I really hate writing these.
Each time I hear that a deli closes, something inside me dies. Most of the time they are delis that I’ve never heard of, like Katz’s in Phoenix, until they close. Some of the time they are delis that I’d been to and once loved, like Rascal House, distant that they were. But this one is especially hard and hits very close to home.
Over a year ago I received an email from an enthusiastic former Toronto yid named Marty Marks. He was living in “cottage country” north of Toronto, operating a catering company and running big BBQs for the summer lake season. He claimed to have perfected his own secret blend of smoked meat, and boldly declared that he was going into the deli business.
Several months and many emails later The Pastrami King opened in Barrie, Ontario, an hour north of Toronto, at the corner where the city’s highway curves and the true north begins. This was virgin deli territory…there may be Jews with country houses in Barrie, but it is a solidly goyish place, though Marks knew that all eaters, whoever they are, crave a great sandwich.
And a great sandwich he had. As I wrote back when he opened:
When I got there, Marty took me into the back and showed me his pastramis curing in the refrigerator. Well, I should be truthful, I’m not sure if I can call these pastramis. What Marty Marks does is start with a cured Montreal Smoked meat (from Montreal’s venerable Lester’s), steams them to open up the meat’s pores, rubs them in his special spices, then bakes them and then puts them back into the fridge for a number of days to impart the flavor. So no, it’s not really pastrami…it’s something much more intricate, involved, and inventive. It’s a cross between smoked meat, pastrami, and Marty’s own imagination…which we’ll call Smoked Martystrami for argument’s sake.
It tasted like nothing else I’d ever tried before. Smoky; sure, salty; definitely, spicy; yes, all wrapped with a hint of sweetness. He steamed them well, sliced them paper thin, and served it all on Bagel World rye. The brisket was also fantastic as was his knish blintz and meatloaf with smoked meat. Marks was an innovator and a visionary.
I went several times over the past year but never often enough. Unfortunately the hours I tended to drive up there (on my way to my family’s own cottage), never coincided with the times he was open. I tended to pass late on Fridays or Sundays, when the Pastrami King was closed, but it was always a pleasure to see the sign as I got off the highway.
On those days when I did pop in it was pure joy. Marty and his daughter Ruth would greet me and we’d fress and talk about the business. I could tell he was happy. It was really touching. My dad went quite often, dispensing his advice, as he’s want to do, about everything deli. He really appreciated Marty’s kindness.
About a month back I headed up to the cottage one last time before moving to New York. As we turned off the 400 highway onto Dunlop St I couldn’t see his sign. It had been removed from the awning and the plaza. I feared the worst and emailed Marty that night. His address bounced back and his website was down. Finally, just this week, I got in touch with his daughter, Ruth.
Well, he just couldn’t make a go of it there…i think location had a lot to do with it. Had he been in a busier location, or in TO somewhere, i think it may have been ok…onward and upward!
And so it was. The Pastrami King is gone, but perhaps he’ll make a comeback some day. Long live the Pastrami King.
Thank you Marty.