A First-Timer’s Guide To Cecil’s

I am just slightly too young to have memories of the Lincoln Del. However, I’ve been to Crossroads many times, Brother’s Deli downtown, the short-lived Rye, the even shorter-lived Meyvn, and others across the country. But did you know there’s actually a deli in St. Paul? I’ve lived as a Jew in Minneapolis for all but four college years of my 31 trips around the sun, and except for a quick stop-in to grab a bagel during our Bagel Showdown, I had never been to Cecil’s. I don’t have a good reason for you, other than it’s in St. Paul and who wants to go all the way to St. Paul? (I’m kidding, capital residents, St. Paul is lovely. The one bar in your city open past 6 p.m. is great. (KIDDING AGAIN… Please don’t @ me.))

Rectifying this situation a couple of weeks ago, I went for brunch with Matt Erickson, another lifelong TC MOT who had never been to Cecil’s (as well as my @fancydinnerclub partner), his wife Kate, and their one-year-old daughter. Immediate impression: the look is right. Having been to plenty of “traditional” and “modern” delis elsewhere, walking into Cecil’s makes a person want to order a corned beef sandwich. There’s a little market, with a deli counter to the right, atop a checkerboard floor – I could see myself coming in just to grab some kosher salami, some rugelach, maybe some hamentaschen if it’s spring. I might even be tempted to force a quick “We got the rabbi!” (that’s a Maisel reference, but you knew that already) to the counterperson, who I’m positive would play along.

The dining room extends straight back until you hit the kitchen, and boy is it great. Your table is just slightly too close to something (in our case it was the kitchen and the hall leading to the bathroom), the lighting feels like the third try at the SAT, and the décor is… “no-frills” at best. The service: the menu takes up the entire table, the bussers don’t seem to know what they’re doing, and it felt like our server always had somewhere more important to be. I loved all of it. I mean, that’s a deli! If I’m not walking out saying, “Well, I’m satisfied, but what exactly just happened?” then I want a refund.

But to be satisfied with a restaurant the food has to be good. (For more hot takes like that one, follow @fancydinnerclub on Instagram!) Considering it was our first time, we stayed pretty tried-and-true with the classics. We started with some matzo ball soup, latkes, blintzes, and knishes. The soup was the standout, with a hearty broth beyond just chicken stock. There was some real love there. The matzo balls were on the firmer side, which helped them complement that rich broth rather than get lost in it. I definitely could’ve ordered another bowl or three. The latkes I think just needed that holiday spirit. (It is the off-season for latkes.) The knishes, unfortunately, were awful – varying in temp from lukewarm to cold, mushy and kinda bitter. I’m willing to give Cecil’s a pass this time, though, because I wish we had said something in the moment, and I have to assume that normally they are at least, you know, edible. If that’s how they normally come, it’s an insult to every diner that even considers ordering them. What’s your experience with Cecil’s knishes? Did we just get a botched order?

Moving on, I’m – gasp – not a huge blintz fan, but maybe I just haven’t had good blintzes. I thought these were solid! Matt kept complaining that they weren’t as good as his grandma’s, but whose grandma makes bad blintzes? Isn’t that the whole point of grandmas? Who has a grandma that cooks anything she hasn’t perfected? And anyway, the one-year-old was squirrely the whole meal, except when eating those blintzes – so Cecil’s Blintzes get the most important designation of all: Baby Approved.

Finally, with the room we had left, we split their famous Rueben and a pastrami sandwich. The pastrami sandwich was fine. Unfortunately, if your pastrami sandwich doesn’t stack up (literally and figuratively) to what we all remember/imagine New York deli sandwiches to be, then it will underwhelm. That fact sunk Rye, it sunk Meyvn, and it will sink anyone that tries to get Minnesotans to pay a sustainable price for a legit deli sandwich. (The deli-adjacent Common Roots flirted with a pastrami on rye and other deli favorites, but it’s off their menu now and nobody seems to mind, least of all Common Roots.)

The Rueben, however, was great. The bread was grilled to perfection and didn’t fall apart under the weight and moisture of heaping piles of tender corned beef, liberty cabbage, and swiss. I don’t often order Reubens, but I’d definitely get this one again. Heck, for the Reuben and a cup of matzo ball soup, I might even make it back to Cecil’s in (personal) record time, despite having to schlep all the way to St. Paul to do it!