It’s no surprise that my photo files are drowning in Negronis; it’s my go-to cocktail. My go-to sandwich, for what it’s worth, is the Reuben. In bars and delis, at lunch-counters and taverns, I fall for the Reuben like a love-starved sailor swooning at the scent of French perfume. Rye, Kaiser roll, sourdough, doesn’t matter. Corned beef or pastrami, cheddar or Swiss, doesn’t matter. Coleslaw, yes, Thousand Island, yes indeed. Pickles? Sure. I have pictures from New York, Phoenix, Portland, and all over Seattle. What’s the fascination?
Well, first of all, it’s not—you should pardon the expression—another goddamn cheeseburger. It’s brisket, people, a cut of long fibers that require long and slow braising to melt the fat and render the previously salted (“corned”) meat meltingly tender. Slice it rudely and it turns into dog food; you have to let it cool down and only then run it through a commercial slicer (or, if you’re the counterman at Katz’s Deli in Lower Manhattan, you wield your scimitar with expertise). The slices mound up on a bed of finely shredded coleslaw; they’re topped by a slice or two of Swiss or Provolone cheese and finished with that uniquely North American condiment, all pink and gooey, named for the Thousand Island region of the Upper St. Lawrence. Sometimes called Russian dressing, sometimes called “Special Sauce,” depending on the region and the restaurant.
The meat begins as beef brisket, which is a fine piece of breast meat on its own. When it’s brined or “corned,” it becomes a non-denominational part of St. Patrick’s Day feasts, not just deli sandwiches. It can also be brined, seasoned, smoked, and finally steamed, at which point it can be called pastrami.
For years, Seattle’s best (that is, most authentic) Jewish deli was Roxy’s Diner in Fremont, where I used to stop in for breakfast occasionally. I’m not going to pretend that it tasted “just like Zabar’s” because, shoot, I didn’t grow up in Noo Yawk and didn’t eat in a real “East Coast” deli until I got to college. But the latkes were on a plane as elevated (for Seattle) as the rest of the menu at Roxy’s: honest, unpretentions, tasty. I’ve also enjoyed coming here at lunchtime and fighting for a seat at the counter; it’s a real diner, not a fancy restaurant pretending to be a diner, with a giant menu and a varied clientele (as befits its Fremont neighborhood). Thirteen bucks for a pastrami on rye, pickle included, and if that’s not enough, get the “N.Y. Size” for three bucks extra. Remember, though, Roxy’s is a diner, a New Jersey-style, working-class diner at that, not a Lower East Side deli like Katz’s.
Roxy’s owner, Peter Glick, makes regular trips back east; most recently, he discovered a joint called The Meatball Shop, whose owners make a lot of Fourth Grade anatomical references but whose business model (just meatballs) is working just fine. Glick’s online-only “Meatball Revolution” offers meatball buffets to corporate clients around town. Doesn’t fit the bill? How about his Let’s Taco service? Not quite right? Try Pete’s Fremont Firepit, a barbecue delivery option. And to make sure no one slips out to the Whole Foods or Met Market for a quick trip around the salad bar, Glick also runs The Salad Station.
We’ve had a string of Jewish delis in the greater Seattle area. Yes, we’re a continent away from Noo Yawk, but we’re home to the third-largest Sephardic community in North America. From the South End to Mercer Island and beyond, Seattle’s disparate community of eastern European immigrants once supported a handful of old-world delicatessens and bakeries. Among those left standing, even if they’re not technically “Jewish”: Tat’s Deli in Pioneer Square, Market House Meats in South Lake Union, Bavarian Meats in the Pike Place Market. Nowadays every major supermarket has a meat counter where an earnest employee in a hairnet and white jacket will carve off a few slices of ham or turkey, slather a hoagie with mayo, and make believe it’s a deli sandwich. 4
It was never easy, being a deli, especially a Jewish deli. French charcuteries or Italian macellerie generally started as butcher shops and added sausages, cold cuts and vegetable salads as they grew. The early Jewish delis, on the other hand, were products of necessity, providing religiously acceptable meat amidst the profusion of Kosher dietary laws. But it’s hard, outside the urban enclaves of the East Coast, to maintain those traditions today.
Goldbergs’, in Factoria, found its footing as an ecumenical sandwich shop and lasted 14 years until it fell victim to unpalatable rent increases. Stopsky’s operated on Mercer Island from 2011 to 2014 with an admirable three-word slogan: Eat, Enjoy, Return. But it, too, gave up the ghost; not enough “returns.” Jersey Mike? Schlotzky’s? Well-meaning, short-lived. But two newcomers this year. More after this musical interlude:
Do not make a stingy sandwich, Pile the cold cuts high.
Customers should see pastrami a-comin’ through the rye.
That was one of the ditties sung by the late Allan Sherman (“Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh”). At Dingfelder’s on Capitol Hill, they take this dictum to heart, slicing 12 ounces of meat for the pastrami, corned beef, brisket and tongue sandwiches. If you balk at the $19 price tag, consider the $12 “Seattle” option, half the meat. It’s still one heck of a sandwich, garnished with Russian dressing, deli mustard, and coleslaw, and accompanied by variety of pickles. (The coleslaw, alas, is quite ordinary.) More places should offer tongue! It offers a wondrous beefy flavor, and a smooth tender texture that you only find in organ meats.
Dingfelder’s started life as a walk-up, take-out window in a substantial brick building at the corner of 14th and Pike, with occasional glimpses into the space now converted to sit-down dining. But it’s still bare-bones: one communal table, three four-tops, and a space heater. Still, there’s a community-center vibe to the place; off-duty docs from nearby Swedish Hospital linger over lunch, regulars drop by with their dogs. Not “romantic,” though.
Schmaltzy’s, in a new building in Ballard set back from Leary Way by the width of four parking spots, has a built-in following. Owner Jonathan Silverberg has had a successful, three-year run with a food truck called Napkin Friends, and the restaurant, which opened mid-November, ticks off all the boxes: commissary workers in the back, order-taker in man-bun, cheerful cashier, reach-in cooler for seltzers, room for 60 dine-in eaters, line out the door. Early on, they actually ran out of shmear (gulp!).
At breakfast, the bagel with shmear and lox works out to $7.50. At lunchtime, sandwiches ($13 to $16) come with a pickle spear and a side salad (slaw, potato, or cucumber). A pastrami sandwich called the Namesake featured thick slices of very smokey, quite peppery pastrami, and a palate-numbing dressing of deli mustard, pimento cheese, chicken-liver shmear, coleslaw, and Mama Lil’s peppers. “The sloppier the sandwich, the better it’s going to be,” says Silverberg, whose earliest efforts at Napkin Friends revolved around “latke press” sandwiches that substituted latkes for bread. But what’s with those few honey-mustard chips on the tray, dude? They looked leftovers from somebody else’s lunch. And just a suggestion: dial back on the smoke.
Footnote: I’m not going to argue that the ubiquitous Subway chain is anything more than a glorified canteen for repairmen and UPS drivers who left their lunch pails at home; nobody who actually lives near a Subway ever eats there. Ever.