There are two culinary empires in this town: ripe, whose patron spirit is often dada, and Lisa Schroeder's, whose patron saint is always mama. On the same downtown block that already houses her Mother's Bistro and Mama Mia Trattoria, she recently added Balaboosta, an ersatz Jewish deli unfortunately so goyish it makes Kornblatt's seem like Manhattan's Carnegie Deli. No tongue, no pastrami, no knishes, no bialys here.
Delis ought to be noisy, boisterous, and steamy, the counter should feel like a war zone, and each sandwich should burst with a pound of heart-stopping meat. The waiters should kvetch as a way of life, and if the place were held up the smart robber would take the pastrami along with the dough. Alas, Balaboosta (Yiddish for "perfect housewife") seems like Annie Hall's idea of a deli: It looks more like a quaint tea room than Katz's, the cacophonous New York deli made famous by its slogan "Send a salami to your boy in the Army."
Decent delis have a jar of mustard on the table, maybe some pickles. Balaboosta lacks these essentials (my corned-beef sandwich came with the unpardonable sin of having had mustard already spread on it), as well as the more necessary kibitzers, schmoozers and kvellers. Whitefish is on the menu, but they're always out, because "it doesn't seem to sell in Portland." Balaboosta tries to appease the palates of erstwhile New Yorkers by importing the vaunted H&H bagels ($2.95), but by the time those prizes get from upper Broadway to Southwest Washington Street they're more traumatized by the trip than the Brooklyn Dodgers when they moved to L.A.
The deli's best bets are the soup specials ($2.95-$3.95). I've had a splendid tomato Tuscan bean soup, which was hearty and very flavorful, and a terrific salmon chowder, chunked with potatoes and full of briny flavor. The matzoh balls are floaters, though the bowl was so narrow it was hard to tell. The broth was pretty authentic.
The deli trumpets its corned beef, which is decent, but in the sandwich ($7.95) the meat was shredded and a bit dry. It tasted a lot better in the Reuben ($8.95), which was juicy and peppery, perfectly balancing the meat, the Swiss and the sauerkraut, and grilled just right. But the house-cured lox ($19 per pound) is far too salty and the French fries ($3.95) are soggy and limp.
I looked forward to babka ($1.95), a chocolate-swirl coffeecake, and the apricot-filled cream-cheese cookies known as rugelach ($1). These are true tests, and the house bakers failed on both. Babka's marbleized chocolate should spring forth with moist assertiveness, this cake was almost stale. Rugelach's filling should lubricate your throat, but these cookies were dry and crumbly.
A final indignity: If you have to go to the bathroom, you'll need a waiter to escort you through the rain next door to Mama Mia's and unlock the place, which isn't open during Balaboosta's lunch hours. You could feel slightly infantilized—something mamas always want, of course.
Balaboosta Delicatessen, 217 SW Washington St., 222-6303. 7 am-3 pm Monday-Friday. $ Inexpensive.