C’mon. You don’t even know. I’ve got a severe case of pregnancy weight gain – it’s our second child, and it’s been a difficult pregnancy, so I’m trying to be a supportive husband.
“A little cheesecake? A sandwich?”
Oh, I really shouldn’t... But how often am I here, really? And I don’t want to be rude. So, um, how about a hot pastrami on rye?
What was I supposed to do? I was chatting with a nice Jewish couple at the center table at Brent’s, my favorite deli on the planet (Yo, New York: Can’t touch this. Deal with it). The couple -- Marc Hernandez and his wife, Carie -- are key players at the restaurant that’s been owned by Carie’s dad, Ron Peskin, since 1969.
Here’s the most beautiful part of all: Brent’s is in Northridge. It’s a gastronomical beacon in a drab outdoor shopping plaza whose glamorous anchor is Mervyn’s. “Great delis are in the middle of ghettos, not in suburban shopping malls,” says restaurant critic extraordinaire Merrill Shindler, host of 97.1 FM’s Feed Your Face.
Granted, it’s just a hop and a skip from Northridge Fashion Center, so there are signs of life within spitting distance. But imagine what the area was like in 1967, when Brent’s first opened (the Fashion Center didn’t open till 1971). The deli was struggling when Peskin bought the joint two years later. “It was a lousy location when I bought it, but it was cheap,” laughs the spry, 62-year-old owner, deli tray in hand. Brent was the name of the original owner. Coincidentally, Peskin has a son named Brent, who was 7 at the time, so the new owner saved a few bucks by keeping the signage and name. Brent is now 40, and helps hold down the fort with the rest of his clan.
Brent’s is booming, but in 1969, Ron Peskin had to be an optimist. Northridge may have been Siberia at the time, but he knew that even Siberians needed to eat “Ron always said he knew he would have the best deli. He just wasn’t sure anyone else would know,” says son-in-law Hernandez, 31. “He said, ‘I’m going to give the best quality deli that I can and people will come.’”
And they do come. Oy, in droves do they come. And it’s still a not-so-desirable location, according to Carie Peskin Hernandez. “There’s nothing else really here. It’s not a fancy shopping center. They come, they stand outside, they wait in line.” And they eat. To the tune of 2,000 pounds of corned beef. 14,000 eggs, and 3,000 pounds of turkey each week.
Truth is, Brent’s is a destination unto itself. And, in a way, it’s so Northridge. Whereas Art’s Deli is a Hollywood set designer’s idea of a deli, and monstrosities like Jerry’s and Solly’s are cavernous troughs with menus that include everything but the kitchen sink – Sizzler for Jews and wannabe Jews – but Brent’s is a deli with dignity. The interior of brick, stained glass, with green and beige banquettes, is tranquil and comfortable. It’s missing the mishegas that one associates with the deli experience. But it’s hardly lacking in deli-ness. There’s hanging salamis, buttah-like brisket, and the Peskin clan are total mensches. But here’s the key, according to Shindler: “It smells like a deli.”
Ahh, that smell. It’s the smell of corn beef on its way to its final destination --- your plate. It is a culinary intoxicant, the kind of aroma that erases bothersome concerns like cholesterol and genetic heart disease. It is the scent of life at its essence: The food smells good. You want to eat it. And you’d be a fool not to.
“And it sure does taste like a deli,” Shindler adds. “There's a sense of love here, mother's love perhaps, that's encompassing and reassuring. You sit down to a meal at Brent's, and you're home at last. And boy, do they make a great sandwich. And the pickles. And the cole slaw. And the potato salad. And the heartburn -- the best in town.”
Brent’s is a family affair, but it’s also a love story. Marc Hernandez first began working at the deli in 1988, while attending Chatsworth High School. He returned eight years ago to help run the place, and soon fell for Carie Peskin, who’d been working the register since she was a kid. They married four years ago and are expecting their third child in August.
And like the Peskin family, the business continues to grow. The top-rated deli in Zagat’s for 12 years, Brent’s has ballooned from 60 seats to 180. And now, the family’s taking its first tentative steps outward, looking to expand to Westlake Village sometime in 2006.
But it’s a delicate balance for the family run business to expand without getting drowned by the corporate spigot.
“It’s a fine line trying to manage the mom and pop restaurant in the big corporate environment,” Hernandez says. “People come here and feel they know us, they’ve known the waitresses for 15 years and we’ve all grown up together and shared stories together. It’s trying to take that and grow it without becoming too corporate.”
What’s the worry? As long as there are little Peskins running around, as long as there’s that better-than-any-drug smell, they will always come. Diets come and diets go, but quality corned beef is forever.
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