As a general rule, I like simple food. The most frequent questions I get when people find out that I have this food-writing gig is, "What's the best restaurant in Tucson?" or "What is your favorite restaurant?" Both are impossible to answer because there are thousands of factors that can affect my response. However, one constant remains—I like places that keep it simple and let the food be the magic. That applies to five-star haute cuisine as much as it applies to a 12-seat downtown deli.
Fourth Avenue Delicatessen, which opened in August in the former Buddha's Dog House space, is a recent addition to the eclectic restaurant scene on Fourth Avenue. You shouldn't plan to eat in because there are only four tables. And if they're all taken, you're out of luck. But the food comes out fairly quickly, so you wouldn't be waiting long for a to-go order. You can also call in your order to avoid the wait.
There isn't a single pretentious thing about the deli, with its industrial-sparse décor and random, brightly colored artwork. The counter service is friendly and customer-centric, and oftentimes you're face to face with the owner, Austin Counts, formerly of Nimbus, as well as other local digs (and full disclosure, once an intern for the Weekly). It's also one of the few non-fast-food places open for post-last-call noshing—until 3 a.m., Thursday through Saturday.
The menu is varied, with lots of options (but not too many, for those of us who suffer from choice paralysis), including vegetarian dishes, hot sandwiches, cold sandwiches and hot dogs. Prices range from $1.50 for a hot dog to $10 for the Tucson Streetcar sandwich, and you can always get your deli-standby whole pickle ($1) and chips ($1.50) added on (most sandwiches come standard with a cold, crunchy pickle spear).
The South 6th ($8.50) and the Mensch ($8.25) were the two standouts from our visits, both hot sandwiches. The South 6th is slap-your-momma spicy, with ham, pepper jack cheese, tons of jalapeño slices and "T-town mayo," a spicy mayo concoction, served on a hoagie roll. Even with the heat, the sandwich had great flavor and was stuffed to the brim. The Mensch sandwich was really tasty, with hot pastrami, slaw, Russian dressing and melted Swiss on rye. The slaw had just a hint of sweetness, which made the sandwich extra delicious.
Fourth Avenue Deli is definitely a great option for the budget-conscious consumer. We tried three items from the "under $5" menu: the Chicago dog ($2.50), the chili dog ($2.50) and the brie and apple B.L.T. ($4.25). Both of the dogs were great. The chili was rich and meaty and absolutely smothered in cheese, and the Chicago dog was complete with all of the traditional fixin's, right down to the neon-green relish, sport peppers and poppy seed bun. The B.L.T. with brie and apple, on toasted white bread, was a bit disappointing, however. The bacon was cold (blerch!) and there was way too much mayo on the sandwich, overwhelming the light, creamy brie.
We also tried The Tucson Streetcar ($10), a cold, grinder-style sandwich loaded with all the goodies—turkey, ham, salami, roast beef, bacon, Swiss, provolone, cheddar, pepper jack, lettuce, tomato, red onion and mayo. Like the B.L.T., the mayo was a little heavy-handed, and again, the bacon was cold, but otherwise the flavors were good, and the filling-to-bread ratio was perfect. Don't expect New York deli-style 6-inch towering sandwiches from the Fourth Avenue Deli, but they dish out hearty portions, especially for the price.
Fourth Avenue Delicatessen is keeping it simple with its easy, tasty sandwiches, which I'm sure are extra delightful after a long night of bar-hopping on Fourth Avenue. Even with something as simple as a sandwich, if you take quality ingredients and combine them in interesting but thoughtful ways, the end result is a great experience. As long as they figure out a way to heat up that bacon.