I’ve been avoiding reviewing it for a long time — because everyone loves this place and I, well, don’t. My friends brag endlessly about the thick-stacked sandwiches, freshly baked breads, outrageous selection of cheeses and desserts galore.
“It’s an Ann Arbor classic,” I hear from every University acquaintance. “You’re not just paying for the sandwich but for the whole experience.”
You guessed it: We’re talking Zingerman’s Deli.
Now, before you call blasphemy, let me explain myself. I will concede that Zingerman’s is adored by Ann Arborites and University alumni the world round, and that this popularity, coupled with the restaurant’s history, rightfully dignifies it as an Ann Arbor classic. The sandwiches are thoughtfully crafted, the side dishes sophisticated, the décor cultured and weird (typical Ann Arbor) and the business model clever and respectable. But as a deli, I just can’t overlook the fact that their sandwiches simply don’t taste that good.
I mean, I’ve had much better pastrami. Here it’s dry — an unforgivable fault, severely lacking in salt (Hello, this is supposed to be brined?), truly underseasoned and, on the whole, bland. The expanse separating the superior pastrami at Katz’s in New York City from the inferior at Zingerman’s Deli here in Ann Arbor is inarticulately vast. And, as the cherry on top, Katz’s Manhattan deli is still cheaper.
I’ve never found the breads particularly exquisite, either. Zingerman’s “best-selling” Jewish rye is too dense for my taste, lacking a satisfying texture, deep color and any unique character … save the crusty, grilled edges, which require at least a minute of forceful chomping on before disintegrating into a consistency capable of being swallowed without puncturing your esophagus. My jaw has gotten a more facile workout from a softball-sized jawbreaker (you know, the kind you break your teeth on).
Any bread here given a generic, unrevealing name is simply that: generic. I’m talking to you, “farm bread” (overcooked white bread), “soft buns” (glorified hot dog buns), “Country Wheat bread” (let’s just call it wheat bread) and “Bakehouse white bread” (the extra adjective does little to distinguish this loaf from Wonder).
The pickles accompanying the sandwiches are an atrocity, too. Why anyone would ever serve an “old pickle” — yes, that’s what they call it — is beyond me. They taste just as their name implies.
But aside from the sandwiches and pickles, I must admit that nearly everything else is really quite delicious. The spinach feta salad is simple, light, tangy and — with a hint of mint — subtly refreshing. The garlic potato salad is a modern, tasty take on the traditional German variety, and the macaroni and cheese is OUT. OF. THIS. WORLD. I’m not exaggerating when I say that this is literally the best mac and cheese I’ve ever had and probably will ever have. With a creamy housemade béchamel sauce, artisanal Tuscan macaroni and plenty of Cabot Vermont cheddar and cracked black peppercorn, a side of this hearty mac is a must. The sauce is silky, but not artificially so. The macaroni are cooked perfectly, providing a decent cohesiveness; the cheese is strikingly pervasive. The crunchy charred bits of cheese and pasta on top add depth of texture and flavor, and the product’s mouthcoating is slippery smooth. I’m impressed to the highest degree.
Take note, however, that only one pan of macaroni and cheese is made each day. The pan rolls out at 11 a.m., and once it’s gone, it’s gone. So get there early.
The next-door dessert shop boasts a variety of delectable confectionaries, beautifully decorated cakes and pastries, sweet espresso drinks and Sicilian-style gelato made with Michigan milk at Zingerman’s Creamery down the road. While I don’t find the gelato exceptional, it does cap off a Zingerman’s meal sweetly and can be just the ticket on a hot summer’s day.
In all fairness, Zingerman’s is an experience. Everyone in Ann Arbor should dine there a time or two and be willing to graciously escort interested out-of-state guests there when they come to visit. It’s an experience to stand wrapped around a historic brick building in anticipation, sampling sides, meats and cheeses outside the door. It’s an experience to order from the expansive sandwich menu and peruse the rare cheeses, expensive oils and aged vinegars. It’s an experience to dine in the crowded upstairs of the renovated house or out on the patio, and it’s an experience to sip a creamy, red birch beer with friends and family over a relaxed meal. Just remember that it’s actually not about the $16 sandwiches — as much as everyone wants you to think that it is — as they’re simply not extraordinary.