The unassuming exterior of River Street Deli. (Photo: Staff)

This column is about the experience of food in Chattanooga. I will take people out for dinner and lunch dates at various restaurants in the Chattanooga region. It is not meant to be a review per se, but an account of a one-time experience at a restaurant. Your mileage may vary depending upon your expectations.

There are a few restaurants in Chattanooga that I selfishly cling to my chest because I don’t want anyone else to know about them. But the gig is up with River Street Deli. Too many people are in the know and now you should be, too.

Located in one of the city’s busiest corridors in North Chattanooga but hidden from street view is a small, unassuming façade that welcomes you into a culinary heaven: River Street Deli at 151 River St. So when it came time to take my Nooga.com intern out for her final lunch before the end of the semester, it was River Street Deli that popped into mind.

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Emmalee Manes, a Lee University senior, was a terrific intern for us and I wish her nothing but success in her future endeavors. She had never had a River Street Deli experience-had never even heard of the place-and so I wanted to make sure we checked it off her list. We parked on Frazier Avenue and walked through Blue Skies and out the back door. The deli is located near Coolidge Park and and is accessible from both sides of the building.

Owner Bruce Weiss greeted me with a loud “Sean!” as we walked through the door. First-timers should know that Weiss is an intimidating presence. But his gruff exterior (he calls it “handsome”) is surrounding a teddy bear heart. If I were going to cast the next James Bond film and needed a villain that turned out to be a good guy in the end, I’d hire Weiss for the role.

The specials change daily. (Photo: Staff)

Ordering/atmosphere
The inside of River Street Deli feels subterranean, like a secret room discovered in an old home. Nothing is fancy aesthetically, and like a New York City delicatessen-which the restaurant is designed like-every detail is in place for efficiency from the counter to the grill. However, those who are in the know-Weiss has many regulars who visit him three and four times per week-are rewarded with some of the best deli-style sandwiches and soups in the city, if not the region.

A disclaimer is necessary here. Weiss is a friend of mine and his impressive knowledge of literature, business, politics and other worldly affairs is evident. He has offered sage advice to me over a cigar and beer on several occasions, whether he was aware of it or not.

But it’s his culinary talent that most will recognize.

Typically, Weiss serves as the greeter and order-taker behind the deli counter. Guests enter the doors and order delicatessen-style at the counter underneath a chalkboard menu with the daily specials. There are two keys to ordering at River Street Deli that you need to be aware of. First, don’t ask, “What’s good today?” because Weiss will sigh and explain to you that everything is good or it wouldn’t be on the menu. Second, unless you’ve visited the deli multiple times or have dietary restrictions, you should probably just let Weiss tell you what to eat. I only have to say, “Bruce, what am I eating today?” and I’ve never been disappointed with his selection. You are in good hands.

River Street Deli’s chicken Parmesan with a pickle. (Photo: Staff)

The food
“I’ve got this chicken Parmesan sandwich …” Weiss said, and before he could finish the sentence, I said, “Yep. I’ll have that.” Emmalee ordered the same sandwich. The other specials for the day were a broccoli and cheddar soup (I ordered a bowl), patty melt, muffuletta, veggie panini, Elena Ruz and a selection of soup/salad combos. The daily specials are also listed on their Facebook page.

Recently, I discovered the Sunday special and it has become my favorite sandwich. Weiss and crew have created a riff on a classic caprese that is so good I teared up the first time I tried it. Weiss takes a peppery arugula blend, prosciutto and fig preserves, and slathers the whole concoction with balsamic reduction sauce on ciabatta bread. I’ve been told the sandwich is available most Sundays, but check Facebook beforehand. You won’t be sorry.

Emmalee and I sat down at a corner table. Weiss joined us, and when he learned that she was from the Dayton, Ohio, area, he told us a story about falling in love in California and traveling to Dayton to be with the girl of his dreams. There’s always a story, and even though he was completely swamped with customers, he made the time to welcome Emmalee with a personal story and conversation.

A Weiss story is always a treat. But so are the sandwiches. The chicken Parmesan was baked instead of fried, which helped it remain juicy and tender. We both ate the entire sandwich. I also enjoyed sampling the broccoli and cheddar soup. Is there anything more comforting in chilly weather than a good, hearty soup?

Would we go back?
I had not intended to write about River Street Deli this week. For years, it’s been a secret Chattanooga gem that only locals know about and, to be honest, I liked it that way. But I couldn’t resist. If you haven’t visited Weiss and River Street Deli, you owe it to yourself to do so. Tell him I sent you and maybe he won’t beat me up for writing this.

The chicken Parmesan sandwich was made even better by a bowl of broccoli and cheese soup. (Photo: Staff)

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