January 16, 2019

Sunday at Kenny and Zuke’s Delicatessen [SLIDESHOW]

More than Jews have kept delis, the deli has kept the Jews.

Yes, that’s a direct ripoff of Ahad Ha’am’s famous dictum about the Sabbath.

I didn’t know Heschel, but I bet if I could have gotten him alone over a cup of cold beet borscht at Rattner’s, he would have thought it over, wiped the sour cream from the corner of his mouth, and said, “You know, you may have a point.”

The deli is where we eat, meet, laugh, commiserate, celebrate, feast, deal, cry. Take pulpit and prayer out of a synagogue, add corned beef, and you’d end up with something like a deli.  God is, of course, in both.

LA has the country’s, maybe the world’s, best delis. That’s according to David Sax, author of “Save the Deli.” Brents, Langers, Juniors, Factors, Sauls, Izzy’s, Pico Kosher, Nate n Als, Canters—  but even with this embarrassment of kishke, business is tough. The venerable Canters on Fairfax depends for its bottom line on the Kibbitz Room bar.  There is more profit in selling shots to hipsters at 3 am than in turning out a great lox, eggs and onions. Time, which Heschel said stands still, is Eternal, on the Sabbath, passes delis by.

In his book,  Sax described a deli that is trying to keep up with the times, if not change them.  Kenny and Zukes is part of Portland, OR’s farm-to-table, handmade, local,  sustainable food movement. They pickle their own cucumbers. They cure their own lox. They brine and smoke their own pastrami.  They boil and bake their own bagels.  The rye, the sauerkraut—all housemade, all from local ingredients.

I had to try it.

And last month, on a family trip to Portland, I finally did.

We got to Kenny and Zuke’s on the last day of a long vacation weekend.  It was way up their on our list of must-see Portland sites, along with the Columbia River Gorge and… well, Kenny and Zuke’s Deli.  I mean, Rose Gardens? Museums?  Every city has those.  But there is only one deli in America that is trying to reinvent the deli.

Portland is a city that prays at the alter of local, sustainable, farm-to-table food. At a place called McMenimin’s Edgefield, they roast their own coffee, brew their own beer, grow and bottle their own wine, and distill their own spirits.  The next step, I can only imagine, is raising their own customers.

So how was it?

If Kenny and Zuke’s is the future of the deli, then the deli has a very good future.  We arrived hungry at 4 pm on a Sunday, and ate our way through a menu that is as well-curated as a think tank web site, and features all the greatest hits, and then some. (Note: Kenny and Zuke’s is not kosher—it’s kosher-style.)

How’s the lox?  Thinly cut, hand-sliced sheets, the color of a late summer peach, draped over a chewy, hand-shaped bagel. Capers, onion, bright red tomato and a light, fresh cream cheese. Perfect.

The homemade pastrami, I rushed to Tweet at the time, was peppery and tender, but still no Langers.  I immediately heard back via Tweet from Kenny himself that his pastrami is house-cured from natural, local beef.  He didn’t have to protest—it was a great sandwich—and kudos for consciousness—but Langers’ pastrami is meat crack— you can’t beat the high.

But in every other category, Kenny and Zuke showed the power of homemade food from great local ingredients.  The pickles and the pickled vegetable plate, the fluffy, salty potato knish, one of the world’s lighter kugels, which actually tasted of high quality potatoes, a rich chicken soup with a very light matzo ball, and a rye bread that reminded me of the dense, high loaves we bought fresh at Bea’s, and—oh—the egg creams have a good shock of bitter chocolate and a head like a Portland ale.

The deli is retro and clean, with big windows onto busy Stark Street. But you will not mistake Kenny and Zuke’s for Canter’s or Nate n’ Al’s. The wait staff is young and friendly, and most sport whatever is the city’s minimum legal requirement of piercings and tattoos. We missed the neurotic buzz of worn vinyl booths alive with the song of a thousand kvetches, handlings, wisecracks, and shmoozes. There’s a book of Yiddish curse words on display, but no Yiddish in the air. It seems everything in Portland is local and sustainable except a sizeable Jewish population. 

But that’s not Kenny and Zuke’s fault. If anything, they are doing their best to revive old traditions, to build the Jewish equivalent of a baseball field in the hopes that, if you build it, they will nosh. 

It inspired me, it excited me.  When I returned to LA, I gushed to Al Canter about it.  At 80-something, Al still goes in each morning to check the register receipts at Canters on Fairfax.

They make their own pastrami, I said to Al.  They cure their own lox.

“You know who else used to do that?” Al said.  “We did.  But try getting the Health Department to approve barrels full of cured pastrami.”

Maybe LA’s laws have to change to make it easier for a pastrami-curer to come to a restaurant near you.  Maybe a new generation has to be willing to take the time, to work out the recipes, to develop the clientele, for such retro-treats.

But local, sustainable, hand-made are not just trends—the next generation demands them, deserves them—along with a place to laugh, eat, shmooze, deal and celebrate—a synagogue without a pulpit, but with many blessings.

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