There's no downtime at Billy Sherman's Deli. When owner Pat Hallahan pulls into the lot at 7 a.m., he often finds a queue of men standing outside the locked door, waiting for him to arrive. The place doesn't open for another half-hour or more, but Pat lets them in, brews a big pot of coffee and trades sports scores as he readies the kitchen for the breakfast rush.
Hallahan's regulars show up like clockwork, and they're creatures of habit when it comes to their food, too. One customer likes his brisket tucked into an onion roll with red onions and Provel cheese. This item became known behind the counter as "Denny's pocket," and other diners soon began to order it. Eventually the sandwich found its way onto the pegboard menu. Another regular comes in three or four times a week for her "Judy's salad," which Hallahan has also installed on the menu. A few sandwich combinations, such as the "Monsanto Special," are left over from the days when Billy Sherman still ran the place, which used to be located farther east on Olive. Sherman retired three years ago and sold his family business to Hallahan, who wisely respects the deli's history and has kept things pretty much as they were.
Billy Sherman's has been located at the corner of Olive and Fee Fee for fifteen years. I recently took a new job in the area and was delighted to discover the deli in a shabby strip mall, a few doors down from the 7-Eleven. The place reminds me of the no-frills barbecue joints I grew up with in the Redneck Riviera. The dining room is sunny and scrubbed, never mind the scuffed linoleum and the clunky glass cases that line its perimeter. Each pedestal table is spread with a red-and-white-checked oilcloth. The waitresses carry order pads in their hip pockets and are apt to call you "sweetie" or "honey." One longtime server has the gentle demeanor of a geriatric nurse, fussing over her customers and indulging their idiosyncrasies. As she untied her apron at the end of her shift one afternoon, a gentleman with a glossy pate stood up to leave, reaching unsteadily for his four-footed cane. "We're going home together, ain't we, baby?" she teased him, winking conspiratorially as the men at the next table began to razz him.
Sherman's menu does offer barbecue, as well as sandwiches like the ones we've eaten in a hundred other delis and pubs. On our first visit, our eight-year-old taster chose, of course, the messiest sandwich on the menu: barbecued beef with a sweet, sloppy sauce that quickly soaked through the white bread. He had a fine time disassembling the sandwich and eating it slice by slice with his fingers. We grownups couldn't get enough of the barbecued turkey, made with thin slices of smoky breast meat, drippy barbecue sauce and a nest of creamy coleslaw plopped right onto the sandwich.
We also ordered brisket, a versatile cut of beef that's used in everything from New England boiled dinners to Jewish-style pot roast. At Sherman's it takes the form of a roast-beef sandwich called Denny's pocket, whose provenance is described above. Next we tried brined brisket, better known as corned beef. The meat is said to be "corned" because it's preserved with "corns," or coarse kernels, of salt. At Sherman's, the pale-pink slices of pressed corned beef are heaped onto rye.
If you're not in the mood for a Dagwood stacker, Sherman's offers soups, knishes, salads, cabbage rolls and bagels, as well as lighter sandwiches. But let us warn you that the sandwiches here are like pudgy airline passengers in coach seats: They're so overstuffed that the filling bulges out the sides. The tuna salad, for instance, squishes out from between slices of white toast despite the festive little cocktail skewers meant to anchor the filling inside the bread. Egg salad piled on a French roll will tumble onto your plate and, if you're not careful, into your lap. But it's worth the trip to the dry cleaner. This is one salad in which simplicity is a virtue. The chopped eggs are mixed with mayonnaise, diced celery and pickle relish. Anything more fancified would obscure the fresh flavor of the hard-boiled eggs.
At Sherman's, side dishes are serious business. The selection is limited, but a manageable inventory ensures that no product stays too long and ends up the Yasmine Bleeth of the deli case, bloated and spent. Many of the sides are standard American picnic fare, such as coleslaw and baked beans. But oil-and-vinegar coleslaw purchased at the grocery store these days might as well have been marinating in an IV bag. Sherman's coleslaw is nothing like it. It has a peppery bite and a tart, acidic snap that's halfway to sauerkraut. The creamy coleslaw has a bit too much dressing, but after the first forkful, you're hooked. White and yellow potato salads, both made with slightly undercooked potatoes, taste one-dimensional without any eggs, pickles, capers or chives to vary their texture. Instead we advise ordering potato pancakes, hand-formed patties that become brown and crisp around the edges as they're fried up.
Just as candy is positioned at the checkout counter in the supermarket, Sherman's bakery case beckons from beneath the cash register. Rows of cookies, pastries and brownies catch your eye as you walk in, and it takes iron-clad willpower to stand beside the case and pay your bill without buying one for the road. This assemblage of baked goods is especially impressive because Hallahan, who looks more like a NASCAR driver than a baker, makes most of the items in-house.
And there's more than just cookies. Rugelach, a traditional Hanukkah treat, are bite-sized jelly-roll-style pastries made with a cream-cheese dough. Hamantaschen, one of the few pastries purchased from a bakery supplier, are shaped like tricornered hats. Each triangle conceals a dollop of sticky fruit, and the pastry has a cakelike crumb with crunchy fluted edges that fold toward the center, like a turnover. With the exception of a dry chocolate-covered cupcake and some bland kamish bread, all of the sweets we bought at Sherman's seemed to head straight for the opiate receptors in our brains. Lunching at Billy Sherman's Deli may not be right up there on the pleasure scale with, say, taking a hit of B.C. bud or sleeping with the hunk from the Lipitor commercial, but it sure beats eating in the company cafeteria.