami sandwiches. They served up over a ½ ton (1,000 pounds) of Corned Beef per month. 
Corned Beef - Sandwiches Piled High!
The "Family Recipe" blintzes were a popular entree; a thin pancake rolled and filled with cheese topped with fresh fruit, meat-filled, or fruit-filled blintzes were invariably served with a decent dollop of sour cream.
Cheese Blintz
Jewish cuisine reaches a hedonistic gastronomic status in its sweet and sour cooking of meats and fish, and one of Ashkenaz's specialties was sweet and sour pickled trout. Most pickled fish is cooked with lemon as the souring agent, but Ashkenaz has a secret souring ingredient that produces a more piquant flavor. Many housewives came to Ashkenaz and asked how the flavor of their pickled trout is derived but did he tell?

The restaurant had its own bakery, with a line of pastries that included an excellent cheesecake. A large deli in New York City, Reuben's, makes a cherry cheesecake that some Chicagoans ordered by mail.

Ashkenaz admits freely that Reuben's cheesecake is delicious, but he points out that it is heavy and difficult to eat after a good meal, while his cheesecake is lighter. 

After sampling a slice, you'd have to agree with him. Ashkenaz's cheesecake was topped with a triumphal glace, the color of rubies, filled with fresh strawberries.

So what is a deli? It's a restaurant serving a great variety of foods with exotic flavors. Although it is Jewish, the food is derived from many European cultures. It isn't haute cuisine such as that created by French chefs like Escoffier; it is humble food ─ Jews who came here from Europe were poor.

But the food is prepared with loving care; its Escoffier was a formidable matriarch, the Jewish mother, who believed "Nobody should go away hungry." Is it possible that this type of restaurant, with its superior menu and vivacious atmosphere, is on the way out? You should live so long.

Ashkenaz Restaurant and Delicatessen was an institution that presided over Morse Avenue for years, within the shadow of the "L" tracks, until the late 1970s when they sold the Morse location.

Though there are different versions of why and how Sam Ashkenaz left the Morse location, he purposely moved the restaurant directly to the then brand-new Northbrook Court in 1976. That news made the Daily News Beeline column in December 1975. In fact, the once humble neighborhood Jewish restaurant was considered a real draw both by Northbrook Court and by what would be one of its more high-profile tenants.
So, how long did Ashkenaz last at Northbrook Court? The trail abruptly ends in newspapers and on the internet, so I have no idea. It probably wasn't long since several people from the Northbrook area only slightly remembered that Ashkenaz was ever there. Sam Ashkenaz's son, Steve, worked at the local Carnegie Deli in 1990 and briefly at another deli that made the paper in 1989. Steve would have been at the family business if it were still around, so we can assume that Sam Ashkenaz's restaurant in Northbrook Court lasted about ten years or less.

After Ashkenaz left Morse Street, a place called "Ashkey's" replaced it, also serving Jewish deli food—apparently run by new people pirating the old name. A fire destroyed the building in 1978, ending Ashkey's, whoever owned it.

In the late-1970s, an Ashkenaz location would temporarily pop up in the North Shore suburb Wilmette at 3223 West Lake Street. 

Sam Ashkenaz died on November 25, 1985, at 71 years old. 
Ashkenaz Delicatessen, 12 East Cedar Street, Chicago.
A short-lived location opened at 3223 West Lake Street, and another location at 12 East Cedar operated from about 1978 until 2012. However, those locations are always mentioned in newspapers as belonging to a corporation, and it's unclear if the Ashkenaz family ever owned either spot. But the Cedar location was open long enough—almost 35 years—to be called a "neighborhood staple." 

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A Jewish resident in the Gold Coast neighborhood said that the first two calls you make when someone dies are to the decesed family and to Ashkenaz to order deli trays for shiva. That suggests both the overlooked deli’s importance to its neighborhood . . .  and why it closed, as its core clientele increasingly passed away.

Restauranteur Howard Cohan bought the business in 2005. It was so well known that, strangely, New York Magazine, of all places, noted its passing in 2012.

#JewishThemed #JewishLife

51 comments:

  1. A walk back to my teen years. This was my introduction to deli cuisine and I am still hooked. Thanks for the wonderful memories.

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  2. I grew up on Touhy and Sheridan and when we did eat out, it was mostly at Ashkenaz. I moved away in 1965 and when I returned to Chicago to visit family, I was disappointed that Ashkenaz had moved to the suburbs--and wasn't the same. Whenever I have eaten at delis around the country, I have always measured corned beef sandwiches against what I ate at Ashkenaz. None measured up! Thanks for this delightful article.

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    1. I lived between Glenwood and Sheridan on Touhy also. Just a short walk to Morse and another great meal at Ashkenaz.

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    2. It burned down in the mid 70s. That's why it moved. Cinder and ash moved it for us.

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  3. We used to go to Ashkenaz after the movies on Friday night. We( my teenage friends and I) would always order fries and a chocolate phosphate. Those were the days!!!

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  4. Every Friday night in high school the ritual was, the Grenada theatre followed by eats at Ashkenaz. Morse ave would be filled with kids waiting to get in. Of course lunch 2-3 times a week was a must for Sullivanites and after school too for fries and a coke.

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    1. Yes,this place is SO missed! Ashkenaz was 2nd home to Sullivanites. Fries with gravy,cherry coke or chocolate phos.All the food there was tops.Ashkenaz could NEVER,then and now, be beat by any deli,etc.! Those TRULY were the daze, so very missed today!

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  5. I remember Ashkenaz fondly, and I also remember Ada's Deli (don't remember where it was...), but wonder since Ada Ashkenaz was one of the originals, was Ada's Deli part of the Ashkenaz? And in the 1980's, I went to an Oral Surgeon whose last name was Ashkenaz....he said he part of the same family...

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    1. One of Sam's three sons, Paul, was an oral surgeon and ended up opening an office in the Old Orchard Professional Building....he married one of the Singer girls, owners of Black Angus Restaurant.
      Phil Z

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    2. Are you thinking of Ada's Deli on Kedzie, north of Montrose?

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  6. Ate prune rolls hot. Ah the freshness the years 1940-1950. Sat at the counter with my dad Norm Peachin a well known tire and TV store on Clark street

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    1. Hi Lenore, it's Phyllis. My dad was the dentist. This really brings back old memories. I remember Morse Avenue like it was last week

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    2. Lenore, my mother, Elaine Peterson, worked at Askenaz around 1944-45 as a waitress. Did you ever run into her? Do you have any photos of the place from back then? Thanks! Russell Cederberg

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  7. I lived at Estes and Sheridan Rd till grade school but I remember my dad taking us out to Ashkenaz twice a week. My favorite Deli, always had Pastrami.

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    1. After playing ball, we rested.

      My friends and I went from Field School
      and/or Sullivan High School
      (wearing our club jackets and Star Of David pendants, etc.)
      over to this superb restaurant,
      where we savored great kishke or sandwiches,
      always followed by a slice of sweet watermelon.

      There we kibbutzes about our homework, then adjourned to some sidewalk to lag for quarters.

      Shalom shalom,

      Richard Freer

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  8. My sister & I waitressed there when in college- hard work in a very busy restaurant. Sandwiches (yum,yum Joey Bishop Special) were made in the front; the dinners in the back. So, when a roast brisket on rye was ordered, I went to the front for the "set up", or bread and pickle, then to the rear for the brisket. God forbid if the bread were dry! Sam Ashkenaz could add super fast- he's add up my checks when it was crazy busy. He finally taught me how; I can still add long columns of numbers super fast, often amazing my friends who do not think of me as particularly math wise. His one son was the dentist. And the sweet rolls at that came out at 9pm for coffee and-- to die for!

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  9. I worked the deli all through high school (Sullivan) and college (NIU)....it was my second home and Sam Ashkenaz was like a surrogate father. Best chocolate phosphates and the bakery was tops.
    Phil Z.

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  10. Living not far from Morse Ave.,Ashkenaz was my 2nd home. Corned beef, cabbage soup, chocolate phos.,real coke in glass bottles. Always packed, crowded entryway by the register. Memories of the old 'hood and Ashkenaz are forever! Miss those daze...they were the best! Does anyone remember Dolores, the dark haired hostess who wore a ponytail?

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    1. Did you know any of the Schwartz family (my great grandfather and grandfather and father and uncle lived in that area)?

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  11. I still miss their cheese flakeys. None I have found have measured up!

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  12. Every Sunday morning I was sent out for corn beef (lean) rye w/o seeds and onion rolls.
    Has many meals there, dinner with the family and lunch sneaking out of Sullivan

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  13. I didn't grow up in Chicago and moved to Rogers Park as a young adult in 1960. I don't remember when I discovered Ashkenaz, but I would travel down to Morse occasionally for the best corned beef sandwiches I've ever eaten. I'd forgotten about the cheesecake.

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  14. I worked next door at Morry's Menswear and was the the Store Mgr., and always ate there 5 to 6 days a week and loved every meal! When we opened a store on Michigan Ave.645 N.)I really missed there food. But, every once and awhile I had to go back to back to Morse Ave. and had a meal there. WONDERFUL memories of that place. Oh, Paul, Sam's son open a place off Rush St....it didn't last too long.

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    1. I ate there all the time too! I was Morry's grandson Bob.. Who is this?

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    2. I remember my dad shopped at Morry's.

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    3. My family owned Morry's and we ate at Ashkanaz all the time. I loved their chocolate frosted Marble poundcake!!!

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  15. I have lived in California since 1973 (San Francisco and Los Angeles) and still think that Ashkenaz is the best deli that exists outside of NYC. My family went there often for meals in the 50s and 60s and I walked from Sullivan HS once a week for lunch in the 60s. I loved their corned beef, chocolate phosphates, cheesecake, potato pancakes, and almost everything eaten there. It was a huge part of my life growing up.

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  16. Ashkenaz is where my parents taught me to drink coffee at a much too young age -- they served the cream in those tiny real glass tumblers and I'd always cajole them into give me my own "serving". Still can't find a chocolate phosphate that measures up to what I remember there.

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  17. Being a student at Sullivan High School,( A couple blocks away)...I was fortunate to spend many lunchtimes at Ashkenaz...Great Food & Memories!!

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  18. I went there with my friend Allen Lighter. We always had a great time.

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  19. Thanks for the article and memories, including those from the fb posters. This one really touched me.

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  20. I worked two doors down at Golden Gate Discount Store 1962-1967, High school and first year of college. Ate many, many meals there. Really was a great place. Sam Ashkenaz was a great guy.

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  21. While a student at Sullivan in the 60's, my friends and I would often eat lunch at Ashkenaz. I don't recall if we were allowed to leave school for lunch but we needed our Ashkenaz fix by midday. I compare all delis to Ashkenaz but haven't found one serving food even close to the flavor of the food at Ashkenaz. I loved the kishke and have been missing it for 50 yrs.

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  22. Use to soda jerk there ,best chocolate phosphate

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  23. Just reading these comments made me hungry. I live in rural western Montana, so if I have a craving I can't get any of this food here.

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    1. I wrote the above 4 years ago, my mouth waters thinking about the food I had at "ashcans" after the beach I would be starving, often I just had enough for a bowl of soup, but the basket of rolls and bread with butter would fill me up. Thanks Angie I still think of you.

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  24. Absolutely hands down the best deli ever!! We lived in Skokie and came often to visit friends and we all ended up at Ashkenaz where the food was consistently great and everyone
    working that deli were so friendly and welcoming...miss the good old days!! :-)

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  25. I was born in Chicago in '58 and moved to Skokie until I left in '71, now living in Ft. Lauderdale. I have such great childhood memories of Ashkenaz. My family would go often. There will never be another like it. Deli today just isn't the same atmosphere either!

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  26. The Deep Fried French Toast was my favorite for breakfast at Ashkenaz. Hefty squares of bread. With da kippers it was marvelous!

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  27. One of the few shiksas(spell?)in my class at Sullivan and got introduced to Jewish food at Ashkenaz. We didn't get sway from school at lunch - went after school a bunch of times. Paul and Ilene were in my class. My favorite was the corned beef and chopped liver. Sure not finding it in Washington State where I now live. What a great article. Diane Zalants Reaves

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    1. Shiksa, (noun, Yiddish); a non-confrontational term used especially by a Jew to refer to a girl or woman who is not Jewish.

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  28. The kids who had access to wheels, would line up
    double parked to shmooze after school.

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  29. My Father Meyer Farber knew Sam and since he owned Farber's Bakery (2502 Devon ) we supplied the restaurant with bread, rolls and bagels. I was a born in 1957 and started to work in the bakery around age 10 and driving with my dad at the same time. I packed up the orders for our "stops" and he'd drive us to them wait in the station wagon and I'd carry the bags in. After a while the regulars who came in for coffee around 6am knew me and yelled that "Farber's was here !" .


    Jacob Farber

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  30. What wonderful memories fill this article. My father Micky Hoffberg and Sam were best friends as were his wife Lil and my mother Revell Hoffberg. They were like another aunt and uncle to me. My dad was in the coffee business and provided that for restaurant. My parents used to pick up Lil on a Sat, night and take her to the restaurant until Sam was done closing up. We lost both of them way too soon. My favorite meal was a rib eye steak sandwich with the best coleslaw. I have the Ashkenaz recipe for their delicious vegetable soup! Sunday dinner was always at Ashkenaz.

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  31. There aren't words to express my delight at finding this article. Ashkenaz was a vital part of my pre-teen and teen years and I miss it so much. I now live in Asheville, NC and there is NOTHING like an Ashkenaz deli here. I nearly wept when I read the words "chocolate phos" because I haven't met anyone who knows what that is. What memories, I'm drooling. The craving for 'real' deli food never ends and mine hasn't been satisfied since Ashkenaz. Thank you again for this walk down memory lane.

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  32. The fresh orange juice and sitting at the counter for breakfast on the way to the L to go to work.

    The memories of going to Ashkenaz after school for fries and a coke.

    Morse Avenue. Life was different.

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  33. My mother sent me down a couple of times a week to pick up the almond croissants.... best ever. We lived a few doors down, next to Charles Variety, from 1961-69, in a reconverted boarding house. I can still remember the delicious smells that would wash over me as I walked inside. Best deli ever.

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  34. What a story. Loved the history as I was part of that time period

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