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Image: Amrita Marino

Where is the meaningful Jewish food culture in Seattle? It’s the question Jews in Seattle have asked for decades.

Go ahead and give credit to our sole Jewish deli — Goldberg’s Famous Delicatessen — but only if you mention that it’s on the Eastside in a soulless mall, and that the food is generally sought more for the model it represents than for the consistency of its wow factor. And go ahead and point out the Jewish deli standbys you’ve stumbled across on various menus around town — the classic lox and bagels at Gilbert’s on Main; the memorable Reuben at the late, great Dot’s Deli — but note that neither enshrines the Jewish deli experience of a Canter’s in LA, say, or a Katz’s on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

You know what I mean. The old guy in the white apron slicing house-cured pastrami behind the counter. The buzz of the crowd, packed into too-close tables and tucking into way too much food — the enjoyment of which is as essential to Jewish cultural life as the rabbi is to its religious tradition. The latkes, the whitefish salad, the matzoh ball soup, the rugelach. The critical mass…of Jews. 

It’s not like Seattle’s never seen a Jewish deli. Brenner Brothers Bakery and Delicatessen enjoyed cultish loyalty from its beginnings as a bakery wagon in the early part of the century to its longtime outpost in the Central District and eventual decampment to the Eastside.  The legendary Matzoh Momma kept Capitol Hill in blintzes and knishes from the mid ’70s to the mid-’90s. Stopsky’s Delicatessen made a noble run of it on Mercer Island from 2011 to 2014, with its craveable homemade bagels and carefully cured deli meats.

But shouldn’t a cosmopolitan metro area, with an aspirational global food scene and more than 63,000 Jews, be able to sustain at least one destination Jewish deli? After all, Portland — with three-fourths Seattle’s number of Jews — boasts two of them. Vancouver, BC, with less than half of our Jewish population, has a couple as well — and one’s even kosher.   

Could it be Seattle’s lack of a densely Jewish neighborhood? Unlike the big cities along the East Coast, Seattle doesn’t have the kind of Jewish-majority district that concentrates Jewish culture. It’s worth imagining, if the first generations of Seattle Jews had never left the Central District, clutches of Jews still gathering over the challah bread at 19th and Cherry. As Stopsky’s owner Jeff Sanderson found out, Mercer Island — with its Jewish community and central location — was a promising bet, but, lacking critical mass, not a winning one.

Could it be that Seattle, famously non-religious, has too many unaffiliated Jews to foment demand? That might ring truer if a knock-out pastrami sandwich were a religious artifact. Sure, perfect pastrami can constitute a religious experience — but Jewish deli falls squarely into the category of Jewish cultural tradition, having arisen as a showcase for the cured and brined meats and pickled produce Ashkenazi Jews brought in the diaspora from Eastern Europe.

Deli owners will tell you what a spendy enterprise it is to craft those foods well. “It’s a very labor-intensive operation,” recalls Pip Meyerson, who, with his wife Miriam, produced from scratch most of Matzoh Momma’s soups, salads, and sauces. “People still tell me they miss Matzoh Momma,” he says, smiling. “I say I miss it like a toothache.” 

Labor isn’t the only costly ingredient. “Jewish deli is expensive because meat is expensive,” says Sanderson. Stopsky’s opened as one of the country’s emerging trend of “updated traditional” Jewish delis, just after food historian David Sax pronounced these hybrids the Next Big Thing in his cultural history, Save the Deli. Sanderson hired Top Chef alumna Robin Leventhal — a Seattle Jew born amid the delis of LA — who brined and smoked her own meats and made her own pickles. She also went in for grand culinary gestures, like a $4 Wagyu beef upgrade for the $8 pastrami sandwiches.

“That sandwich, beautiful Wagyu pastrami on rye…people balked at the price,” recalls Leventhal, who remembers customers kvetching that it was too small. “Maybe Jews are just picky,” she says with a shrug. “We’re critical, we observe, and value is very important to us. Jews just want to know they’re getting their money’s worth.”

Everyone’s a critic — literally, in this age of Yelp — and perhaps no one more than a Jewish traditionalist accustomed to the old-world classics. Perhaps in the end, Stopsky’s couldn’t quite satisfy its constituents’ potent blend of nostalgia and strong opinions. But therein lies the conundrum for a culinarily inventive city like Seattle: Traditional cuisine has its own perils in a town whose very brand is innovation.

That balancing act, along with the high cost of the enterprise, may explain why so many Seattle chefs are now ditching bricks and mortar altogether, freeing deli food from the delicatessen. The Meyersons are catering. Sanderson has kept the Stopsky’s brand on a line of pickles, smoked olives, and other gourmet foodstuffs. New York expat and Seattle entrepreneur David Youseffnia sells his Pastrome pastrami at pop-ups around Seattle and offers “private pastrome pastrami packages.”

And Jewish food trucks are an emerging force. “Low overhead, no staffing issues, no rent, a short menu — food trucks make perfect sense,” says Leventhal, who after Top Chef fleetingly considered opening one called “Jew Hungry?” Good idea, if the latke-pastrami sandwiches at entrepreneur/chef Jonny Silverberg’s beloved food truck, Napkin Friends, are any indication. KoGo, a kosher food truck whose pastrami and brined salmon whetted appetites all summer on Facebook, will be revving its engine by the time you read this.

Silverberg is currently finalizing plans to expand Napkin Friends into a storefront deli he’ll call Schmaltzy’s. The question, at this writing, remains where. Ask Stopsky’s owner Sanderson, and he’ll predict that South Lake Union, with its recent East Coast techie diaspora, could offer a deli a fighting chance. Silverberg knows that the bulk of his truck’s fan base is north of the Ship Canal, so he’s thinking “Frelard.” He also knows that, speaking solely of density, the South End offers Seattle’s richest concentration of Jews. 

That’s near Seward Park, the area with the highest number of religious, kosher-observant Jews. It’s also where Seattle’s two Sephardic synagogues live. Though Sephardic Jews are the minority among Jews in Seattle, they make up the third largest Sephardic population in the country. They also claim a distinction in the history of this city that might explain, better than anything else, why Jewish delis haven’t caught on here. Jewish delis enshrine the foods of Eastern Europe, the foods of the Ashkenazi immigrants. But it was the Sephardic Jews who drove Seattle’s Jewish food culture.

Into Seattle’s mild seaside climate, Sephardic newcomers with names like Calvo and Tacher and Amon and Alhadeff brought their Mediterranean appetites for fish and fresh produce, many establishing footholds in Seattle’s nascent food scene by becoming fishmongers and high stallers in Pike Place Market. These Sephardic Jews opened Mediterranean cafés, not Eastern European delis. For decades, their de facto community center was Seattle’s central food market.    

Could it be that Seattle has a Jewish food culture, and a thriving one — we’ve just been looking for it in the wrong place? Jewish delis will always feed our souls in ways both literal and figurative, and it will be a fine thing to see one sink roots here. But perhaps our eastern Mediterranean cafés — of which Aviv Hummus Bar on Capitol Hill, just two blocks south of the old Matzoh Momma, is but the latest of many — provide the most meaningfully Jewish restaurant experience one could savor…in Seattle.

2019 update: Deli is making a comeback — Dingfelder's, Zylberschtein's, and Schmaltzy's are now all open and off to a strong start. 

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