The Dish List: Harry’s Deli

Phuc Pham | New University

For over the past 10 months, hearts and stomachs were fragile for the Harry’s Deli faithful. The eatery, which stood as the #1 restaurant in Irvine on Yelp at the end of last year, closed in January, as owner Harrison “Harry” Kho decided that the time had come to turn his long-lived desire to revamp his popular deli into reality.

No one expected the wait to be this long. Though he meant to reopen in early 2012, Harry was forced to extend the wait for his devout customers due to the three-month premature birth of his daughter Abigail, as well as the complexity of the renovations. Finally, after numerous delays, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, and to repeated chants of “Deshi Basara” from “The Dark Knight Rises” (not necessarily true, but please indulge your imagination there), Harry’s Deli reopened its doors once more, and its comeback is nothing short of triumphant.

When longtime fans of Harry’s first enter the remodeled shop, they’ll be gobsmacked. Before the renovations, the deli had a look that reflected the business district where it was located: nice and professional, but almost devoid of any personality. Since then, it has gotten a complete makeover. The interior is mostly black, with chalk drawings and letters providing some color; various memorabilia hang from the walls; and the atmosphere is very casual. The result feels and looks like a cross between Mick’s Karma Bar and The Playground in Santa Ana – hip and rustic. Heck, Harry has even changed the logo. Now, the place has more than a personality; it has soul.

Though the deli’s previous menu listed seven signature sandwiches, it has narrowed down to its holy trinity of the Chicken Di Giorgio, Harry’s Pulled Pork and the Ribeye Steak Sandwich. Harry has stated that he and his staff are still working on the previous signatures, as they want to keep everything on the menu made “in house.” It’s no big loss, as these three sandwiches typify the best of Harry’s. Though the price of all three signatures has hiked, Harry, who doesn’t want his customers to feel “short-changed,” provides enough value for the price.

The Ribeye, an absolute must for meat connoisseurs, has grown, as the juicy half-pound steak snuggles with sautéed onions and bell peppers inside a nearly twelve-inch Italian roll — a five-inch upgrade from what it was originally. Fry from “Futurama” once uttered, “Shut up and take my money!” Never have his words rung truer than now.

Ditto for the Chicken Di and Pulled Pork. The former consists of a lightly breaded chicken breast beneath a bed of sautéed red onion, tomato, garlic and two layers of mozzarella and parmesan cheeses, all between two pieces of soft ciabatta bread, with basil sauce and garlic aioli providing a delectable aroma. The chicken, which used to be cut in house to various sizes above two ounces, is now at a consistent, professionally trimmed six-ounce cut. As for the Pulled Pork, the mound of tender strips of pork inside a firm bun and situated above a layer of southern cole slaw has grown considerably larger as well.

Sandwiches are plentiful at Harry’s, and cold deli classics are divided into the “You built that” and “The Bee’s Knees” categories. “You built that” requires no explanation; with six types of bread at your disposal, you can create a six-inch or twelve-inch sandwich with a variety of fillings. “The Bee’s Knees” are Harry’s own creations. The Italian Stallion comprises of three different slices of meat complemented by tomato bruschetta and pepperoncini. Vegetarians should go for The Gardner, which is packed with fresh vegetables that you’d expect in a refreshing salad.

Harry’s was known to serve mouthwatering burgers on certain holidays in a given year. Now, the burgers are here to stay. There are four of them on the new menu, and all of them feature a half-pound of certified Angus ground chuck, red in the center and moist. The 1-Up is quite tasty, as a trio of caramelized onions, sautéed mushrooms and applewood smoked bacon bring another dimension to the overall burger. The bottom bun is a bit greasy, but hey, aren’t burgers supposed to be messy? Those who like a challenge should try the Fatal Bhut Stinger, which contains three different kinds of chili peppers — the fatalii, Bhut Jolokia and Trinidad Scorpion, all of which pack some serious heat.

Capping the menu are the sides and soups, with salads being a new addition. The potato salad, macaroni salad and tomato basil soup make welcome returns, but it’s the double-fried, mealy Real Fries and the crunchy, hand-battered World’s Second-Best Onion Rings (Harry hasn’t yet determined which place has the world’s best onion rings) that are perfect companions to any of the signature sandwiches and burgers. Of the salads, the Candied Walnut Endive Salad looks the most intriguing.

Harry’s happens to boast a hip selection of drinks. Right now they have several choices of Lester’s Fixins, which includes bacon soda, peanut butter and jelly soda and lemon meringue pie soda. They sound pretty cool, but the novelty wears off pretty quickly. There’s also Virgil’s Real Cola, which is smoother and more flavorful than Coca-Cola.

The reopening of Harry’s Deli is like “Apocalypse Now Redux” – the film was already a masterpiece to begin with, but the extended version makes it so much richer and sublime. With a revamped environment and old menu items made more memorable in addition to new succulent items, Harry’s offers just what a customer deserves. “Just keep calm and Harry on,” reads one of their signs. True that, Harry. True that.