Lee's Deli at 4700 Baltimore Avenue. (Ali Mohsen/Billy Penn)

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Throughout 30 years of running his Baltimore Avenue deli, Scott Lee has dealt with obstacles “here and there,” he said. None compare to the van that careened through his storefront last November, and kept it closed until last week, six months after the incident. 

Lee knows it could have been worse. The crash could have happened during business hours instead of at 4 a.m. — potentially putting people in danger.

But the physical damage was extensive, with the U-Haul lodging itself kitchen-deep. When Lee realized the scale of the destruction, it was hard not to become despondent.

“When that kind of thing happens, you don’t really think. Your mind is blank, you do a little shaking, that’s all,” the 60-year-old proprietor told Billy Penn. The store is a source of livelihood for his family, with whom he moved to Philadelphia from Korea in 1989.

Thankfully, the community stepped in, setting up a GoFundMe and convincing Lee that his longstanding shop was worth rebuilding from scratch. The crowdfunding campaign raised $40,000, which was matched by local business grantmaking nonprofit The Merchants Fund.

“It was very helpful,” Lee said, describing the financial and communal support as “flattering.”

The deli quietly reopened last Tuesday. By early Thursday afternoon, a steady stream of regulars and neighborhood well-wishers were making their way through the doors.

“Congrats on the reopening,” one customer fist-bumped Lee on the way out. “Looking good in here!” said another person, popping their head through the door and promising to return later.

The Game Over at Lee’s Deli pairs seafood and cheese. (Ali Mohsen/Billy Penn)

Preservation architect Kathy Dowdell, who walks by Lee’s daily on her way to work, said she stopped in on Thursday out of “professional nosiness.”

“Everybody’s been waiting for them to open,” Dowdell said, noting the improvements to the space. “It looks really great, he did a very nice job.”

Taking the forced revamp as an opportunity for a redesign, Lee removed some of the seating and replaced it with a marble counter running along the brand new windows, with seven stools adjacent from a couple of three-top tables. 

The result is a space more accommodating to takeout orders while still offering a place to stay and eat.

The newly redesigned interior at Lee’s Deli. (Ali Mohsen/Billy Penn)

Brandon Beaver, on his third visit to Lee’s and first since the relaunch, described the deli as a “local haven” for vegetarians. “They have veggie sandwiches that people sing praises about,” said the 40-year-old father, waiting with his young daughter for a seitan cheesesteak to go.

For Lee’s regular Jeff Waddell, the temporary closure was distressing. The 56-year-old city employee said he’s been coming to Lee’s for lunch every workday for more than five years. 

“I missed the food, but I also missed seeing [Lee] everyday,” said Waddell. “He’s a great guy. He gets along with everybody and everybody in the neighborhood knows him too as well. It’s just a great place to be.” 

What to get? He recommends “everything on the menu” — all 75 items. “Really!” he said.

Lee’s Deli offers carrot cake from the Carrot Cake Man. (Ali Mohsen/Billy Penn)

There are breakfast sandwiches, egg platters, chicken and waffles, sandwiches, wraps, salads, burgers, soups, fried rice, and seafood. There’s also dessert, including assorted pastries and carrot cake from Philly’s famed Carrot Cake Man.

For those who want to narrow it down, Lee has starred his 30 favorites.

Among the dozen-plus cheesesteaks, the Korean BBQ ($11) is among the most popular: a substantial serving of thinly-cut bulgogi flavored beef topped with grilled onions and sesame seeds, alongside an essential sweet chile sauce with a mild yet flavorful kick.

The Korean BBQ cheesesteak is one of the best-sellers at Lees Deli, with essential sweet chile sauce on the side.(Ali Mohsen/Billy Penn)

The Rule Breaker ($14) sees a roll filled with grilled flounder, tilapia, or salmon, along with shrimp, mixed veggies, and your choice of American, provolone, Swiss, pepper jack, Whiz, or cheddar cheese.

The Game Over Cheesesteak ($12) somehow finds room in the roll for hefty amounts of grilled chicken topped with shrimp, broccoli or spinach, and cheese, while the teriyaki chicken cheesesteak speaks to the fusion style of cooking Lee enjoys the most.

“It’s a good harmony,” he said of the combined cuisines, and cultures served by his deli.

“University City is a melting pot. America is a melting pot. And we have all different races and different people here,” Lee said. “This kind of experimental experience give[s] me a good feeling of happiness. And happy person makes happy food, right?”

Fries are a crowd pleaser at Lee’s Deli. (Ali Mohsen/Billy Penn)
Lee’s Deli at 4700 Baltimore Avenue. (Ali Mohsen/Billy Penn)
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Ali MohsenFood & Drink Reporter

Ali Mohsen is Billy Penn's food and drink reporter.