Jewish deli cuisine is the latest classic genre to see a revival, thanks in part to the heightened importance of the story behind the food.
Serving towering sandwiches of corned beef and pastrami, hot bowls of matzoh ball soup, potato pancakes, and sometimes an array of smoked fish, these traditional gathering places have had their ups and downs over the years, sometimes opening in large numbers and at other times quietly fading away.
Lately they’ve been doing a little of both.
“Where are you getting your information from?” asked Ziggy Gruber, chef-owner of 18-year-old Kenny & Ziggy’s, a 300-seat deli in Houston, when asked about the deli boom. “The delis have been closing left and right.”
Delis old and new are shutting their doors, but others are opening and expanding.
New York City landmark Carnegie Deli closed at the end of 2016, after 79 years in operation, although it still has a mail-order business, a seasonal spot at Madison Square Garden and a restaurant at the Mirage in Las Vegas.
In the Seattle area, Alpenland, which opened in the 1970s, closed in 2013, followed by the 2014 closure of Stopsky’s, a trend-forward deli with a local-seasonal ethos that opened in 2011.
The closures are part of a broader trend, according to menu research firm Datassential, which reported a drop of 2 percent to 3 percent in independent sandwich shops over the past five years.
However, San Francisco-based restaurant consulting firm af&co. cited modern Jewish delis as a top trend for 2018, noting the opening in recent years of Wexler’s Deli in Los Angeles; Harry & Ida’s Luncheonette in New York City; Mamaleh’s in Cambridge, Mass.; and Steingold’s in Chicago.
Best friends Michael Kassar and Micah Wexler opened the first location of three-unit Wexler’s Deli in downtown Los Angeles in 2014. Kassar is from New York City and Wexler is from Los Angeles, and they both grew up eating at Jewish delis like Katz’s in New York City and Langer’s in Los Angeles.
They both have fine-dining backgrounds, but at their now-shuttered Middle Eastern restaurant Mezze in Los Angeles, they would do deli nights. That led to an opportunity to open an actual deli in L.A.’s Grand Central Market.
Kassar and Wexler had seen purveyors of their childhood favorites close shop or cut corners, and they decided the deli concept could use an update, while still staying true to tradition.
“We didn’t want to do a take on Jewish deli,” Kassar said. They didn’t want to make duck pastrami or offer an omnibus menu with dishes like taco salads.
“Our goal was to make a small, concise menu of the best things that a deli has to offer, with a focus on house-smoked, hand-sliced meat and fish,” he said.
The food also fits the modern sensibilities of the food-focused 30-somethings that Kassar and Wexler are: The fish is sustainably sourced, and the meat is never treated with hormones or antibiotics. Dovetailing with traditional delis and modern sensibilities, all of the meat is cured, smoked and hand-cut in-house.
“We’re taking the Jewish deli food back to its roots, but kind of pushing the rest of the experience forward,” Kassar said.
That means they got their friend and street artist Gregory Siff to do artwork over their tiles. Hip-hop music plays at their downtown Los Angeles restaurant, while the music at the Santa Monica location, which opened in May 2016, matches the clientele with a “beachy and laid-back” vibe.
A third location opened at the Westfield Century City mall in Los Angeles, in September.
An upscale take
Such openings have inspired Cameron Mitchell Restaurants, which operates a dozen freestanding operations in its hometown of Columbus, Ohio, as well as the 13-unit steak-and-seafood chain Ocean Prime.
In mid-May, the operator will open Harvey & Ed’s, its version of a modern delicatessen, in Columbus.
Company president and COO David Miller said that he and founder Cameron Mitchell, who have been working together for 22 years, make eating in delis part of their diet.
Having visited delis across the country, Miller said he loves their “comfortness,” but he hadn’t thought of operating one himself because, “the model is challenging,” combining culinary expertise with large portions of high-cost food, such as brisket and smoked fish, at a moderate price.
To pay for the high food and labor costs, Miller and Mitchell are making Harvey & Ed’s a full-service restaurant with a bar. The bar will serve classic cocktails such as martinis, but with house-pickled garnishes and other local flourishes.
And the food will be a bit more elegant, thus fetching a higher price on the menu, and include potato pancakes, or latkes, topped with house-smoked salmon, crème fraîche and caviar.
Miller said delis already have a broad appeal. Add a chef — in this case long-time Cameron Mitchell chef Jonathan Basch — “and it gets pretty exciting pretty quick.”
“We just think the time is right to do this,” Miller said.
David DuBois also incorporated higher-end trappings with Our Fathers restaurant, which opened in Boston last December. Additionally, he expanded on the sort of Jewish food he’s offering.
Although the takeout deli has familiar components of Ashkenazic, or Eastern European Jewish, tradition — with corned beef and pastrami sandwiches, lox and bagels, and matzoh ball soup — the full-service restaurant incorporates the culinary traditions of Jews from North Africa and the Middle East.
“The more that I started to delve into what was being cooked in [the Israeli cities] Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, I was really fascinated by it,” DuBois said.
Appetizers include hummus with Israeli pickles and markouk — a flatbread similar to pita — and the fresh cheese labneh with radishes, the aromatic Israeli hot sauce skhug and the herb blend za’atar. There’s lamb on cinnamon sticks and duck breast with cabbage braised in a pickled mango condiment called amba, and sampler plates of pastrami and corned beef.
“Boston doesn’t really have a lot of modern Jewish cooking,” said DuBois, who sees customers drawn by the traditional Ashkenazi dishes and then persuaded to try the lesser-known items.
For the pastrami and corned beef, DuBois takes a milder, West Coast-style approach than an East Coast one, with less black pepper and rosemary and more coriander and cardamom. He brines the pastrami for 14 days and the corned beef for 11 days. DuBois trims them both a little on the leaner side than is typical, but otherwise his approach is pretty traditional, he said.
Tradition lives on
But traditional can still work well, said Jake Dell, the fifth-generation owner of Katz’s Deli, the 130-year-old institution in New York City.
“We’re still here. Can’t complain,” Dell said. “New York is the birthplace of the deli, and we still very much do it the old-fashioned way, the same way it would have been done in 1888.”
The pastrami and corned beef are still brined in-house, and newer approaches, such as mail order, were started by Dell’s ancestors during the Second World War with the slogan, “Send a salami to your boy in the Army.”
“That was before e-commerce was a thing,” he said.
But e-commerce has also helped the business grow. Katz’s recently introduced two-day shipping instead of same-day shipping, which allows the restaurant to send food free of charge.
“No one wants to spend $40 on food and $50 on shipping,” Dell said.