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Nielsen’s Delicatessen in Houston Built on Secret Family Recipes

Nielsen's Delicatessen in Houston Built on Secret Family Recipes

In a city where smoked meats and sizzling fajita platters tend to get a lot of the hype, it’s worth noting that it’s also rich in top-notch delicacies, with Nielsen’s leads the pack as the oldest deli in Houston. The still-family-owned deli, once known as “the Scandinavian-accented deli,” according to the Houston Chronicle archives, will celebrate its 70th anniversary in 2022.

The restaurant of the same name owned by Danish immigrants Niels and Vita Nielsen opened in 1952 after the couple moved to Houston from Denmark with their daughters Ellen and Edith in tow. It was not a completely new idea for them, as the duo had operated three delis and a butcher shop in Esbjerg.

When they opened Nielsen’s on a small high street on Richmond Avenue near Drexel, it was one of the city’s first delicatessens. Here they wanted to introduce Houstonians to smørrebrød, traditional Danish open-faced sandwiches meant to be enjoyed with a fork and knife. It didn’t take them long to realize diners preferred sandwiches made the old-fashioned American way, with a double dose of bread. And the ones made with Vita’s house-made mayonnaise were a huge hit.

Nielsen’s Delicatessen’s turkey sandwich is made with freshly roasted turkey meat on site.

Megha McSwain

Vita got her cooking skills from her mother and they were put to good use at Nielsen’s. Her mayo, which she made fresh daily by the liter, was even sought after on its own. Customers would (and still do) buy it by the quart or pint to take home and spread it on their own homemade sandwiches. All of the restaurant’s salads, such as the chicken salad and the tuna salad, are made with the decadent mayo as a base. The potato salad in particular, with its large chunks of creamy egg, was widely acclaimed as one of the best in town.

Niels and Vita found a house two blocks from the sandwich shop and put all their time and energy into it. He worked at the counter while she cooked, eventually starting to offer catering services. She had a knack for creating party trays layered with cured meats, and her prized potato salad, brownies, and cheesecake recipes made her a caterer of choice among River Oaks revelers.

In 1963, there were a total of five Nielsen’s locations in Houston, including an outpost at 500 Jefferson Building in Cullen Center and at the Spring Oaks mall in Spring Branch. Today, only the original remains at Richmond.

When Vita and Niels wanted to retire in Florida in the 1960s, it was their daughters’ husbands who teamed up to run the sandwich shop. Richard Andersen, husband of Ellen, and Martin Martensen, husband of Edith, continued their legacy together until Richard’s son, Richard Jr., became the sole proprietor. Together with his wife Linda, they kept Nielsen’s Delicatessen a beloved part of Houston’s food scene well into the turn of the century.

Owner Linda Andersen takes orders at Nielsen's Delicatessen.

Owner Linda Andersen takes orders at Nielsen’s Delicatessen.

Megha McSwain

Linda is the face often seen behind the counter these days. Her husband Richard Jr, the grandson of Niels and Vita, passed away five years ago, but she is determined to keep the family business alive and thriving. And she has the tools to do it. “I have all the original recipes, written in Danish and English,” she said. “People have been trying to duplicate them for years, but they just don’t seem to do it the way we do.”

Linda has two daughters and she hints that they have expressed an interest in taking over Nielsen’s. “My daughters grew up in this store,” she recalls. “They know how to run it, if they choose to run it.”

Meanwhile, business at Nielsen’s continues to thrive. Time-honored techniques of roasting their own turkeys on a daily basis and offering hard-to-find extras like liver pate and Danish havarti cheese give their sandwiches an edge. Linda shares that while many restaurants suffered losses due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the deli continued to be busy, thanks in large part to its loyal customers. As long as Linda and her daughters have that mayo recipe under lock and key, it’s safe to say Houstonians will be back for years to come.

Find it: 4500 Richmond Ave., Houston, TX 77027; (713) 963-8005
Hours: Daily, 8am-4pm