On a recent Thursday at midday in Prague, a deli near Jungmannova and Národní streets, an intersection known as the the Golden Cross (Zlatý Kříž), was packed with patrons standing at bistro tables and sampling a Czech delicacy from the First Republic.
Chlebíček, the topless Czech sandwich, has come back in a big way in recent years with places like Sisters Bistro offering an upmarket rendition of this office-party staple.
But the original obložené chlebíčky have become something of a lost art, says Ivana Klinderová, co-owner of the Zlatý Kříž delicatessen, the oldest still-functioning deli, or lahůdkářství, in Prague which was opened by a Mr. Zoufalý on Jungmannova Square over a century ago.
Since then, ownership of the deli has changed hands several times and its location has migrated down the block to Jungmannovo nám. 19, but the tantalizing selection behind those glass cases is largely the same.
“It’s a rarity because you can taste something that is exactly like it was back then when Mr. Zoufalý opened his delicatessen over a hundred years ago. It is unchanged,” says Ms. Klinderová.
The deli serves fifty varieties of chlebíčky – ham on potato salad, Russian egg, hermelín, crab, and roast beef – all made by hand on the premises.
“We have to train people how to do it,” says Ms. Klinderová. “Those salami roses aren’t easy, making chlebíčky is a real art form.”
While the company is rooted in the past, some interesting developments are bringing Prague’s oldest working deli into the twenty-first century. This includes a recent renovation and future plans to install screens in the dining area so that customers can see the chlebíčky being made.
Expansion is also in the works: with locations already on Ječná and in the Florentinum office center, Ms. Klinderová and partner Radek Lašák plan to open a neighboring pub on Jungmannova and eventually dream of bringing their Czech delicatessen fare to the deli capital of the world, New York City.
Which is all well and good but how are the chlebičky? Full confession: I have never really been a huge fan of the open-faced sandwich; the mayo is always too warm or the bread is always too chewy and there is no way to eat it without embarassing yourself.
But during my visit I sampled the classic ham and potato salad variety which was so fresh and flavorful that it was like experiencing chlebičky for the first time.
Along with ornate canapés (jednohubky), aspic cakes, and mayonnaise salads, another highly recommneded item is the mini-pastries, particularly the cream-filled, choux-pastry vetrinik.
The recent renovation has managed to preserve the original character of this historic space, down to the original door handles and signage, while giving the regulars and high-profile visitors (including Czech president Miloš Zeman) who have been coming to the Golden Cross for years a better dining experience.
If you’ve yet to take a skillfully wrapped package of Golden Cross chlebičky to the nearby Franciscan garden for a picnic, you are missing out on a quintessential Prague dining experience.
You’re also missing out on true Czech cuisine in one of its most unique forms, says Ms. Klinderová: “If you haven’t had chlebicky this way you simply haven’t had Czech food.”
Lahůdky Zlatý kříž
Jungmannovo nám. 19