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COMMENTARY
Scotties Deli
Executive chef T.J. Johnson, center, addresses a crowd from behind the counter at Scottie's Deli, which recently hosted a preview for local media. (Scott Mitchell)

The Plaza District might be OKC’s value-menu attempt at aping Los Angeles’ Silver Lake: a marriage of ugly gentrification with delicious hipster pizza, upscale ramen, smatterings of Latin cuisine, cool hair salons and coffee shops patronized by struggling poets, songwriters and comedians. So, The Plaza is very Silver Lake but with more families and weed is still illegal.

Meanwhile, Uptown has a vibe perhaps comparable to what a person flipping through a travel magazine might imagine a minuscule sliver of New York to feel like (minus the skyscrapers, among other things). Simplified as it may be, let’s make a comparative list of NYC traits as compared to Uptown:

  • Asian (Vietnamese) grocery store? Check.
  • 24-hour gym where people on treadmills can stare at you as you walk by on the street? Check.
  • Bar with Cold War-era propaganda motif? Check.
  • Semi-abandoned concrete lot where cops stop kids from building DIY skate parks? Check.
  • Live-performance venue ambitiously pursuing national music and comedic talent? Check.
  • Upscale seafood restaurant that exists in defiance of its actual geography? Check.
  • Fusion steam bun restaurant that looks to by inspired by New York’s Baohaus? Check.
  • Budding, ambitious cocktail culture (R.I.P. Savings & Loan)? Check.
  • A mosaic of diverse cultures peppered with gaggles of Rosses and Rachaels trying to find each other in the night like an episode of Friends? I guess you can’t have it all.

I’ve been to New York once, so I won’t pretend to know it, but I do know how it’s presented on pages and screens. For the sake of continuing our comparison, the presence of a quality deli is notably absent from my list. That’s where Scottie’s Deli comes into play.

From the oilfield to Uptown

I was recently sent on assignment to sample some of their food at a low-key media event the restaurant had organized. My brother and my friend, NonDoc’s own hot-shot cartoonist Mike Allen, came along.

Inside, we seated ourselves at a booth and waited for the owner, Eric Fossett, to address the crowd of food writers. Having grown up in California and traveled across the country for his previous career in the oil industry, Fossett said he became spoiled with great food. Upon arriving in Oklahoma, again for his job, he noticed that there wasn’t a great deli that upheld America’s rich sandwich tradition.

Scotties Deli
Scotties Deli owner Eric Fossett speaks to media during a private preview of his new Uptown deli concept.
(Scott Mitchell)

The more Fossett talked the more it became apparent that his journey with food was a personal one, culminating in the opening of his deli. He lifted recipes from his time in Chico, California. Small architectural nods pay tribute to obscure BBQ joints in San Francisco that he reveres. Other menu items pay homage to his family’s old restaurant, where Fossett dined as a child. The name Scottie’s Deli pays tribute to Fossett’s Scottish heritage, despite the restaurant itself being what he described as an American deli: where the menu draws strength from other cuisines.

Indeed, the Scottie’s menu borrows from a lot of traditions (German, Italian, Jewish) but feels decidedly American when smashed together like this. I appreciated how the menu items co-existed with one another rather than being forcefully assimilated into something tacky. (For example, I love pho, and I love burritos, but the phorrito is lazy and a misuse of imagination.)

Made from scratch: Soup, salad and bacon

Moving from a career in oil to waging war with sandwich chains would be a daunting task if you were doing it alone. Perhaps that’s why Fossett enlisted the help of T.J. Johnson, formerly of Mary Eddy’s, to become his executive chef. From the mayonnaise to the meat, Johnson and Scottie’s staff prepare everything from scratch. Simply being made from scratch doesn’t ensure that your final product will be worthy of praise. It takes a deft hand. In this case, it takes Johnson’s deft hand.

Scottie’s staff kicked off the night by serving a small portion of their tomato soup. The soup had the puréed consistency of bisque and was smooth going down, plus the garlic was pleasantly pungent. It tasted nice and was comforting in its simplicity overall. Scottie’s doesn’t shy away from the garlic on this one, so maybe avoid if you’re not a fan of this flavor-first approach.

After the soup, Fossett presented a few more items, notably the Little John, a salad version of their Big John sandwich. The salad stood out thanks to the inclusion of Scottie’s signature bacon, which was cut into pieces as thick as hot dog quarters that reminded me of pork belly dishes typically served at Vietnamese/Chinese restaurants. The smoke flavor was thick. The salt was nice but not over-aggressive. Talking with Fossett, I doubt the bacon will be served like this during normal deli hours, but if it is, I recommend you try it. My brother asked about the process, and Fossett’s description was arduous, a testament to how long the actual task of making it must’ve been. It takes days to finish a batch, according to the owner.

Meatballs, pastrami and … matzo?

Scotties Deli
Samples await their fate at Scotties Deli in Uptown. (Scott Mitchell)

The meatball sandwich also stuck out. The bread was serviceable, but the real star was the meatball itself, so much so that the sauce, while a little tangy and tart, seemed underwhelming when paired with it. The meatball, however, was delicious and nuanced. It possessed a strong herb flavor that I’m not exposed to often. Chef Johnson said he developed this recipe while spending time with his young daughter, again pairing taste with storytelling.

The last thing worth noting was the pastrami. Having tasted other pastrami around the city, then having tasted this, I felt like I was perhaps a little pastrami-deprived growing up. Like the bacon, the smoke and salt were perfect on this. The potato salad paired with it was a nice touch.

As the meal ended, I looked up to see what else Scottie’s served, making mental notes for future visits. I noticed matzo ball soup, which I’ve never found at an Oklahoma restaurant. Like Terrance Howard’s character peering at his future at the end of Iron Man, I whispered to myself, “Next time, baby.”

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James Nghiem is an Oklahoma-based stand-up comic and drummer who runs Robot Saves City, a local comedy label.