Sandwich Review: Kenny & Zuke's -- A Jewish Delicatessen in Portland

It was Take Your Child to Work Day, so I decided to show my son one of the best things about having a day job: going out for lunch. I'd heard from my friend Matt that Kenny & Zuke's Deli was outstanding but he didn't elaborate, so my interest was piqued. Browsing the website was only slightly less cryptic: I had agreed to meet Matt for lunch, but there were two locations, Kenny & Zuke's SandwichWorks in NW Portland, and Kenny & Zuke's Deli on SW 10th & Stark. A couple emails cleared up the confusion-- we were to meet at the Deli -- but I lingered over the "Food Pics" section of the website. I could tell from the photos that someone was really enthusiastic over bialys, pastries, meatloaf sandwiches, Reubens, clubs, dogs and pastrami, pastrami, pastrami.

Not to break the tension but yes, I ordered a pastrami sandwich.

I can count my memorable experiences with "New York Style" delis on one hand. In the 80's I used to hang out at Rose's deli on NW 23rd, stuffing myself on their oversize cinnamon rolls. After the old Rose's closed Kornblatt's, which lacks the charm but has excellent Reubens, filled the niche. My most authentic experience was at Carnegie Deli on 7th Ave in New York. I was sightseeing lower Manhattan and randomly chose the spot based on a photo of the chocolate cream pie. Aside from the pie, the most memorable part of the meal is that it's the first time I paid $8 for a sandwich (this was when McDonald's still had a 59 cent hamburger). It felt extravagant to be in NYC and pay so much for a sandwich.

What's memorable about Kenny & Zuke's is their goal to be a Jewish deli in the traditional way. Jewish delis spun off from the German delis, distinctively providing kosher and comfort food to the wave of Eastern European Jews who immigrated to New York in the late 19th century. More than just a restaurant the deli was a convenience store, a neighborhood grocer, a place to go for sandwich meats and kosher foods. By 1930 the typical Jewish deli had become what everyone knew as a New York style deli.

This is exactly what can be found at Kenny & Zuke's: They make their own pickles, bagels, bialys, rye bread, and more. And did I mention the pastrami? The menu described the Pastrami on Rye thusly:
Cured 5 days, Smoked 10 hours, Steamed for 3 & Hand-sliced Just for You. Served with Pickle & Potato Salad or Cole Slaw. $11.75
So, a few minutes after noon my son and I met Matt for lunch. As mentioned I got the pastrami sandwich while Matt ordered a Deli Club (pastrami, turkey & swiss on toast), and my young protege ordered breakfast for the second time that day. The pastrami was exactly as advertised. Thick & roughly hand-sliced, but so tender it falls apart in your mouth, and without a lot of fat. The rye has tasty caraway seeds, just as it should. Other than bread and meat it had mustard, a side of potato salad, and a snappy pickle. Matt's sandwich reminded me of the B. Kliban book "Never Eat Anything Bigger Than Your Head" (luckily he only consumed half of it, saving the rest for dinner). It also came with a pickle and a side of coleslaw that looked more like sauerkraut, but tasted somewhere in between.

The place has a surprising array of sodas and drinks. I ordered a Cock 'n Bull Ginger Beer because I couldn't pass up the chance to order aloud. Matt mentioned they also have the Mexican Coke, which is a different because it doesn't have any high fructose corn syrup -- just pure cane sugar.

On the way out I stopped to drool over the lox and pickles at the deli counter. When I visit Kenny & Zuke's again (and I will) I think I'll drop in at breakfast time for a bialy, or maybe check out the Fried Chicken Wednesdays (with "smashed potatoes"). The sandwiches were good, but Kenny & Zuke's also offers meat platters and pastrami by the pound, so I'm tempted to just buy the fixin's and build the masterpiece myself.

I was surprised to learn that the Jewish Deli is a dying breed, but one man has taken it as his mission to revive the deli.  Writer David Sax published a book earlier this year called “Save the Deli: In Search of Perfect Pastrami, Crusty Rye and the Heart of Jewish Delicatessen.”  As mentioned in this article:
"In 1931 there were 2,000 delis in New York City, three-quarters of them kosher. Today, Sax says, his research turns up 25 Jewish delis in the city, two-thirds of which are kosher. A similar pattern has followed across North America, with city after city sounding the death knell for its last traditional deli. Sax guesses there are just a few hundred left worldwide, most of them in the United States."
Sitting, having lunch in downtown Portland at the corner window at Kenny & Zuke's, I can see the value of the deli. The dining room was busy but relaxed, the sun broke through the clouds. Next door is an old hotel that has been renovated to bring young travelers to stay in the heart of Portland. I felt a touch of nostalgia taking my son to lunch, thinking of lunches at diners with my dad or my grandfather.  It was a way to enjoy the old, slow style of food and company while bringing the vitality of local foods and business into the twenty-first century.

Kenny & Zuke's Delicatessen
1038 SW Stark St
Portland, OR 97205
503.222.DELI (3354)
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1 comment:

  1. Now I'm hungry and I don't live anywhere near Kenny & Zuke's. In another state, as it turns out. Rats.