A Drink of the Week confession: We drove by the Blues City Deli every day for about six months before we ever set foot in the place. It's on our route, so we watched Vince Valenza birth the place. As word spread that a deli was arriving, we laughed dismissively. What a silly idea: A deli in the middle of this neighborhood? There's no traffic. Who will even know it's here? We had the Blues City Deli boarded up the day after Valenza hung the sign, so convinced were we that the north edge of Benton Park, a block away from Hodak's, was perhaps the dumbest location for a deli in the history of St. Louis.
Coupled with our cocky No-Way-No-How assessment of this Blues City venture we've lived in this neighborhood since the early 1990s, so we think we know what time it is we've got Failing-Restaurantophobia. If it seems as though a joint is on the verge of collapse, or doesn't stand a chance, we avoid it like a crazy ex-girlfriend. There's nothing sadder than a dying dream, nothing more heartwrenching than a lone proprietor standing in an empty restaurant window wondering What Went Wrong. We saw Valenza in the window of his corner deli on a few occasions. Poor, misguided sap. If he'd have just knocked on our door, we'd have told him the score.
When he started bringing in acoustic blues musicians to play during lunch, we thought it the desperate cry of a nutcake but the music sure sounded nice. When the occasional customer did exit with a sandwich and a hefty-looking one, at that, wrapped in butcher's paper like a hunk of sirloin we pshawed. Obviously that guy doesn't realize this place will be gone in a month.
In mid-summer, we passed and there was a bevy of construction workers eating at a table out front. A few days later, a fire engine, with a half-dozen firefighters headed inside. Then a businessman wearing an Anheuser-Busch ID, chatting with more construction workers. A police cruiser. A young neighborhood couple, walking a dog. An old neighbor guy. Scratch scratch. Hmm. Is there a convention in town or something? A house tour?
The next day we showed up for lunch defiantly. The line was ten deep out the door, and inside was shoulder to shoulder. This place sucks. It's a stupid location. The refrigerated display case, however, revealed a long row of micropops: boutique, regional soft drinks that are rising in popularity on the heels of the microbeer revolution. Interesting. What a neat idea. We turned and walked away. We didn't have time to wait in the line.
The next day we showed up at 11:45 and finally met this Vince fella eye-to-eye. He smiled, unaware of our history. "Welcome to Blues City Deli," he said. "What can I get you?" He may as well have punched us in the gut, so genuinely nice was he.
We ordered an Italian Salsiccia Po-Boy. It arrived hot and fresh, crammed with a 1/3-pound Italian sausage served with marinara, roasted peppers, onions and Provel cheese. Holy crap, what a sandwich! Coupled with a Reed's Spiced Apple Ginger Brew (perfect for a fall day), we had the biggest, best $8 lunch we've had in ages.
We go back a lot now, and each time we order a different micropop to accompany one of Valenza's jumbo sandwiches. Cheerwine, out of Salisbury, North Carolina, is a burgundy-brown soda pop that recalls a richer, subtler, smarter Dr Pepper. "It's good taste!" announces the label. Elsewhere there's the simple, glorious statement "Real Sugar," which is important because most pops, even micros, feature high-fructose corn syrup. Red Rock Premium Cola arrives from Atlanta and also contains pure cane sugar. It's less distinctive than Cheerwine, and recalls RC Cola. Ale-8-One is a clear ginger-fruit blend that's more a cream soda than a ginger beer, lacking that spicy bite.
Vince says business is booming, so much so that he's applying for a liquor license, is considering expansion and will eventually have evening hours. (Currently, Blues City Deli is open Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.) He says that he'll feature a wide selection of microbeers to complement his micropops. We tell him it sounds like a great idea and even recommend a few local breweries.
"That's good to know," he says, "I like buying from the local guys." There's a lesson in here somewhere, but hell if we know what it is.