Kenny & Zukes …by moving toward delicious handmade food with good ingredients served with respect for past and present.
When I was a kid growing up in Los Angeles, my dad used to take me to a traditional Jewish deli just a short distance from the Farmer’s Market. It was a tradition, and all these years later, I’m still looking to repeat the food from that memory.
Today’s NY Times reports on the decline of the “Jewish Deli”. We may lose the kosher label, but we could make up for it in better quality food:
At Saul’s Restaurant and Deli in Berkeley, Calif., the eggs are organic and cage free, and the ground beef in the stuffed cabbage is grass fed. Its owners, Karen Adelman and Peter Levitt, yanked salami from the menu in November, saying that they could no longer in good conscience serve commercial kosher salami.
“It’s industrially produced meat that gets blessed by a rabbi,” said Mr. Levitt, who came to Saul’s two decades ago from Chez Panisse, just down the street. “We all know that isn’t good enough.”
The gist of the article: down to the pickles, the deli is being reinvented, and in many cases, the kosher tradition is being left behind.
So, places like the three-month-old Mile End in Brooklyn; Caplansky’s in Toronto; Kenny & Zuke’s in Portland, Ore.; and Neal’s Deli in Carrboro, N.C., have responded to the low standard of most deli food — huge sandwiches of indifferent meat, watery chicken soup and menus thick with shtick — by moving toward delicious handmade food with good ingredients served with respect for past and present.
“I have a dream of a multiplicity of pastramis,” said Ken Gordon, a co-owner of Kenny & Zuke’s, one of a handful of delis in the country where the pastrami is smoked over hardwood. It opened in 2007, an outgrowth of the “barbecue nights” that Mr. Gordon used to hold at his French bistro. (He closed it to devote himself full time to bialys and corned beef.)
“A hundred delis, with a hundred different recipes,” he said. “That’s how it is for pizza — why not pastrami?”
“The old-school places are closing faster than I can write about them” said David Sax, the author of “Save the Deli,” a 2009 history of, and guide to, the remaining authentic Jewish delis in North America.
By today’s standards, the classic deli’s food is strikingly unhealthful, its vast menu financially unmanageable and its ingredients no longer in tune with the seasonal products of local farmers. Too many shortcuts are taken: sourdough bread instead of rye, prepared blintzes, lax lox.
“Jewish cooks weren’t immune to what happened to food after World War II,” Mr. Sax said. “The powders and jars, convenience food — all of that helped lower the standard.”
In the 1950s, when postwar wealth and a push for assimilation carried many Jews into American suburbs, Jewish food became less distinct: the delis grew bigger and more ornate, and so did the sandwiches. The authentic delis that were left behind in cities often had to adapt; most of them, he said, have now closed.
It’s a much longer article than I have excerpted here. Well worth the time to read.
Loved the article. I grew up on traditional Jewish Deli in and around Newark, NJ, but Kenny & Zuke’s is my favorite of any I’ve ever been to. I’m all for tradition myself, and I try to keep my grandmother’s authentic Polish recipes alive in my own kitchen at home, but not when it comes at the expense of the food. Imo, it’s not a coincidence that some of the better places of my youth are now closed, and virtually all of the rest (hello, Katz’s and Hobby’s!) are simply trading on nostalgia at this point and just barely hanging on. They never adapted, it just isn’t 1958 any more.
Love the pastrami, love that it’s hand-cut. Cutting on a machine is the meat equivalent of alcohol abuse, imo. You lose half the juices into the bowels of the cutter, you can’t cut around a bad part, it comes out way too thin. I can rhapsodize for weeks on pastrami, but I’ll stop here. Great to see places like Kenny & Zuke’s and Saul’s and “the leaders of the new school” getting their props in places like the NY Times.
David Sax’s book is awesome, btw. Highly recommended…
I grew up in LA too, a few years before you, and went to Fairfax High, right around the corner from what was at that time the best deli in LA. and it was definitely old style. Their pastrami sandwiches were my model for the best pastrami sandwiches ever. And Kenny and Zuke’s doesn’t come near it. Well, it’s a whole different animal.
I’m sorry, but for all the hype (which I’d guess is the product of a good PR team) I just don’t think Kenny and Zukes is very good. It certainly isn’t in the same class as Jewish delis in NYC or LA. Just my .02 and I’m sure that I’ll get a lecture soon from Kenny or Zuke telling me how misinformed I am. I think Portland is still a perfect market for someone who wants to do a really great deli, but a half baked deli shouldn’t be celebrated as something it isn’t, even in terrible times.
Food Gems says
I TOTALLY AGREE! I have never been impressed by K&Z in terms of food or service. A sloppy, poorly run operation with mediocre or worse food. Try a real deli in and around big American cities and you’ll understand what the food should taste like.
Pastrami is way too thick, matzo balls are leaden – this place is not the caliber of many great delis across America. We still need a real deli in PDX.
Agreeing with the naysayers. Kenny and Zuke’s stuff looks pretty, but is completely flavorless. Much better pastrami can be found at Castagna Cafe. K&Z is the perfect example of what an effective marketing machine can do for you.
Trying to stay above the fray a bit because I don’t feel qualified to pronounce summary judgment on K&Z’s, however I feel like they could use a little love after those last few comments. That, and I think it’s worth calling attention to one thing that escapes many people’s notice at there: applesauce. In addition to the meaty and fishy offerings, they make their own applesauce, and it is, on all but one occasion that I have tried it, probably the best I have ever had (there was that one time that for some reason they changed it and it wasn’t good, but I think they’ve gone back to the original recipe). Just sayin, it’s not your standard deli fare, but try it. I could go and order a whole bowl of that; in fact I think I have.
and I apologize for the grammar mistake .
the deli in LA on Fairfax is Canter’s.
Food Dude says
Yes, that was probably it. Canter’s was the place to go in the 60’s.
Food Dude says
I’d just as soon this didn’t turn into a review of K&Z’s. The point is more about the decline of the deli in general. Agree or disagree with their choice of deli’s, I don’t think it really matters.
I really really REALLY want to like K&Z, because I am totally on board with what they are trying to do. But after several visits, I have come to the conclusion that Ken’s palate is simply incompatible with mine. I will level one relevant criticism (relevant to the point of FoodDude’s post) against comments that Ken has made repeatedly in the press and on food blogs, where there is an underlying, almost axiomatic assumption that “house-made is better than not house-made”. I appreciate the fact that his quote in the NYT article (“A hundred delis, with a hundred different recipes…”) doesn’t reflect this hubris and allows for differences in taste. Unfortunately for me there’s only one deli in this town with one recipe and I just don’t like that recipe.
My favorite comment is about the Kenny & Zuke’s “PR machine”. Until very recently, the “PR machine” consisted of me occasionally writing an email.
PR Machinery = Individual’s Disdain for Restaurant * Critical Praise for a Restaurant
In other words, an individual has to believe that it can’t just be that critics, even experts in the cuisine, truly love a place or that it’s popular because people love it, when that individual doesn’t. It must be something conspiratorial — big money, a PR machine, etc, etc.
Kenny & Zuke’s has had only positive reviews from professionals. Most of the national exposure has come as a result of David Sax who has visited hundreds of delis and has to be considered the foremost expert in Jewish delicatessens.
But I guess these people must all just be on the take, a cog in the big K&Z PR machine.
Like it or don’t like it. Fine. But do you have to envision people as part of some sort of conspiracy if they disagree with you?
Canter’s, right. There must be another ex-Angeleno here. And who would’a thunk pastrami would provoke such passion in Portland?
Yes, that was probably it. Canter’s was the place to go in the 60’s.
I don’t understand the “thick cut” complaint. Below are links to photos (three each) of the pastrami at Langer’s, Katz’s, and Kenny & Zuke’s. Thickness is variable with hand-cut pastrami, but it’s almost always going to be thicker than the machine-shaved dreck served at most delis (which, sadly, has become so normative for some people that they have a hard time accepting anything else).
Disclosure: I’m a longtime friend of Kenny & Zuke’s one-man “effective marketing machine” (though I don’t believe that has any impact on the relative thickness of K&Z’s pastrami).
Canters is way past it’s prime…although very good for celeb watching…….Langers is much , much better…Langers is second in my book to Katz.
That you would quietly abandon your original claim about the thickness of the pastrami at K&Z when confronted with photographic evidence of its wrongness…is most unsurprising. When a person is that wrong about something as easily observable as thickness, changes the subject, then resorts to personal attacks, it raises questions about whether he has any idea what the hell he’s talking about.
As far as the ARTICLE is concerned – I say right on.
Scott -dfw wins that one.
Food Dude says
Is I said above, this is not a review of Kenny and Zuke’s. Since people don’t seem to be respecting that, the topic is closed. Some comments have been deleted.