Vancouver hardly seems like a place in which to find the foods that stand as symbols of North American Judaism: matzoh ball soup, pastrami, kugel.
According to a 2011 study by Statistics Canada, less than one percent of the population of greater Vancouver identifies as Jewish. So it’s not surprising that when Nitzan Cohen moved to the city seven years ago, he had trouble finding the foods he loved. Eventually this search led him to open Mensch, his tiny East Broadway storefront.
“There was no Jewish deli,” he says. “Everyone just bought Montreal smoked meat.” He surmised it was a Canadian pride thing, but as a trained chef, he knew the difference between the pastrami he loved from Katz’s in New York and the stuff shipped from Eastern Canada. Finally, he said, “I was tired of waiting for someone else to make pastrami here.”
Mensch began life as a pop-up to bring the food of Cohen’s culture to his new hometown. He had worked as a chef both in Israel and in Vancouver, so when a friend in the industry offered up kitchen space, Cohen and his wife created an event on Facebook and began making pastrami. Each batch smokes for eight hours, brines for ten days, then steams for four hours. It is a long, slow process. But selling it wasn’t.
Within an hour of opening the doors to the first event, they sold out, leaving a line of disappointed diners outside. So for their second event, they did a brunch and sold the seats ahead of time. Within hours of opening ticket sales, they sold out again. With each successive — and successful — pop-up, Cohen was more convinced that he was onto something: that despite its small Jewish population, Vancouver would welcome Jewish cuisine to its restaurant scene.
When he heard news of a butcher shop closing, Cohen jumped on the opportunity. He rented just the front quarter, where he built a mini-kitchen and a handful of tables. The rest of the space became a communal kitchen for assorted small food businesses.
In the few square yards of space that are his, Cohen packs in what he can: a chalkboard defining “mensch” and a shelf that holds, among other things, The Mile End Cookbook — from the almost-equally small deli in New York that is revitalizing classic Jewish foods in Brooklyn. But mostly it’s just a kitchen, a counter, and Cohen himself slicing the meat by hand for each sandwich order. The menu centers on the sandwiches: pastrami or Reuben on rye, and beet-cured lox on a bagel. Occasionally specials like matzoh ball soup show up, and the lokshen kugel for dessert is the sleeper hit.
It’s long been said that to get the best Chinese food in Seattle, drive two-and-a-half hours north. Now, it seems, that’s the answer to where to find the nearest hand-sliced pastrami on rye, as well.
Mensch // 212 Carrall St., Vancouver, BC
A Taste of The Old School
A few Jewish food businesses have stood the test of time in Vancouver. Here’s where to find some of the classic flavors:
Just a few blocks up the street from Mensch, this store has offered everything necessary for a kosher home or Jewish holiday celebration since 1999. 612 Kingsway, Vancouver
Originally opened as a kosher butcher shop in Winnipeg, Manitoba in 1910, the current location (opened in the shell of the late but equally venerable Kaplan’s Deli) serves as both a retail and wholesale outlet in the heart of Vancouver’s Jewish community. 5775 Oak St., Vancouver
Since 1993, this Richmond bakery has quietly turned out classic Jewish baked goods such as challah and sufangiyot, and also has an award-winning rye bread worth stopping for on your way into town. 9100 Blundell Rd., Richmond