Monday, September 26, 2011

Decadence, Thy Name is Junior's


Do you have a restaurant called the Cheesecake Factory where you live?

We have several in the Dallas - Fort Worth area, including one right here in Arlington. All of their restaurants feature a decor I call "California bling:" high on gaudy, and heavy on fake wood, fake palm trees, and painted glass. They're what a Beverly Hills IHOP might look like - if 90210's anorexic denizens actually ate breakfast - but with much better food.

Food which, even in a restaurant called Cheesecake Factory, doesn't relate much to cheesecake. Although, in all fairness, most of their menu items seem quite tasty, served in portions of surprisingly non-bikini-friendly sizes. And while Cheesecake Factories become a destination spot wherever they're located because of their entrees, they do have some serious diet-buster cheesecakes which defy the sleek California image.

Indeed, their cheesecakes boast an impressive listing of flavors, each with a rather fluffy texture, which I suppose fits with the chain's glitzy California bling decor. And sure, they taste good, but... they could be tastier, and their texture isn't what I grew up associating with cheesecakes. Because for the grand, solid, almost sticky original cheesecake experience, you can't beat the sumptuous delights found at Brooklyn's original Junior's Restaurant, at the gritty corner of Flatbush and DeKalb Avenues.

Yes, We Have Kosher Cheesecake

The flagship Junior's in downtown Brooklyn represents the old-school Jewish delicatessen at its urban - if not urbane - gastronomic best. With a faded bling of its own - gold chrome refrigerated cases and window frames, for example - this restaurant reeks of Brooklyn pragmatism and survivalism instead of West Coast indulgence. When Brooklyn's downtown area disintegrated into decay during the city's white flight of the past fifty years, Junior's was one of the few stalwarts, determined to make the most of whatever the city's most populous borough was becoming.

Turns out, Brooklyn was becoming a more vibrant multi-ethnic, multi-industry community, complete with revitalized arts institutions, universities, and a sprawling neighborhood of high-rise office towers housing back-office functions for major Manhattan corporations. More recently, residential skyscrapers have begun marching towards Junior's from Brooklyn's riverfront, while a controversial - and architecturally hideous - NBA arena gets built over one of North America's busiest rail stations.

Meaning that for all of the crime, blight, and worthless urban redesign programs Junior's has had to endure over the decades, maybe now it will really get to shine.

Especially good news, since the family of the restaurant's original owner still runs the place, and guards its recipes as staunchly as they've held their ground. Recipes which include the richest, most flavorful cheesecake I think you'll ever taste, each piece boasting a lightly golden top, and a crust that doesn't dare compete for the flavor. You can get it all dolled up with fruits and specialty toppings like you can at the Cheesecake Factory, but why would you want to adulterate the pure bliss of a Junior's original?

If you weren't hungry before you started today's essay, you should be by now!

It Wouldn't Be Christmas in Brooklyn Without It

I was reminded of Junior's several times this summer when some friends from Florida were visiting New York City and posted a photo of their table at Junior's - piled with food - on FaceBook. My sister-in-law e-mailed me a photo of two divine confections - slabs of cheesecake and chocolate cake - when she and my brother were visiting my aunt this summer.

Then last week, the New York Times ran a story about how consumers were managing to scrape together extra dollars for some of life's little pleasures, like cheesecake from the Junior's shop in Manhattan's remodeled Grand Central Station. Along with a photo. Not of cheesecakes, fortunately, or I would have likely drooled all over my laptop. But of some fanciful cupcakes and other pastries, as sweet-toothed customers struggled to decide on their order.

Years ago, when my father's mother was still alive, she and my aunt would host scrumptuous Christmas Day lunches at their airy apartment in Brooklyn. The pastor of their neighborhood's Finnish church and his wife and daughter would always attend, plus several of the older ladies in the church who didn't have family in the city, plus my family. And usually, although my grandmother did most of the cooking - including a delicately prepared lamb - she and my aunt would order deli trays and desserts from Junior's.

How I loved those bona-fide Christmas feasts!

One year in particular, I remember that my aunt hadn't managed to get by Junior's to pick up their order before Christmas Day. Fortunately, since Junior's is owned by Jews, they're open on Christmas (or, at least, they used to be), so that morning, my father and I drove downtown. I remember we found a parking space in front of the restaurant, loaded up the car with my grandmother's order, and started back to the apartment via Flatbush Avenue.

A few moments later, as we were pulling up to a stoplight, I noticed that somebody was running down the sidewalk, along with our car, waving wildly at us, and yelling. At first, my Dad, who grew up in Brooklyn and understood how rough it had become, warned me to ignore the guy. Probably some lunatic. But he came running right up to our car.

And we realized:  he was the clerk from Junior's!

We'd forgotten to take the most important part of our meal: the cheesecake! How could we possibly have done that? The clerk had noticed our mistake, scooped up the bakery boxes we'd left on the counter, and charged out into the cold Brooklyn morning, hoping to catch us as we drove away. He knew how bad we'd feel if we made it home without the day's ultimate dessert!

Back then, that kind of effort by the Junior's employee was called customer service. Today, in any business, it would likely be called a miracle.

Boy, I'd sure love a slice of Junior's cheesecake right about now to make sure it hasn't changed at all!

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