I remember the early days of Caplansky’s; before he opened his own place, it was just Zane Caplansky himself at the back of the Monarch, a sketchy old bar in Little Italy. Back then the smoked meat was truly something special: smoky, uniquely spiced, and unctuously tender. It could have easily gone toe-to-toe with the best smoked meat I’ve ever had, and I couldn’t get enough of it.
But then, Caplansky moved to his own place, and things started to very quickly go downhill. The quality of the meat was wildly inconsistent, and they started taking shortcuts — such as curing the meat via chemical injection rather than naturally — that would have been anathema back at the Monarch.
The sandwiches were, at their worst, so dry they sucked all the moisture out of your mouth. The fat was rubbery and unrendered. I got one sandwich with zebra-patterned swathes of uncured gray meat. I stopped going regularly.
Things seem to have evened out recently. The last couple of times I’ve gone, the sandwiches have been much more consistent — but consistently middling. They’re fine. They are perfectly edible sandwiches. They’re better than Druxy’s, but worse than pretty much every other place in the city making good smoked meat sandwiches. The days of smoked meat that was so incredibly amazing it made my knees buckle are long gone, sadly.
But all this time I’ve never bothered trying anything else on the menu. Smoked meat is obviously the specialty, but they do have a fairly decent selection of non-sandwiches. I figured I’d try the meatloaf, which is tantalizingly described on the menu as “10 oz. of fresh ground beef and our famous smoked meat seared top and bottom.”
Oh boy. I’m going to stick with the sandwiches.
Though the meatloaf tasted sort of okay, it had a repulsively mushy, baby-food-like texture that was truly horrifying. It tasted like they took a meatloaf, cooked it, crammed the whole thing into a blender with some liquid, then formed that mush into slices and served it.
As for the smoked meat, it may as well not have even been there. There were tiny little bacon-bit-sized flecks of smoked meat interspersed throughout, but if I hadn’t seen them, I wouldn’t have even known they were there. You couldn’t taste them.
The slices are glazed with a classic ketchup-based sauce, which was basically okay, if a bit cloyingly sweet and one-dimensional.
The meatloaf is served with some sauteed vegetables, which were fine, and your choice for the second side. I went with mashed potatoes, which were actually the highlight. They were creamy and slightly chunky, with a mild garlicky flavour.
Thinking about the food on the way home, I came to the somewhat shocking realization that the meatloaf here was probably the worst I’ve ever had. Cafeteria meatloaf is better. Heck, even the frozen stuff you get at the supermarket is better. The version at Caplansky’s was shockingly bad. I’d feel embarrassed serving food of this caliber to guests in my home, let alone to paying customers in a restaurant.