In which the Battle of the Spicies comes to a satisfactory conclusion, as narrated by Armin Rosen.
I was drunk as fuck the first time I encountered the Spicy Special at 109 Gourmet Deli–but then again, who isn’t drunk as fuck when they first encounter the 109 Spicy Special? Plenty of establishments cater to a more sober, discerning clientele, but the shitfaced among us will always settle for the 109’s signature stomach-churner: a disgustingly delicious combination of cajun turkey and pepper jack cheese, at any hour of the day (between 2 and 5 in the morning), and in any state of mind (drunk). The Special loses a bit of its mystique during the temperate daylight hours, although if you crave for liquefied cheese atop an anemic slice of tomato and some oddly-spiced deli meat on a Wednesday afternoon then I guess you could eat one sober just for curiosity’s sake.
The deli itself is nothing special (although I’m told it’ll deliver cigarettes right to your dorm, which pretty much gives you an idea of what kind of a place this is), but the Spicy Special— the culinary embodiment of many a wasted Thursday, Friday and Saturday night—certainly is.
Which is why I experienced a feeling similar to that of a die-hard Cat Stevens fan upon hearing the Flaming Lips’ blatant rip-off of “Father and Son” when I saw that another of my favorite corner delis had started serving a spicy special of its own.
Uni One deli is an inconspicuous hole-in-the-wall relegated to the barren hinterland between Columbia and the 125th-street commercial district. Its magazine selection is a small and disorganized heap of back issues and second-rate porn; its alcohol offering incomplete six-packs and bottles of Olde English malt liquor. Dimly-lit under the shadow of the Broadway IRT, Uni One is probably one of the few places on earth that actually lacks some of the creature comforts of the 109 Gourmet. That this fourth-rate establishment should have the chutzpah to rip off a creation of such culinary and sentimental value seemed … impertinent.
In the inflated economy as the Upper West Side, Uni’s $4.50 soda/foot long combo earns them the benefit of the doubt (if it didn’t, then forgiveness is officially dead). So with a Uni Del Spicy in one hand, a notebook in the other, and venom in my heart, I asked the man behind the counter when his deli had begun serving the sandwich. He explained that the other deli he owned–yes, the 109 Gourmet–had been serving it for the past 13 or 14 months. In my quest to find the pilferer of the Spicy Special, I had found myself standing face-to-face with its creator.
I was overwhelmed, and curious as to how one of my favorite drinking buddies had gotten its spicy start. Ahmad was evasive, as the creative tend to be, although he insisted that there was no real, material difference between the Gourmet 109 original and the updated version, which includes honey mustard, hot peppers and roasted onion. “It’s no different,” he said. “It’s the same meat, the same company. Sometimes there’s extra meat, but when there’s a lot of meat it didn’t taste as good.” Moderation and simplicity: the secret of the Spicy.
Delis—unlike bloggers—exist in the real world, and the burgeoning midday crowd was making my interview seem more ridiculous by the minute. So I left the deli, walked up to Sakura Park (Uni One’s proximity to the underutilized park is an added bonus), and dug in. While the original Special is more tangy than spicy, its latest incarnation deserves the title—perhaps even spicier and more filling than its southern cousin, making the complimentary soda a welcome addition. Of course it isn’t the Spicy Special, and as I and many other lovers of strong drink know that the Special is equal parts sandwich and experience—namely, the experience of giggling drunkenly as some withered old man stumbles into a couple of frat boys while on his way to the counter to pay for another couple of 40s, while you wonder bitterly why every fucker in Morningside Heights with some kind of substance in his or her system just had to get a Special at 4:30 in the morning. It’s not the Special, but it’s a special. And it does come with free soda.