The Sandwich and the Rascal
At Wolfie Cohen’s Rascal House in North Miami Beach, a pastrami sandwich takes on mythic proportions
By all accounts, my grandfather was a saint. Or rather, being Jewish, I should say he was a mensch. Born in 1914 outside of Miskolc, Hungary, he survived the Nazis and the Communists, came to America in the late 1940s with my grandmother and aunt, where they settled in New Jersey, then Connecticut, and eventually, as older Jews from the east coast tend to do, in Miami Beach. Through it all he was a loving, wise, and deliberate man, in possession of the gentlest of temperaments, who never raised his voice or lost his patience. In all the years of my life, the only time I ever saw him get angry was whenever it came time for me to tell the waitress what I wanted when we were at Wolfie Cohen's Rascal House.
A sprawling Jewish-style deli located in Sunny Isles, Florida, a town on the far north end of Collins Avenue (the endlessly long street that starts down in South Beach and runs up parallel to the shore), Rascal House was a restaurant, but it was also so much more.
The deli opened in 1954 and remained virtually unchanged throughout the years. The parking lot sprouted a towering, bright yellow sign adorned with the restaurant’s cartoonish mascot, the Rascal himself, tongue lolling, eyebrows pitched in a V, his brimless cap tilted rakishly to the left. The waits for a table were so long that there were waist-high metal bars demarcating the path of a winding queue both indoors and out. The wood-paneled dining room, with its stretch of high counter seating and checkerboard of vinyl booths, was cavernous. The hawkishly guarded chocolate mints in a bowl by the cashier were delectable, the beehived waitresses spoke a Yiddish-English-Spanish patois, and all of it was wrapped in that dreamy deli perfume of yeast and caraway and brine.
I was never a picky eater—from the very first, I’ve been happy with almost every food that’s crossed my lips—but as a kid, the one thing I loved best of all was a pastrami sandwich. Any other day, at any other deli, I’d order my pastrami and the world would move happily on, but when we visited Rascal House, that wasn’t an option: My grandparents kept kosher, which meant that my experience of the place was preemptively limited.
For all that Rascal House was undeniably a product and a definer of North Miami Beach's Jewish culture, as a restaurant it was only Jewish-style, which meant that the kitchen cooked both milk and meat foods. While there may not have been bacon on the menu, the corned beef that came piled high on rye almost certainly had never passed under the watchful eye of any rabbi bearing a hechsher stamp. And so, after the waitress would roll by and drop the pickle platter of half- and full-sour cucumbers, tart green tomatoes, creamy cabbage slaw, and a pile of dusky-sweet onion rolls, the menus would be opened, I would voice my desire for a pastrami sandwich, and the battle, brief but pitched, would begin.
For most Rascal House diners, the sandwiches were the point: That's why there were hour-long lines snaking around those metal barriers. You'd see New York snowbirds coming by for their ritualistic first or last meal of the season, year-rounders showing off the scene to their visiting kids and grandkids, the flocks of early-bird special widows, who discreetly palmed the cracker packets that came with their soup, all of them ordering the towering sandwiches of steaming, thin-sliced beef. But for us, it was the vegetable soup, the challah French toast, the grilled cheese and tomato. We were, as a family, “can tuna” or bust.
Imagine the scene that played out in the booth each year: Me, tow-headed and furious, an elementary-school-aged tyrant unwilling to accept her parents’ urgent ruling that on this one day out of the whole year—out of respect for grandparents who kept their faith, among other ways, by adhering to Jewish dietary laws—that this one time, for just this one meal, she could not ask the waitress for a pastrami sandwich. My mother would be exasperated. My father would be embarrassed. My grandmother would be furious. And as I refused to concede, as my pout grew firmer and my objections grew louder, my grandfather, the saint, the mensch, would slowly, steadily begin to get angry.
Those meals at Rascal House were the only times in my life that I ever saw my grandfather snap. Whether it was anger at my brattiness or heartbreak over my preadolescent disregard for religious custom, at least twice the pageant played out in such a way that after a few minutes of my stubborn refusal to capitulate (I remember thinking at the time: Why couldn’t he understand that I just didn’t want whitefish salad?), he’d get very quiet in a portentious way, his body tensing and his face hardening until he’d bark something brief and pointed at me. The whole table would go silent, and eventually my mother, blanched, would tell me to order something kosher or else, and I’d understand right away that I’d taken it too far. I’d drop my intractability and get the whitefish salad, something that was not nearly as good as a pastrami sandwich ever could be, but was, in the moment and for the sake of harmony, good enough.
By the time I was in my early teens, we didn’t really go to Rascal House anymore on our visits to Miami—it was expensive, my grandparents didn’t think the food was that great anymore, and braving those hundred-person queues with my young siblings in tow was more of a burden than it had been back when I was an only child. We’d drive past the deli on the way to and from the airport, the Rascal sticking his tongue out at us from the corner of the sign both coming and going. Sometimes I’d look out the car window at the lines of people and think about the sandwich I could be having, but more often, I’d be sitting on the other side of the car staring between the buildings at the blue line of the ocean, and I wouldn’t think about the deli at all.
My grandparents had been living in Miami Beach full time for over a decade by the time my grandfather died in the fall of 2008, and that’s where he was buried. My boyfriend Jim—now my husband—came down for the funeral, and while it wasn’t our first visit to Miami together, it was the first one that carried with it the weight of life and death, the first one where the days were made up of rituals both religious and familial.
Jim and I stayed for a few days after the funeral, and when it was time to leave, and we found ourselves driving up Collins Avenue to get to the freeway, I decided that we’d stop at Rascal House on the way. I had two goals for the visit: I was going to order the whitefish salad in honor of my grandfather, and I was going to tell Jim to order that very pastrami sandwich that I’d coveted—but never been able to have.
But when the car came in sight of Rascal House, all I saw was a shell: The Rascal sneered at us from a darkened sign, the metal corridors of the snaking queue were empty, the parking lot was vacant, the building half-demolished. After 54 years of slinging flanken and matzo balls, Rascal House had closed for good just five months before. I didn't even slow the car, I just kept driving north towards the airport and home. I may never have had that pastrami sandwich, but I'd had more meals at Rascal House than I could count, I'd had that briny deli smell, I'd had my grandfather, and I'd had the whitefish salad. And it had been enough.