We first met a decade ago. I was a nervous mom with three girls: 7, 4, and 2. Every Wednesday I would pack up my two-year old and commute to her four-year old sister’s ballet class in Hyde Park. Parents weren’t allowed to see the twirling pink confections practice, as we were expected to wait in a quiet, damp, narrow hallway for one hour. This didn’t work for me; I’m socially awkward and had a toddler in tow which made waiting in a hall unbearable. Stepping outside with my daughter strapped into her stroller, I set out in search of a spot where we could both find comfort. After passing a colorful assortment of homes with front porches and picket fences, the stroller stopped in front of a café called NeWorlDeli. It didn’t look snooty or pretentious. It wore a patina that’s often accompanied by history, stories. As we entered, the man perched behind the counter welcomed us in a thick New Jersey accent. He embodied the Garden State: rugged and genuine, with hands that were worn and weathered from use. His face didn’t offer smiles generously, but exuded a warmth that made a smile unnecessary. His head was topped with a battered baseball cap and as he tinkered with prepping the day’s menu, he effortlessly interacted with both customers and staff, I realized my daughter and I had found our spot.
Eventually, my father-in-law joined us for coffee and tacos. I have fond memories of the three of us sitting by the back door of the café, the area closest to the coffee thermos and bathrooms. We would laugh as we watched Emma fumble as she tried to maneuver her gigantic taco into her gumball sized mouth. As food remnants hit the floor my father-in-law applied the “five second rule” and devoured anything dropped. It was a happy time. Years passed.
We moved back to Austin last year. I was fearful returning. The friends I kept in touch with consistently depicted the home we left, “You won’t believe how much Austin has changed.” I was uneasy with that word, change.
Coincidentally, our first two weeks back we rented a Hyde Park bungalow one block behind NeWorlDeli. One afternoon I gave my two teenagers a few dollars and suggested they walk over and grab a cookie or brownie from the deli. As they returned, all smiles, they gushed over how nice the people were and how rich and delicious the brownie tasted. My oldest went on to say, “Mom you didn’t give us enough money, but the girl checking us out gave us the extra .86 cents.” Later that evening my husband and I dropped by the deli to pick up our takeout order, I wasn’t surprised to see the Garden State man standing stoically behind his counter, just as he had a decade earlier. We explained how we appreciated the staff helping our girls out when they didn’t have enough money for their sweets. He shrugged as if this were common and mentioned the deli being “old school.” Out of the corner of my eye I could see a giddy employee with a Cheshire grin winking at me. Returning to our rental, we unloaded our dinner order and found an unexpected surprise. A big fat brownie had sneaked in with our meals. We were happy.
Arranging to meet a friend for 9am coffee recently, I opted for something new, I suggested we meet at a trendy café right off the UT campus. As I heard warnings on the radio to stay away from campus: it was the first day of spring semester, I called NeWorlDeli to see if they were open – no one picked up. A few seconds later my phone rang. A thick New Jersey accent asked, “Did you just call the deli?” Explaining my dilemma, the voice explained they weren’t open until 11am, but he and a chef were prepping for lunch. “Why don’t you come here and we’ll put on a pot of coffee.”
As I pushed the door open, I could see there were two cups and saucers waiting near the register. And as I thanked the Garden State man, he grumbled something along the lines, “We’re old school, it’s nothing. This is what we do.” My friend and I felt special, happy even.
My visits to this neighborhood deli over the years have been just as unpredictable and sporadic as my hair color. My twirling pink ballerina traded her dance shoes for soccer cleats years ago and enters high school in the fall, the taco eating toddler I laughed with is a 6th grader with a schedule, and my father-in-law moved away several years ago. Life has changed, Austin has changed, and I have changed. But thankfully, in an ever-changing world, NeWorlDeli remains constant and reliable. Thanks for the smiles…and the memories.
Judy Rae Merhar is a columnist and travel writer based in Austin. The above was originally published on her blog, and is used with permission.