The Yellow Deli
737 McCallie Ave.
Chattanooga, Tennessee 37403
24 hours a day, five days a week: Sunday at noon until Friday at 3 p.m.
An epic dining experience: world-class service, décor and menu options.
A superior dining experience: high-quality attributes you’ll want to come back for again and again.
A solid dining experience: great characteristics but also some minor issues.
A mediocre dining experience: may have a few good highlights but major flaws.
A terrible dining experience: stay far away unless it’s the only place left to eat to avoid starvation, and even then, question if it’s worth it.
It is said religion, politics and sex are the big three no-no topics to bring up in mixed company to keep from offending someone. So, here we go: This week, I’m lightly teetering into that zone with The Yellow Deli because their religious beliefs are very much about who they are (and they are not subtle about it), and they are certainly no strangers to tangling with politics and the media. There will be no sex in this review, however-though yerba maté is said to be an aphrodisiac.
The major reason for the hubbub surrounding The Yellow Deli is the Twelve Tribes religious community that runs it. It was founded here in Chattanooga back in the ’70s, and they opened up the original Yellow Deli on Brainerd Road to help support their church and commune. Political pressure eventually ran them out of town in the early ’80s. However, the Twelve Tribes branched out-making other Yellow Delis-all over the country and worldwide as well, and then they returned in 2008, opening up the present Yellow Deli location next to UTC.
There is an immense amount of information regarding the Twelve Tribes online. However, I’m not going into their communal religious structure in this review-Religion Roamin’ with Roman would be another column entirely. This review is about the restaurant.
Apart from that aspect, to me, The Yellow Deli is a happy place-with a good Wi-Fi connection. Back when I was in grad school at UTC, I used to go there sometimes to study, write or do some copy editing, because for me, the atmosphere is relaxing, low-key and conducive to creative concentration.
The décor makes you feel like you are in a rustic woodsman’s cabin with all kinds of crafty woodworking throughout the place, including curvy tree branch railings, a rope dumbwaiter up to the second floor and charming, low-lit basket lights. The outside of the restaurant has some beautiful, colorful landscaping, and the vibrant exterior and interior walls complement this folksy vibe. Instrumental folk music completes the enchanting atmosphere with happy harmonies of hammered dulcimers, fiddles and flutes-it’s a kind of ambiance that if you glanced over and saw some elves and hobbits hanging around, you wouldn’t be entirely surprised.
The menu also shares this craftiness, and it has a lot of organic, eclectic options-with “jalapeño” misspelled (sorry, the editor in me coming out). They make everything fresh, with all their baked goods made in their Common Loaf Bakery and juices made in their tiki-style juice bar.
On this visit last Thursday, I arrived ahead of my group. A pleasant lady greeted me, then gave me three menus and told me to sit where I would like. Even after going upstairs and sitting there waiting for about 15 minutes, my server never came up to greet me or take my drink order. He walked behind me a couple of times, so he knew I was there, but because of the extra menus, he also knew I was waiting for people. When my party showed up, he arrived immediately to gleefully take our order, but it would have been nice to have something to drink while I was waiting-and I wanted to see how long it took to be greeted before being proactive about it.
I started off with a couple of their specialty drinks, one hot and one cold. First I had their yerba maté, which is a popular South American drink made by steeping yerba maté holly leaves in hot water. It had a grassy taste similar to green tea and a caffeine kick similar to strong coffee. Honey and cream were served on the side, but I just went with the honey to sweeten the flavor-this caffeine and honey buzz will be sure to have you busy as a bee. I also tried the hibiscus fruit cooler, and man, this drink was potent. A lemon was served on the side, but the tartness of the infused hibiscus petals and citrus juices in the drink were already proficient for a palatable pucker. Both were tasty beverages to complement the menu items I ordered.
The sandwiches arrived quicker than they usually have on my previous visits, which was nice, but my server only brought out one set of silverware for three people. After asking for more silverware, only one more set was brought out, instead of the server looking to see that two people were missing their sets-with huge, drippy sandwiches such as these, silverware is handy, and I really like forks.
The food understandably takes a little while to come out from making fresh dishes, but from several experiences I’ve had, the servers haven’t been very attentive in checking on the table or refilling beverages-the juice bar drinks obviously aren’t refillable-but they are usually very friendly, unlike some other places with good food and turtle-type service.
First, I sampled their signature “deli rose” sandwich, which was a heap of roast beef and corned beef, provolone and hot pepper cheeses, onions, tomato, mayo, mustard and their special sauce on an onion roll. This flavorful meat mound was dripping with juices, and the sauce was a sweet, spicy ketchup, providing a nice, playful mix of savory, sweet, bitter, sharp, spicy and creamy flavors with the mayo, cheeses, mustard and veggies. The onion roll housing this carnival of flavors was fresh and toasty, and it held everything together well without becoming soggy. There is a reason the deli rose is their most popular sandwich because it blooms your taste buds into a mixed bouquet of flavors. A fresh, crispy deli pickle and warm, crunchy kettle chips were served on the side.
Next, I tried their “lambwich” breakfast sandwich because having lamb on a breakfast sandwich isn’t something you will find just anywhere. The lamb meat was soft, seasoned well and complemented the scrambled egg, melted cheddar and hot pepper cheeses, peppers, onions and special sauce on their “egg roll”-no, not a deep-fried Asian wrapper. This steamy, egg-based bun was fresh, fluffy and had a good spring to it, and the scrambled egg was creamy and perfectly cooked with no browning. This sandwich and a warm cup of yerba maté would be a tasty breakfast combo for those looking for something different to kick off the day.
For dessert I had another one of their baked goods: the sweet potato pound cake. This sweet, soft mound was moist, crumbly and drenched in syrup with crushed walnuts sprinkled on top. As the warm cake melted in my mouth with each bite, the cinnamon, sweet potato and brown sugar flavors instantly transported me to a breezy autumn day. This is a cozy dessert, conjuring up mental images of brightly colored leaves and warm bonfires, and it would go great with a cup of their hot apple cider, which I’ve had on a previous visit.
Other items I can recommend from previous visits include their “yellow submarine,” which is a tasty sandwich loaded with an extensive garden of fresh veggies on a sub roll. The “original lamb” sandwich is my personal favorite item on the menu, with the same tender lamb meat that is on the aforementioned breakfast sandwich, and their creamy strawberry smoothie is a humongous, frozen, fruity treat overfilling a large glass, perfect for cooling down on a hot day.
I’m giving The Yellow Deli 2 stars for a unique atmosphere and an eclectic menu of dishes made fresh with high-quality ingredients, though the slow service leaves much to be desired. If you are put off by their extremely atypical religious lifestyle, rest assured that they are not pushy about it, leaving you alone in your own relaxing reverie, though a drink refill would be nice now and then .
Roman Flis is a wandering writer, focusing on Chattanooga’s food scene. You can follow him on Twitter or contact him at [email protected]. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.