Oy vey, an eggy orb

There are certain foods you become obsessed with in your life. Everywhere you go, you keep an eye out for it on the menu, and, if it should be there, you are compelled to order it to see if it is better than any version you’ve eaten before. The best bowl of chili, the most perfect bread pudding, the finest General Tso’s chicken—the search for superlative execution is a lifelong pursuit. It is an obsession that chooses you; you don’t choose it.

It was not until I was a young adult that matzo ball soup chose me. Was there ever a food so perfect as the matzo ball? That perfectly pale, delicate orb, sitting peacefully in a bowl of chicken soup. Bite after bite, the texture practically hugs the roof of your mouth, your tongue, your esophagus, leaving in its trail the memory of something soft and chicken-y.

Several theories exist on how to make the best matzo balls. Some recipes call for chicken fat, others oil. Some recommend using lots of eggs, others less. There are issues of seltzer, no seltzer; refrigeration or no refrigeration; lid on or off. All recipes involve breaking up matzo or using matzo meal and mingling it with some wetness to form a ball, which is then poached either in water or chicken broth.

Matzo ball soup is good for the young and the old, the infirm and the weary. And it is found almost exclusively in the homes of people who understand its virtues, or in Jewish delicatessens. Unfortunately, the Sacramento area is not awash in Jewish deli-dom. But fortunately, there is Sam’s Kosher Style Restaurant & Delicatessen in Fair Oaks.

Typical of Jewish delis across the country, the atmosphere at Sam’s is informal, with lots of comfortable booths, and friendly waitresses. Though Sam’s has been a greater-Sacramento institution for the better part of three decades, restaurant and deli veterans Bruce and Etty Blackman have run Sam’s since 1996. They note on their front menu that Sam’s is family-owned, that they make most of their dishes from scratch, with no preservatives, and use only the freshest ingredients.

Not idle words. The turkey pastrami sandwich we ordered came on a super-soft onion roll, with crisp lettuce, ripe tomato and slivers of fresh onion. The fries were hot, crisp and flavorful. The potato salad was creamy with an occasional fresh vegetable crunch—very deli style. The only minus was the turkey pastrami itself. While lean and tasty, the meat didn’t do quite the pastrami impersonation for which I had hoped. Regular pastrami is salty, with hints of spices such as garlic, ground peppercorns and coriander, and is actually a smoked version of corned beef. Turkey pastrami is turkey that has undergone pastrami preparation. Some turkey pastramis can be quite flavorful. This one seemed inferior to other versions I had tasted.

But if the turkey pastrami left me hanging, I couldn’t say the same thing for the corned beef and chopped liver sandwich on rye. That sandwich was heart-stopping spectacular. The bread was solid, the corned beef was tender, with just enough fat to make it extra savory, and the chopped liver was in perfect proportion to the corned beef. Unlike other delis that give you five times as much pretty-good meat as you want, Sam’s just gives you the best meat, in healthy proportion to other ingredients. It’s so good, you almost wish they had given you five times more.

As great as the sandwich was, it was not why I had come to Sam’s. I was there simply for the matzo ball soup. If it was perfect, it would raise Sam’s to the level of über-deli. If not, my search would have to continue. The verdict? My two matzo balls came in a very well-seasoned, albeit lukewarm chicken broth. Texture-wise, the matzo balls were textbook perfect. They held together, giving way to my spoon with ease. They hugged each part of my mouth as I bit, chewed and swallowed. But alas, the flaw was in the flavor: too much egg. Was this eggy orb someone else’s idea of the world’s best matzo ball? The possibility saddened me, as if some dark doppelgänger had come into being and created a world anathema to my own. I shook the troublesome thought from my head, and cheered myself with the knowledge that there would be many more bowls of matzo ball soup in my future to try, some good, some mediocre, but all with the possibility of being The One. Perfect bowl of matzo ball soup, I will find you yet! But until then, I will simply have to eat everything on Sam’s menu. At least twice.