Allow me to start a long post by saying this: there are delis, and then there are delis.
The first meet our expectations, serving us the comforts we want, in the atmosphere we’re used to, keeping the tradition alive.
The second exceed our expectations. They take deli and bring it a notch higher, raising the standards on the food, on the packaging, on the whole damn idea of Jewish deli.
Portland, Oregon’s Kenny and Zuke’s Delicatessen is such a place (the latter). It is, simply put, in a class by itself.
Ready? Let’s do this!
Two years ago I received an email from a food blogger in Portland that went something like this:
I understand you’re working on a deli book. A local chef and I here in Portland, OR, started curing and smoking out own pastrami last year and selling it at a farmers market. We decided to extend the menu and do a one day a week brunch at my partner’s restaurant. We focused on pastrami, later also doing corned beef and pickled tongue. We made half-sours, full-sours, and pickled green tomatoes. We made knishes, rugelach. We made chopped liver, bagels, etc… Anyway, we got the investors together and are building a restaurant in downtown Portland to be finished in September serving three meals a day with a very full menu, bagels made in-house, pastrami and corned beef made in-house, etc. The name is Kenny & Zuke’s.
I’m usually skeptical about these things, but I was impressed, and swore that one day I’d make it out here to taste for myself what Nick Zukin promised in that email. That day, my friends, has arrived.
Here’s the basis of the story. Nick Zukin grew up in Oregon, and loved food. Though he worked in tech, he is one of Portland’s biggest food bloggers, and runs the forum Portlandfood.org. Ken Gordon is a New York Jew (Queens), who worked in the restaurant business in France, California, and New York. He’s been living in Portland for two decades, opening and running a variety of restaurants. At one of his recent one’s, Ken’s Place, he had a wood smoked BBQ night…Texas style. Nick was a fan, and blogged about it a lot. On Nick’s forums, Portland foodies complained how there wasn’t any worthwhile pastrami in town. Nick approached Ken and asked if they could attempt to make some on an off night in Ken’s smoker. The result was sensational, they sold out in fifteen minutes at the farmer’s market, and a year and a bit later they opened their own deli.
As mad food lovers, they wanted everything to be perfect, and were unwilling to compromise. As members of Portland’s seriously independent, fearless, balls out food scene, they swore they’d do as much from scratch as possible. Nothing frozen. Nothing canned. As little brought in as possible. So they cured and smoked their own pastrami, pickled their own corned beef, tongue, and vegetables. They baked their own breads, and using a recipe from investor, baker, and judge Michael Zusman, they hand rolled and baked their own bagels. Gravlax? In house. Rye bread? Fresh daily downstairs. The menu is lean, it is mean, and the food is nothing short of incredible.
Let’s have a taste.
Pastrami: Briskets are wet cured for 5 days, rubbed with coriander and pepper, and smoked for eight hours with oak. It’s not a New York pastrami, or a Montreal smoked meat, though it’s more akin to what Zane Caplansky is doing…somewhere smoky back in the Romanian tradition. It’s salty, aromatic, spicy, and hand cut. Oh yeah…you didn’t think they’d put all that beauty on a machine, did you? The result is something that shocks the mouth, a full flavor that envelops the tastebuds, and smothers them in melting fat. It’s astounding.
Corned Beef and Tongue: The pickled briskets that aren’t pastrami ready become corned beef. It’s boiled with bay leaf, brown sugar, molasses, and other seasonings, and hand cut as well. I’d say the best comparison is the wonderful salt beef of London, a brackish, mild, and delectably tender evocation of pure carnivorous glory. The tongues are barrel cured in the deli for a week, then boiled with the corned beef, and, in a move not seen since I visited England, it is hand sliced. It dissolves on the tongue. Amazing.
Rye: Here’s the canvas for the meaty masterpieces mentioned above. Made with 30% rye flour, molasses, malt, and caraway. Kneaded by hand, formed, proofed, and baked right there in the deli. Heavy, with a thick rustic crust, a sourdough flavor, and all the character that’s been taken out of ryes in New York for decades. This is a rye worthy of the glorious meat here. It’s a revelation. It is incredible, and the only shame is that more delis don’t have the balls to try doing something like this.
Bagels: Rolled by HAND, the way they should be. Boiled with malt and sugar. Dusted in seeds and flavoring, like salt, poppy, sesame, and garlic. At first they wanted to do cheese bagels too. Michael Zusman nearly had a conniption. There was tradition to look after. Bless him for that. Because what you get is nothing but the finest bagels south of Montreal. These aren’t giant balls of hard dough, or soft breads. They are faithful approximations of the handmade bagel. Each is rolled with love. Each is special. It has a nice firm crust, chewy center, and an aroma that’s not unlike the waft of a good beer. When spread with cream cheese it’s incredible. When that cream cheese is laid on with hand cut slices of house cured gravlax (done by Matt Scaletta, who grew up smoking salmon in Alaska), it is as close to heaven as one can get. The fish just melts away. It’s like an acid trip of Omega3′s.
Shall I go on?
There’s a kick ass egg cream made with gourmet, organic chocolate syrup (because U-Bett, for all its nostalgia, is like Dow Chemical), and a creamy, silken potato knish topped with carmelized onions. There’s cheese blintzes made with dry ricotta and topped with a wild berry compote (Ken’s wife’s favorite), and little deep fried latkes that envelop the spicy, gooey mash of finely shredded potato in a firm, gorgeous crust. They’re served with sour cream and an apple sauce that’s brought alive with loads of fresh ginger and butter. Yeah, butter! Insane.
There’s homemade hamentaschen, cheesecake, macaroons, and the most fantastic cinnamon/brown sugar rugelach you’ve ever had. The filling drips out of the flaky dough and when it hits the baking tray it hardens into a caramel brittle. It’s just nuts.
And of course, my favorite, noodle kugel. This one is thinner and crispier than most I’ve tried, but oh sweet Jebus does it taste good. How good? Like a freshly baked cinnamon bun, loaded with creamy custard and fresh cinnamon. It’s nirvana.
I don’t know what else I can say…I’ll write more when the Gourmet story comes out, but I will mention this. Kenny and Zuke’s is more than just a great new deli. It is what new delis should aspire to, and what many established delis can learn from. There’s no trading on nostalgia here. This is all done from scratch. The food comes above all else, and you can taste that in every incredible bite of this business. There are tons of good delis out there bringing in meat from Hebrew National and other purveyors, using canned products, frozen foods, and other time and money saving things. But there will always be something missing. They’re holding on, but they aren’t moving forward, and that might just be the heart of why so many delis have gone by the wayside. I’m not talking about fusion, or making deli gourmet, or fancy. I’m talking about a return to quality. A revisiting of the old ways. A look inward, at our traditions.
That’s why those who do as much as they can themselves are in a class above.
Kenny and Zuke’s is not just great deli. It’s the future of Jewish delicatessen.
In fucking Portland, no less!!!!
1038 SW Stark St, Portland, OR