It was lunchtime in the middle of the week when we headed for the ominously named Brawler's Back-Alley Deli, behind and downstairs from the Pearl Street Grill.
The figures of old-timey male and female toughs suspended over the door gave us pause, as did the peepholes at eye level in the two steel doors at the bottom of the stairs leading to the deli. But when we were able to enter without whispering a password, we relaxed. Joined by our friends Paul and Maureen, we took in the interesting surroundings.
The long cellar room, with brick walls and a low ceiling, has been historically restored and fitted with large light wood booths, big enough for six, and lots of tables. Although it was populated by normal-looking folks -- a group of office workers sat near the door and a couple of older folks came in later -- the place's rough-and-tumble roots are emphasized. The menu says that the deli is "located in the back alley of what was Buffalo's most evil square mile," and deli sandwiches come in two sizes -- "Girlie" and "Brawler." We rolled our eyes, but smiled, too.
The menu is written on a chalkboard near the counter where you place your order, but we appreciated the printed menus on the tables. Brawler's offers classic deli sandwiches in corned beef, ham, roast beef, turkey, capicola and salami for $7.50 for Girlie and $9.50 for Brawler. Pastrami is a buck more for Girlie and $12 for Brawler.
Salads ($9 to $9.25), soup ($4 for a sturdy paper bowl) and about 20 specialty sandwiches (from $7.75 for a pizza sub to $11 for the Knuckle -- shaved prime rib, bacon, banana peppers and pepperjack cheese on a hoagy roll) round out the menu. There is also a sandwich called the Barrel -- "An assorted sandwich for the ages, a selection of all our meats and cheeses." It's served on rye with coleslaw, lettuce and tomato, costs $29, and if you finish it, it's free. We know people who might tackle this challenge, but none of us dared.
Hot dogs ($5 for a quarter-pound, all-beef dog, with toppings that include sauerkraut, bacon, blue cheese, peppers and a pickle spear) and a grilled cheese or bologna for kids ($4) rounded out the menu, although we also gazed with longing at the breakfast menu, which is served only until 11 a.m.
The Reuben ($9, made with corned beef or with turkey) was one burly sandwich, served on warmed, fresh rye, with corned beef extending not only out from the bread but also over both sides of the plastic plate. The meat was tender, which can sometimes be an issue with corned beef, and delicious, and the sandwich was made, as requested, with light sauerkraut and light dressing.
The chicken salad wrap ($8) was, as billed, made with "mounds" of fresh chicken salad. Importantly, it was made from white meat, not odds and ends. The fresh cheddar-flavored wrap, a nice touch, also held crisp lettuce and tomato.
The Cobb salad ($9) filled a large bowl. The toppings were not finely chopped and arranged in stripes as expected but rather segments, which was fine. The bed of mixed greens, which included Romaine and iceberg, was fresh, cold and crisp; the toppings included juicy tomatoes, eggs, a generous serving of lean but flavorful bacon, and about half of a delicious grilled chicken breast, cut into strips. The cheese seemed to be processed American cheese slices rather than cheddar, a minus, but the salad included a dollop of guacamole, a plus.
We were extremely impressed by the daily soup ($4 a bowl), the same smoked gouda made with ale that draws raves upstairs. It had a deep, satisfying smoked flavor and just the right consistency -- not so thick that you feel as though you are eating melted cheese.
The turkey club ($8.50, also made with ham or roast beef) made us burst out laughing. Without any warning, it was comically enormous. It was at least 4 inches tall and so stuffed with turkey, bacon, lettuce and tomato that despite the structural assistance of three slices of toasted sourdough and two 10-inch-long bamboo skewers, it listed to the edge of its plate. There was no hope of eating it as is; it had to be disassembled and rebuilt to a more human scale. All the ingredients were excellent; the turkey and bacon were delicious, and the lettuce and tomato fresh and crispy.
The coleslaw, served in plastic tubs, had a very unusual aftertaste that none of us liked. But there was plenty of food on the table without worrying about coleslaw.
We weren't sure whether the roughnecks from 1841 would have recognized anything we ate, but we knew that once they dug in, they would have appreciated it.
BRAWLER'S BACK-ALLEY DELI
3.5 pennies (out of four)
"All good, some excellent."
WHERE: 76.5 Pearl St. (Take the stairway inside the front door of the Pearl Street Grill or take the marked stairway to the deli at the back of the building on Seneca Street; 939-3670)
HOURS: 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday; plus open during events and hockey games.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: An elevator is accessible from the parking lot behind Pearl Street.