A Jewel In The Gem City
By Elizabeth Fields Hogue Kenerly
I’ve never met anyone so happy to live in Dayton, Ohio. Haitham Iman came to the United States from Jerusalem because “it was not my place.” Born in such a culturally rich area of the world, that is a hefty statement. An even more fascinating statement is that Dayton is Iman’s “place.” This man is completely satisfied and overwhelmingly happy to be in Dayton, Ohio. Seriously.
Iman came to Dayton to study hospitality at Sinclair Community College and later culinary arts, starting as a dishwasher in the food service department while studying his craft. I say “craft” because this is all he’s ever wanted to do.
Starting as a young boy in Jerusalem, Iman would cook for his friends and family knowing full well that this was his life’s work – food and hospitality. That being the case, he is fully absorbed by a hospitable spirit like none I’ve ever seen. He is committed to memorizing every customer’s name and that is a task helped considerably by the string of regular customers Carmen’s Deli enjoys. Why is that so exceptional? Carmen’s is located in the heart of downtown Dayton, and downtown Dayton is rife with empty corporate behemoths echoing better economic times that have long since passed it by. Even so, Carmen’s Deli is a success – personally and financially – after only 14 months as a re-opened restaurant with limited hours. The disappearance of the hordes of office workers that used to move like ants on a hill through the commercial hub of the Miami Valley has had little if any effect on Haitham Iman’s passion. The decade or so spent working his way up the corporate ladder of local catering and food service jobs has paid off. Iman doesn’t have to hide from his purveyors and creditors – even during a national recession and some of the worst economic times downtown Dayton has ever witnessed. This is his place – Dayton and Carmen’s. This is the little deli “… that could.”
Iman feels truly blessed to have come to this country, received an education and to be able to work. He always has a smile on his face no matter what “because it was enough for me to be humble and have a vision.” The owner/chef has taken his deeply spiritual humility and gratitude, turning it into some of the best deli food I’ve ever tasted in this area. I’m not kidding. The love of life and work is evident in seemingly simple fare that is elevated out of gratitude for a dream fulfilled. The New Yorker, which contains actual New York City pastrami flown in for authenticity, features Swiss cheese on a fresh ciabatta roll with horseradish chipotle mayo. Not overwhelmingly big -anything else, any deviation from the fine tuned ingredients in taste, texture or even quantity would ruin one of the best sandwiches I’ve tasted. It is perfectly warmed, and everything is done with care and humility, even in the selection of which rolls pair each sandwich. It’s simply perfect as is and the price is only $5.19.
Another winner is the Santa Fe Wrap ($5.59), char-grilled chicken wrapped in a tomato tortilla surrounding a Southwestern Bean Salad, fresh greens and Jalapeno Ranch sauce. I would have liked a little more sauce but this is a very good wrap.
All the sandwiches are served with sides like Cherry Tomato Salad with Fresh Mozzarella and Kalamata Olives in a mint vinaigrette, freshly made fruit salad, and complimentary salsa and chips when you enter the door.
This brings me to a humbling moment myself. I have long been a connoisseur of Mushroom Soup. I have had good mushroom soup such as the legendary Mushroom Soup of Mike and Rosey’s Deli in Springfield. I make my own fabulous Mushroom Soup and it’s good. I HAVE NEVER TASTED ANYTHING AS DECADENT as Carmen’s Deli’s Mushroom Brie Bisque. This soup is so rich I literally got a “brain freeze” from the fat content. I don’t think a frozen stick of butter on a 100 degree day would be as decadent as this soup made with fresh mushrooms, precisely shredded carrot, white wine, brie cheese and cream redolent with fresh rosemary and basil. I would serve this soup at a fancy dinner party or Thanksgiving dinner. Honestly, the best soup I’ve ever tasted in any restaurant and easily a meal in itself.
Israeli Hummus – a delicious jazzed up version of the Middle Eastern staple – and a soon-coming Falafel sandwich round out a menu that is for the fast paced lunch crowd, but don’t forget Carmen’s for a quick breakfast on the go.
Though he’s had offers from other locations as far away as Cincinnati, Haitham Iman doesn’t have any plans of leaving his downtown location, so I encourage everyone to make a quick stop downtown on the way to Beavercreak or Centerville or the ‘burbs. Carmen’s is well worth the trip for it does not disappoint. Be sure to inquire about catering or the generous meeting space that’s available.
Carmen’s Deli is located at 110 N. Main St. in downtown Dayton. Hours of operation are Monday-Friday 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. For more information, call (937) 610-9999 or visit www.Carmens-Deli.com
Reach DCP dining critic Elizabeth Fields Hogue Kenerly at email@example.com