7900 Transit Rd., Williamsville, NY 14221
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Deli East Amherst Kosher Sandwiches Williamsville
"A $5 order of three Potato Latkes came with a big cup full of good applesauce, but the pancakes themselves tasted like slightly rubbery, reheated microwave hash browns."
From a storyteller's perspective, there's plenty to say about Nosh Cafe in Williamsville and Jonny C's NY Deli in East Amherst, two Transit Road delicatessens we've visited over the past week. Nosh is a true rarity locally - a glatt kosher restaurant, adhering to the strict preparatory standards necessary to satisfy the needs of conservative Jewish customers - while Jonny C's is well-respected in Western New York for its competent, reasonably priced catering services, and known as a fun place for people to hang out and gossip. But when we dine out, we're not looking for stories or places to sit around; rather, we show up hoping for great food, good service, and a clean environment to enjoy them in - a short list, and to us, little else matters.
Apart from a relatively long wait at the all but empty Nosh Cafe for a relatively simple order, we preferred the atmosphere and overall experience at this recently-opened deli. It's hardly fancy inside, yet everything from the tile floors and wooden tables to the glass and metal refrigeration units impressed us as clean - yes, it's a new place, but well-kept - and the menu's a fairly typical deli-style list of choices: chicken soup with vegetables, turkey pastrami, tongue, and chopped liver sandwiches, brisket, and even beef hot dogs for the kids. The prices are relatively high, as sandwiches almost all start at $8 or $9 for small four-ounce portions - twice what Jonny C's would charge - and climb as high as $19 for 10-ounce versions, although they include potato chips and pickles. Don't expect to find kaiser or kummelweck rolls here, but slices of rye, pumpernickel, white, Ciabatta bread, and bagel are in abundance, as are $1.29 Dr. Brown's sodas, plates of nice-looking fruit and sesame pastries, and plenty of pre-packaged Brown's meats, soups, and meals. Kosher customers will be pleased.
Though the sandwiches weren't cheap, we ordered and started eating them operating from the assumption that they might well exceed Jonny C's on quality. Unfortunately, they didn't. The best of the bunch was a four-ounce Corn Beef Sandwich ($9/4 oz., $18/10 oz.), which had good meat on what was supposed to be a white roll but turned out to be very plain white bread. Mustard and Russian dressing were requested, but sparing, and the included pickles were quite literally the worst we've had in memory - if not rotten, something close to it. By comparison, a Roast Beef Sandwich ($9/4 oz., $18/10 oz.) came as ordered on very good Ciabatta bread, crispy on the outside and soft inside, but the meat was almost dry and certainly plain; it too had the awful pickles. Thankfully, the potato chips included with both sandwiches were fresh and tasty, if not quite enough to justify the high prices.
Other items generally rated "meh" at best. An order of three Potato Latkes ($5) came with a big cup full of good applesauce, but the pancakes themselves tasted like slightly rubbery, reheated microwave hash browns. A cup of Matzo Ball Soup ($2.50) consisted of a light chicken broth that was only a touch above lukewarm, with a single ball of matzo dough inside. On the positive side, we genuinely liked the soft, easy to cut matzo, which had the requisite flavor of chicken fat, but we didn't think the small portion was worth the price. A Chicken Schnitzel Sandwich ($9) was arguably the biggest disappointment of the meal; we should have known better than to order it after we saw the deep-fried cutlets sitting out on a plate near the counter, and therefore we weren't totally surprised when the sandwich tasted like a reheated, breaded chicken breast on rye bread. It was more than mediocre; we handed almost all of it over to our dogs rather than eat it, and once again threw away the pickles. Even the dogs have standards.
Regardless of whether the desserts were made in-house or not, they were good. A sweet glazed Phyllo dough Elephant Ear was flaky and fresh, and an Apple Streudel was as well, with fine sliced apples and raisins inside. One of us thought they were merely better than the rest of the meal; the other would have ordered them, and really any other of the interesting-looking pastries at Nosh again. They go for around $10-$15 per pound, which sounds steep, but the portions shown here were slightly under $1 each. We view them as exceptions to the norm here, reasonably priced and delicious little items that accompany overly expensive and underwhelming deli sandwiches. Nosh Cafe rates 1.75 stars overall.
By contrast, the scene at Jonny C's NY Deli & Catering (9350 Transit, E. Amherst, NY 14051, 716.688.8446) was substantially different: staffed largely by kids when we arrived, Jonny C's was closer to a convenience store in appearance - like a busy Wilson Farms or 7-Eleven counter with a small seating area. The menu is similarly packed with sandwiches, but also includes a Friday fish fry, wraps, salads, and egg dishes, all at reasonable prices, a point that needs to be underscored relative to Nosh Cafe. For slightly under $20, the meal we ordered here was roughly as large as the nearly $40 meal above from Nosh. For instance, Jonny C's full-sized $6 Beef on Weck was the most expensive item in our collection, with the other three "half" sandwiches going for $4 or $4.50 a piece - each a seemingly extraordinary value. They were beautiful, on roughly 6" rolls, and packed with items; each came with a big, fresh pickle slice, besides. Leaving this place anything but full is merely a matter of choice, not of budget, as the largest and most expensive full-sized sandwich ("The Glutton") sells for $9, packing everything from steak to chicken fingers, cheese, mushrooms, onions, lettuce and tomatoes on a toasted sub roll.
The bad news here is that the pricing and quantities don't mean that the sandwiches were very good; to the contrary, we again wound up feeling substantial parts of them to the dogs - the first time we've ever done so with a Beef on Weck. In that sandwich, the meat was far more generously proportioned than on the smaller, more expensive Nosh Cafe version, but neither Jonny C's beef nor its kummelweck roll was very good, with far too much caraway, too little salt, and fairly dry beef. To see what the place thought it did well, we asked the person behind the counter for a recommendation, and wound up with the popular "Number 41," the Pittsburgh, a chopped steak and french fry sandwich mixed with mayonnaise, oil, tomato, cole slaw and melted Provolone cheese. It wasn't bad; the grilled, hacked up steak was decent in quality and again generous in quantity, though the combination of items tasted something like thrown-together leftovers rather than carefully chosen elements of a finely-tuned sandwich. We'd call it the best of the items we tried, but only okay on an absolute scale.
Two different Parmesan sandwiches suffered from a shared problem: weak meat. After a couple of bites, we didn't want any more of the Meatball Parmesan; this was around half way through the first meatball and its red tomato sauce coating, neither of which had enough flavor. As with the Nosh Cafe's Chicken Schnitzel, Jonny C's Chicken Parmesan Sandwich came with a deep-fried, breaded chicken cutlet that tasted as if it had been reheated in a microwave, here tossed in with too little Mozzarella cheese and weakly flavored red sauce. Once again, both of these sandwiches looked great, and came with nice pickles, but they just didn't taste all that good.
At least, to us. As was the case with Nosh, our dogs were happy to eat our significant leftovers, and we were unusually glad to share them. We strongly prefer to eat at locally owned places, and will sometimes go out of our way for them if the food is great, but without superior ingredients and preparation, there's little reason to drive past a Subway or a Quiznos for something that's more expensive and less satisfying. Those requiring kosher meals may find these places to be worthwhile, but from where we stand, Jonny C's biggest asset is its aggressive pricing, rather than the outstanding quality of anything it serves. It's worthy of 2 stars, slightly higher than Nosh Deli, and then only because of the price differences.
We're interested in hearing from you, readers, particularly if you're familiar with great delis in Manhattan or elsewhere: where do you go in Western New York for your pastrami, corned beef, and other deli sandwiches? What would it take to bring this area up to speed with New York's Katz's, 2nd Avenue, or Carnegie? Speak your mind in the comments area below.