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Harry's Deli: A Cult Above

Quality and Internet savvy have turned Harrison Kho's sandwich shop into a phenomenon

Remember the name Harrison Kho. Right now, you might not know who the guy is, but then, two years ago, you didn’t know about Roy Choi or his Korean taco truck, either.

Before you ask: No, Harry is not another food-truck entrepreneur. Harry makes sandwiches—classic ones such as New York pastrami and grilled cheese. His food is neither avant garde nor fusion-y. His Harry’s Deli is nothing more than an unadorned office-park lunch stop located directly beneath the landing path of John Wayne-bound planes.

About the only thing he has in common with Roy Choi of Kogi fame is that they are both alumni of Villa Park High. That and a knack for turning a generation of Yelpers and Internet foodies into cultists. At the moment, all the online love has made Harry the busiest and buzziest sandwich-maker in all of Orange County.

So devoted are Harry’s fans that they have vowed to defend him against the likes of, well, me! When Harry posted on his Facebook page that he was nervously anticipating this review, one customer replied, “It will be awesome, and if it’s not, we’ll punch them in the face.”

Well, that guy can put the knuckle sandwich away and have another one of Harry’s. These are renditions with which you are already familiar and comfortable, all faithfully created without too much embellishment—the best example of doing something simple and doing it well.

The pastrami is everything it should be: salty; slathered in mustard; and stuffed with pickles, folds of crimson meat and melted Swiss between slices of good rye bread that’s toasted just enough so that every bite is crisp. The Reuben is also great, a balance of corned beef, Swiss, homemade Russian dressing and not too much sauerkraut. No ingredient outpaces another. It’s perfect in every way.

But perhaps what endears Harry to his apostles most is that he does from scratch what others would scoop out of a jar. He whisks his own mayo, mixes the potato salad with sprinkles of dill and starts the rustic chicken-noodle soup by melting some butter. The giant meatballs for the classic Italian sub are simmered in a tomato-sauce brew of his own making, and I would imagine Harry’s creamy tomato-basil soup also began life as an actual tomato.

Don’t believe that someone at a sandwich shop would go to all this trouble? Check out his website. It has backstage proof he’s not cutting corners. He has posted pictures of a giant pork butt, which he rubs with spices and slow-roasts to become fodder for pulled-pork sandwiches. The resulting two-fisted behemoths bust at the seams, dribbling chunky pieces of meat lubricated in a tart, homemade barbecue sauce and a fistful of Southern slaw. It’s as messy as a sloppy joe and just as dangerously habit-forming.

Other photos he has on the site can only be classified as food porn. Mostly, they should convince doubters that he really does sear the steaks for his rib-eye sandwich on well-seasoned cast-iron pans.

The most requested sandwich for newcomers? The Chicken Di Giorgio, which gets the centerfold treatment on the website. Harry details the construction of the escalope of chicken step-by-step: Here’s Harry carefully forming the perma-crust of its breading in a pan. There it is topped with fresh chunks of tomato and basil. And finally, the money shot: an oozy blanket of buffalo mozzarella and grated Parmesan melted right on top.

If he wasn’t making sandwiches, Harry would’ve made a prolific food blogger. He speaks their language and shares in their obsession. And when you see him at work, even when he’s overwhelmed and barely keeping up with orders, you can tell he’s actually enjoying every minute of it, having the time of his life.

Perhaps he knows he should relish this moment. Perhaps he knows that what comes next is the inevitable paradox of heightened expectations and the danger of hype. If anything can be learned from Roy Choi and the Kogi phenomenon, it’s that even after you’ve secured the love of your cult, you still have to deal with the rest of the world —including naysayers and contrarians. And when they show up, I’ll be the first to punch them in the face.

Harry’s Deli, 17881 Sky Park Circle, Ste. A, Irvine, (949) 261-2116; www.harrys-deli.com. Open Mon.-Fri., 7:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Sandwiches, $4.80-$9.90.

This review appeared in print as "A Cult Above: Harry’s Deli is neither fusion nor avant garde, but quality and Internet savvy have made it a phenomenon."

 

 
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