Matzah Ball soup, front, and the Hebrew Hammer at Rye Society. (Provided by Rye Society)
You know that everything old is new again when Jewish delis become a major restaurant trend.
Yes, Jewish delis are officially a thing in 2018. That’s according to Nation’s Restaurant News and QSR Magazine, both heavy-hitters when it comes to divining what, exactly, will be the next cupcake or the new kale. Both hailed Jewish-style delis as a leading food trend this year.
Coined “next-gen” Jewish delis, these spots are putting a modern spin on the classics, whether by adding healthier options to the menu or stacking new creations out of familiar flavors.
And would you look at that! Denver just got two next-gen (one literally) Jewish delis at the end of July. Leven Deli Co. opened in the Golden Triangle neighborhood with an emphasis on lightening up typical deli food. Rye Society is a from-scratch RiNo deli updating generations-old recipes from owner Jerrod Rosen’s family, many of whom ran kosher cafes and delis in Denver in the 1920s and 1930s.
“Next-gen Jewish delis are now finding a place in Denver’s restaurant scene because it’s our comfort food. It’s more than just delicious sustenance. It’s a nostalgia, it’s a memory, it’s pure joy,” said Josh Pollack, owner of Rosenberg’s Bagels & Delicatessen (and, quite possibly, Denver’s next-gen Jewish deli godfather).
The renaissance begins
One of the catalysts for this trend was a 2009 book called “Save the Deli” by journalist David Sax. It was this book — which chronicles the decline of the Jewish delicatessen, along with attention-grabbing new delis like Atlanta’s The General Muir (nominated for three James Beard Awards in five years of operation); L.A.’s Wexler’s Deli; New York City’s Mile End Deli; and Rosenberg’s here at home — that inspired Rosen to start his business plan for Rye Society.
But don’t call it a comeback, Rosen said. They’ve been here for years.
“I don’t necessarily think (next-gen Jewish delis) are a trend, at least not for me. It was part of my heritage, and the Jewish delicatessen was an extension of the family kitchen and experience,” Rosen said. “For me, the best compliment is when people walk in and tell me it smells like home.”
Denver has (to shamelessly steal from the new terminology) old-gen Jewish delis, too; many of which have been around for decades. The Bagel Deli, Zaidy’s Deli, New York Deli News and East Side Kosher Deli are the last delis standing, the purveyors of towering sandwiches and cured meats that have fed Denver’s Jewish population, last estimated at 92,000, and others for years.
Of course, even shiksas like me can appreciate what the Jewish deli has to offer. From black-and-white cookies to matzo ball soup to heaps of pastrami not even bothering to try to be contained between two slices of rye bread, the eats are just plain tasty.
But since the Jewish deli heyday of the 1920s and 1930s, their numbers have decreased drastically. Shifts in our diets and preferences can be blamed, but does anyone really win when rationalizing the merits of a Reuben? The point is that, like pay phones and common sense, Jewish delis have been on the decline, and so yes, it was about time someone brought them back.
They’re bringin’ ‘strami back
Some of the next-gen delis are turning traditional Jewish cuisine on its head. New York City’s Scharf & Zoyer, for example, put fried chicken skin and dill crème fraiche between fried noodle kugel slices.
The two new Denver delis, though, aren’t departing too far from the standards. Rye Society’s menu looks very similar to what you’d find at the old-gen spots, with extra care and attention put into the ingredients and processes. Leven incorporates more vegetables and California-inspired sandwiches than you might expect, but at its heart are the 12-day, house-cured pastrami and pickled vegetables.
“I think the delicatessen scene in Denver is good, but in the restaurant industry you have to constantly be innovating and adapting to your guests’ changing needs,” Rosen said. “I grew up going to the delicatessens that are Denver staples, and they still do it well, but there is always room for more options, and the more competition there is, the better the scene will be as a whole.”
Joe Kaplan, owner of The Bagel Deli, which celebrated 50 years in business last year, agrees.
“There is room for everyone,” he said.