brooklyn-style deli delights

tender, melt-in-the-mouth and packed full of moreish flavours, the beef brisket is layered neatly over lettuce, tomato slices and a dollop of ketchup mayonnaise. a scoop of the sauce that the meat is cooked in is drizzled over before the sandwich – your choice of baguette or tortilla wrap – is neatly presented on wax paper and handed to you over the counter. sink your teeth in and everything comes together in a satisfying bite. the brisket is a generous heaping that’s stacked about an inch high, which not only gives you bang for your ringgit, but is also a testament to its authenticity. this kiosk at 1 mont kiara mall is, after all, named brooklyn deli and that’s exactly what you get: meaty delights done in the style of big apple’s ubiquitous delicatessens.

 “i’ve already toned down the amount as some customers told me it’s too much meat per serving,” owner david hoh reveals with a chuckle. “in true new york style, the amount of brisket would be at least as thick as the width of three fingers. here, i serve about two fingers’ width.” there are times, he admits, when he forgets that he’s not in new york anymore and diligently piles them on.

david had been calling the american city home since 1986, before he and his wife decided to return to malaysia for good four years ago. his decision may strike some as a wasted opportunity, seeing that many malaysians are looking for means to leave the country in the hopes of a better future. david’s reason, however, is a heartfelt one. “i arrived in new york in 1986. my initial plan was to work there for several years to earn money. each time i thought of coming back to malaysia, new opportunities would come along and it was hard to say no,” david reveals. “i didn’t come home that regularly, so my mother would visit me there instead. on her last trip, in 2007, she told me that it would be her final time in new york and that if i wanted to see her again, i would have to come home.”

the elderly mrs hoh got her wish in 2011. david and his wife now live in an apartment near her, while david’s son also lives in the same complex with his own family. it has indeed been a happy reunion for the hoh family, and david could have been contented playing the role of a retiree cum doting grandfather to his son’s three offspring.

a meeting with a long-time friend and customer, at the eatery where david used to work in new york, changed that. “he asked me, where are the recipes i learned? i told him they’re all in my head,” says david. “he urged me to never lose them and to put them to good use... i opened brooklyn deli last june to share that taste with kl folks.”

in true new york style, the amount of brisket would be at least as thick as the width of three fingers

that friend also designed his logo, depicting david as the statue of liberty holding a baguette. done up in cheerful orange and white as is the rest of the deli’s decor, you won’t miss it as you come up on the escalator from the basement parking. there are several counter seats and just one table with four chairs, but most customers tend to grab and go.

besides beef brisket, you can opt for roast beef and grilled chicken fillings. david also sells the brisket and roast a la carte, as well as a cold cuts platter that features both. another highlight is the metre-long sandwich, which must be ordered one day in advance and is enough to feed at least five. his menu, says david, has just the most basic offerings whereas in a proper new york deli, you can also order pastas, pastrami, corned beef, steaks, salads and soups.

on their own, brooklyn deli’s sandwiches appear simplistic but are actually the culmination of many steps and careful flavouring to give the meat the desired texture and taste. “the texture is dependent on how long you cook it,” david explains of the beef brisket, which is basically the chest area and is considered the cheapest cut. he uses only australian beef, preferring topside for the roast but occasionally uses the frump or shoulder, depending on what the butcher can supply. the marinade is a mix of spices and flavourings such as salt, sugar and pepper. “my policy is simple: if customers don’t send the food back, it’s a pass. if it works, don’t change it,” says david. of course, his recipes have been perfected over two decades of working his way through countless delis in manhattan and brooklyn, where he literally started at the bottom.

“my first deli job was as a kitchen hand and my job included keeping the storeroom clean, moving stock around and helping out with everything. my work station was the basement, where the stock is kept, and it’s always wet and cold. for one hour a day, i worked on the deli floor as a busboy.” slowly, he worked his way up and into the kitchen, where he had to learn very quickly on the job. on his days off, he would sometimes temp at other restaurants that served different types of food, to gain experience and brush up on his cooking skills. “the chefs would just show me roughly how it’s done, i had to think on my feet,” he recalls. as an example, a chef would tell him to put a fistful of salt into the marinade or sauce. “but his fist and mine are different sizes!”

their reluctance to share information and teach, says david, was a survival instinct given the cut-throat nature of the job environment there. “at some places, they don’t tell you they’re only looking for a temp so at the end of a working day, you could be told you didn’t need to come in the next day. no explanations would be given. as employees, we were not entitled to take leave – it’s our job to keep the business open. take a day off and you could find yourself replaced the next instant.”

often working seven days a week, david built himself a solid reputation as the guy who always showed up for work. his strong work ethics gave him a leg up over many others although it did not necessarily guarantee a lasting job. “employers were always looking to hire a cheaper guy,” he reveals. “at the last deli where i worked, my boss asked me to take one week’s leave on half pay as he wanted to test out another guy. at the end of the week, that guy told my boss that i was a mad fellow for juggling the many tasks i did and essentially told him that i was doing the work of three persons. i not only got to keep my job, i was given a usd2 raise per hour.”

as most of the delis in new york are kosher, david not only had to learn to cook popular jewish dishes like matzo ball soup but also had to adhere to very strict guidelines and regulations. at times, there would be a rabbi overseeing things in the kitchen. he relates how a colleague once bought a can of soup to eat at work, not knowing that it was not kosher. she was promptly fired, and all the pots and pans she had handled were thrown away.

all the skills and experience david picked up from his years in new york certainly bodes well for him now. most invaluably, he has developed that instinctive knowledge on handling different cuts of meat and keeping them fresh. “i’m not a chef, my cooking is what you’d call ‘agak-agak’ or ‘secukup rasa’. but give me a piece of meat and i can tell you the best way to cook it.”

david manages brooklyn deli all by himself, handling every step of the business from the buying of the meat to ringing up customers’ orders. the deli has just enough space for the necessary equipment and for him to move around, which he does with the ease and efficiency that tells of his vast experience. watch him work and you will appreciate that he goes the extra mile to ensure utmost freshness and thus, enjoyment of the food. the baguettes come frozen and david only bakes a certain amount that he feels is needed for the day. he scoops out the inside of the baguette so that the bread can hold the fillings better.

the beef and chicken are marinated for several days, and then slow roasted in the oven and thrown onto the grill just before serving. david will even ask how you’d like your roast beef done. the brisket is kept in a warmer and put through the slicer only when needed. even the tomatoes are sliced upon order. “if i slice them ahead, all i’ve save is 30 seconds each time!”

if he was hesitant at first about whether this style of food would be accepted here, those uncertainties have been put to rest in the last year since brooklyn deli opened. many of his regulars are expatriates, whereas locals tend to rely on friends’ recommendations before trying. he is happy to maintain the outlet as it is now, with no plans to expand further.

one gets the impression that it’s more important to him that people enjoy his food than the money it can bring him. during this interview, an incident further cemented that: a family of foreigner had ordered a sandwich, only to realise they had run out of ringgit and were about to head to the airport. they went looking for a money changer but david waved them back. “don’t worry about it, this is on me. consider it my treat. i hope you’ve enjoyed your stay in malaysia.”

> brooklyn deli is at lg-7, 1 mont kiara (next to boost juice) opens 11.30am-10pm; for bookings of roast beef, beef brisket or the metre-long sandwich, contact david hoh at +6012 627 6193

this article first appeared in the malay mail online and crave, sunday mail