March 4, 2005

‘Merkl’s’ mixed motif = marvelous meals

By J.D. Hawk

It’s a combination of ingredients that only a master chef could put together — or in the case of Merkl’s Deli & BBQ restaurant in Chula Vista — a master manager named Steve Wilson.

Okay, try your best to figure this out:

Mix New York Deli style food with an old-school Chula Vista motif. Splash some Texas BBQ cooking alongside traditional Jewish challah toast. Toss everything in the Hispanic-dominated city, and stir it all into a once-upon-a-time dive bar of questionable character. Then, with the most courageous move of all, put a former Chicago-Sun reporter in charge of it all and say: “Make it work.”

The result: Merkl’s Deli & BBQ now located at 415 Broadway in Chula Vista where, at least by Wilson’s judgment, there has never been a true New York deli in the South Bay since he’s been here in 1970.

“We tried to create a unique combination at Merkl’s by having New York style deli products like corn beef, pastrami, Reuben sandwich, matzo ball soup, potato pancakes,” Wilson said.

Brenda Otanez greets Merkl customers with a smile.

But there’s more to it then that. Not wanting to limit the choices, and perhaps to better increase the marketability, Merkl’s has added BBQ food such as BBQ ribs, pork, and chicken. “People really like to be able to have a choice between two items that normally aren’t offered together.”

For early risers, Merkl’s also serves a delicious breakfast including Philly breakfast cheesesteak, muffins, eggs, and French toast. There’s also an affordable kids menu for the children.

With the varied themes that Merkl’s projects, one might guess that Merkl’s has bitten off more than it can chew (pardon the pun).

However, there is a method to the madness. Wilson is that method. He was the owner of the noted Samson’s Deli in La Jolla until he left to do charity work in 1995. His second coming has been well-received, because many remember his reputation from the La Jolla restaurant days. “The quality of food really went down after he left Samson’s,” Chula Vista School District bus driver and blue-collar food critic Mike Ballard recalled as he enjoyed a late lunch at Merkl’s.

Others, like Chula Vista community activist Susan Watry, not only enjoys the Challah for breakfast, but the close proximity of ample parking which eases the strain on her legs. Watry also appreciates the many photographs adorning the Merkl’s walls.

The frame around a devilish figure flexes his muscles with a mischievous grin — it’s an old framed advertisement for Imp brand lemons (or other fruit, it doesn’t specify). There are framed labels for Hibiscus, Pals, Serra, Walters’ Pack, and Mission Bells — all companies that once flourished with the Chula Vista Citrus Association. They are guarantee to summon fond memories for South Bay’s long-time denizens.

The photos, mostly on the west side of the restaurant, show Chula Vista in its infancy — a far cry from what it has become and what else it may become with redevelopment and projects like the Espanada project. The old photos are what especially seem to hit a cord with Watry. And she was happy to see that Merkl’s spic-and-span sanitary atmosphere has replaced an old bar. “It’s what redevelopment should be.”

The restaurant, which has a family atmosphere, has replaced Joey’s Bar.

Everything—breakfast, lunch, dinner and dessert—is served at Merkl’s, and there really isn’t a weak spot in Merkl’s menu of food. There is an area that surpasses all other areas of food, however.

Merkl’s has a $15,000 machine that both smokes meat and steams it. The result is meat that practically falls off the bone and melts in your mouth. You may even be able to cut it with a cracker. The breast of turkey, pastrami, hot corned beef, honey ham are all a reasonable $4.99. And if you’re on a budget, you can order the Po Boy submarine (turkey, ham, and cheese) at $4.75 and save a quarter.

As fun, family environment with clean atmosphere and eclectic mix of themes Merkl’s - Deli & BBQ is definitely a must visit for all in the South Bay.

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