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In the early 1970s, I spent a lot of time trying to be as cool as my older cousin. He played the drums, had a beard, his bedroom door had a Zappa poster on it, and he drove a sweet yellow Plymouth Duster with black side stripes. He was very cool. One evening, he disrupted the well -maintained Southern Baptist script that had been the guiding force for my extended family for decades with the announcement that he was going to join a religious community, share his worldly possessions and devote his life to Yahshua. I remember my aunt whispering (where we all could hear) that it was the “Yellow Deli people.” That didn’t mean anything to me at the time, but I was psyched about the news because my cousin had decided to give me his drums, sending me on a decades-long pursuit of an ill-fated rock and roll dream.
A few years later, as I was leaving a Rush concert at the Memorial Auditorium, I was approached by a wide-eyed, uncomfortably friendly young lady who gave me a hug and a yellow booklet filled with hand drawn flowers and Jesus talk. She invited me to come to the Yellow Deli and meet some of her friends, which I did in hopes it might lead to more hugs from her and her fresh-faced friends. I didn’t spot my cousin, but I did see unblinking, musky-smelling young people sitting around talking about Jesus over tasty-looking sandwiches. I loved the sandwich they offered me, but I still had doubleneck guitars and Geddy Lee’s shrieking voice ringing too loudly in my ears to absorb any Jesus talk. So off I went into the night, not giving the place much thought.
These days, my interest in the Yellow Deli is purely epicurean. I long ago traded discussions of the Twelve Tribes and eschatology for deep discussions on the merits of Mangalista pork and late-night ruminations on how to build a home kitchen immersion circulator. Fortunately, there’s no proselytizing in the restaurant anymore and aside from a small rack of their pamphlets, there is no evidence of their religious affiliation.
When you first enter the Yellow Deli it feels a bit like Peter Max and J. R. R. Tolkein opened a restaurant and hired extras from “Little House on the Prairie” as staff. It doesn’t take long, however, to realize that the decor is actually pretty amazing. The upstairs deck is one of the most idyllic places in Chattanooga to enjoy a meal, and the staff couldn’t be nicer—which is exactly what you’d expect from someone dressed like one of the Ingalls.
Since it is primarily a deli, the menu is dominated by sandwiches, salads, and a satisfying selection of breakfast items. Thanks to good old-fashioned communal living, the folks at Yellow Deli make six varieties of their own bread, grow most of their own vegetables and do both with the attention of an artisan. The breads are delicious and the veggies are so fresh you can hardly taste the free labor.
If you are a DIY enthusiast, you can choose from a broad selection of breads, meats, cheeses and “extras” to create a different Franken-sandwich every day until Yahshua returns. While the temptation to take my own prideful path and create my own sandwich is strong, I resist that urge so that you can bathe in the shining glory of the king of the Yellow Deli signature sandwiches — the “Original Lamb.” The simple combination of ingredients belies the true measure of this sandwich’s greatness. Thin slices of tender lamb, crisp cucumber, fresh tomatoes, onion and lettuce are all tucked inside of your choice of bread (I suggest an egg roll) that has a perfect schmear of Yellow Deli’s special, tzatziki-like sauce. You have to taste it to believe how good it is. Wash this lamb-elicious beauty down with a tall glass of banana milk and you may have your own religious experience right there in the store. Banana milk is a glorious concoction that tastes like a banana smoothie blended by the goddess Annapurna herself.
Now that the weather is turning warm, their outdoor deck and patio are even more perfect locations to enjoy a sandwich, or you can catch their food truck at the Chattanooga Market each Sunday. The good news is that the food at the Yellow Deli is better than ever. The bad news is that they are still not open on Saturdays, causing yet another weekend day to be foiled by religious observance. I’ll let that slide as long as they keep making those heavenly lamb sandwiches.