Mile End’s Ruth Wilensky is made with very good artisanal salami — but the bologna has been omitted.
Named after a Montreal neighborhood northeast of Mont Royale, Mile End is a Brooklyn deli that seeks to deliver — at lunch at least — a reasonable facsimile of several vernacular culinary favorites associated with Montreal. The smoked meat partly imitates Schwartz’s, an ancient “Charcuterie Hebraique” located on St. Laurent, to the south of Mile End, while the bagels it uses are imported from St. Viateur’s, a bakery on the street of the same name, which bisects the neighborhood.
The Wilensky’s Special at Wilensky Light Lunch is a more modest affair.
But perhaps the most fundamental neighborhood reference on Mile End’s menu is the Ruth Wilensky sandwich, named for the 91-year-old matriarch who presides over the bare-bones Jewish deli known as Wilensky Light Lunch. The deli was founded in 1932 by Wilensky and her husband, Moe, now deceased. It occupies a corner storefront painted green, and inside a wood-patterned Formica counter runs along one wall, behind which four employees of varying ages preside along with Mrs. Wilensky, who is exceedingly well-preserved and wears eyeglasses and a starchy white uniform.
Apart from eight wooden stools along the counter, there’s no seating, only a big empty area, flanked by used periodicals in piles that are apparently for sale. (“They used to sell used tires instead,” said a Montreal friend.) The interior is filled with wooden cabinets, from which items are extracted as your sandwich is rapidly prepared.
That sandwich is Wilensky’s Special, which includes at least two kinds of salami and one of bologna, for a total of six slices of luncheon meat. These are placed on a round flat roll known as a pletzl, smeared with mustard, smooshed in a hot-sandwich press, and delivered with a squirt bottle of grainy mustard — in case you want extra — and no other condiment. The mustard is compulsory (hence the joke on Mile End’s menu about charging a nickel extra for not putting mustard on your sandwich).
The sandwich reveals its contents.
The modest exterior bears the name of the co-founder, Moe Wilensky.
Your other options: A slice of Swiss can be put on your Wilensky’s Special for an extra charge, and you can get sour or half-sour pickles on the side. A cold boiled egg sandwich is also on the very brief menu, but I don’t know anyone who has ever ordered it. Coffee is available, but more opt for the old-fashioned fountain sodas, which include Cherry Coke and similar mixtures of flavored phosphates and Coca-Cola (which the counter guy does by swirling a long-handled spoon in the glass).
The most shocking beverage is a chocolate egg cream, a Brooklyn invention. The more you look at Wilensky’s, the more it seems like a Brooklyn-influenced institution. Which makes the Boerum Hill deli Mile End all the more remarkable.
Mile End’s Ruth Wilensky sandwich is a reverent tribute, using materials within the Brooklyn idiom. Thus the sandwich is filled with a few slices of very good artisanal salami; the roll is not a pletzl, but an onion roll. Mustard is compulsory, and pickles are available on the side. Still the flavor is more aggressive than that of the Montreal original, which is as mellow and warm as the embrace of an elderly loved one.
Reportedly, the real Ruth Wilensky is not happy about the Brooklyn sandwich bearing her name.
Kirby cukes and red cabbage cure in the window of Mile End in Boerum Hill.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 30, 2010