Newly opened Stopsky's Deli has had a tremendously successful first week, but veterans of the contemporary deli scene warn that the Mercer Island restaurant will have to counter misconceptions that every deli perpetuates New York City traditions.
This is not a Stopsky's sandwich.
"They didn't open this with the idea of being a New York deli," says Noah Bernamoff, who owns Mile End Delicatessen in Brooklyn. "People are going to be, like, 'Where's my New York deli?' No, it's a Seattle deli."
Bernamoff, who's in San Francisco today for a deli summit sponsored by Berkeley's Saul's Restaurant and Delicatessen, is an outspoken proponent of deli diversity and localized deli culture. He's troubled by prevailing notions that delis should serve sandwiches overstuffed with cheap meat and keep their pantries stocked with dozens of prepared salads, because that's the way Carnegie Deli does it.
"In what other cuisine are there so many epicurean know-it-alls who, frankly, know little, or are basing their opinion on a vague memory, or expectation skewed by the industrial food system?", the summit's agenda asks.
There have been rumblings that sandwiches at Stopsky's are too small, a complaint heard so frequently at delis resurrecting artisanal traditions and sourcing better meat that the topic merits its own agenda item at the summit.
"It's like a sandwich that comes out of the circus car," Bernamoff says of the iconic fresser portions of corned beef and pastrami that challenge eaters' jaws. "It's in that same category of awkward, weird things. It's all that's wrong with America."
Peter Levitt of Saul's says the massive sandwich that's been enshrined as a classic actually represents a narrow period of deli history. According to Levitt, sandwiches expanded in the 1950s, along with houses, cars, and average waistlines.
"It's a blip," Levitt says. "It's Vegas, it's Broadway, it's New York, but it's got nothing to do with everyday eating. We have to feed people everyday meals."
Bernamoff serves seven ounces of meat on his smoked-meat sandwiches, or about half the amount that Carnegie uses.
"Our sandwiches are the size of sandwich I would want to eat," Bernamoff says. "If people don't like our sizes, my attitude is it's not my fucking problem."
Since Mile End cures its meats in-house, it doesn't make financial sense to offer giant sandwiches: Bernamoff estimates he'd have to charge at least $20 for a sandwich that stood as tall as the sandwiches Carnegie, Katz's, and the Second Avenue Deli produce. Delis using local, organic, grass-finished beef face the same cost issues. But economics aren't the only reason modern deli mavens decline to pile on.
"If you're smoking it yourself, salting it yourself, you want the meat to speak," Levitt says.
The meat that typically appears on really big sandwiches has been soaked in salt and sugar, he adds.
"That's what people can hide behind," Levitt continues. "I don't want to be controversial, but they're using bottom-of-the-barrel meat."
Levitt hopes the summit will encourage other deli owners to reject nostalgia and forge their own methodologies. He's persuaded the only way to revive the endangered deli tradition is to borrow ideas that have taken hold in other types of restaurants, including welcoming vegetarians, collaborating with local farmers, emphasizing environmental sustainability, and restoring value to side items, such as pickles.
"We're hoping it's a way for newer delis to give us permission to breathe life into the menu," Levitt says.