Lucky’s Delicatessen helps fill downtown Durham breakfast-and-lunch void
By Greg Cox
Review originally published 12/15/2016
When Lucky’s Deli opened in June, it brought a welcome new breakfast-and-lunch option to the evening-heavy lineup of restaurants in downtown Durham. Just a few weeks later, Cafe Lucarne did the same for downtown Raleigh with its opening in City Market. Both are counter service eateries whose owners have already earned stellar reputations as chefs and restaurateurs at some of the area’s best restaurants.
And that’s pretty much where the similarities end. (Read Cafe Lucarne review.)
105 W. Chapel Hill St., Durham
It should come as no surprise that, nearly six months after opening, the line at the Lucky’s Deli order counter still frequently stretches all the way to the door. After all, the restaurant’s owners, Drew Brown (former co-owner of Piedmont and chef at Firsthand Foods) and James Beard finalist Matt Kelly (Vin Rouge, Mateo, Mothers & Sons Trattoria) are two of Durham’s top culinary talents. And Lucky’s New York deli concept has been at the top of many a local foodie’s wish list for longer than I can remember.
Don’t worry, the line moves fast. And, while the food – a mix of authentic Jewish and Italian deli fare interspersed with a few seasonal specialties with a Southern accent – may take a while to get to your table when the place is hopping, it’s well worth the wait.
You say you’ve been craving whitefish salad ever since you moved here from New York? Lucky’s will scratch that itch with a generous scoop from the acclaimed Acme Smoked Fish in Brooklyn, on a sandwich or on a plate with pickles, onion, capers, labneh, cucumbers and toast. Or try one of the house-smoked and -cured fish. I can vouch for the smoked N.C. trout, and no doubt it won’t be long before I’ve yielded to the supple pink temptations of smoked salmon and herbed gravlax.
Order a cup of matzo ball soup, and you’ll score a classic Jewish dumpling so big there’s little room for the rich, grease-slicked chicken broth it’s immersed in. Go ahead and spring for a bowl. You won’t regret it.
The menu divides sandwiches into two categories, inspired by Italian and Jewish deli traditions. Under the Heroes heading, you’ll find the likes of Eggplant Parm, Meatball with red sauce and provolone, and of course, a classic Italian with salami, mortadella, ham and provolone.
Tempting as the heroes are, it’s the hard-to-find Jewish deli classics under the House Sandwiches heading that make Lucky’s worth a drive from anywhere in the Triangle. The Reuben, made with house-cured pastrami or corned beef, is first rate just as it is, but if you want to gild the lily, the Super Reuben adds chopped liver and substitutes chow-chow for the kraut.
The list offers something for just about every taste and mood, from roast beef (rare top round, pickled onion, blue cheese, horseradish mayo and greens on a toasted kaiser roll) to beets (roasted and sliced, topped with herbed ricotta, pickled onion and pistachio pesto). You can customize to your heart’s delight, even create an Italian-Jewish fusion sandwich. I saw a roast pork and whitefish salad combo recently, though I think I’ll pass on that one.
Hot dogs are all beef, of course, in snappy natural casings. They’re available with a wide range of topping options – including ketchup, presumably a nod to Southern tastes.
Personally, this Southerner would rather get his local flavor in the form of pimento cheese or a seasonal salad of collard greens and peanuts – two recent options in display cases that tempt with a rainbow assortment of dips and salads, from egg salad to Moroccan carrots. True to deli tradition, these are also sold by the pound to take home, as are deli meats and cheeses.
And who, you might ask, is Lucky? Turns out it isn’t a real person at all. “Lucky just seemed like a good Durham name,” explains general manager Mary Deal. Looking at those long lines at the order counter, it’s clear that Durham agrees.