Deli Bellies

Seattle’s deli scene leaves a lot to be desired, but new options look to spice things up.

Part of living in Seattle means hearing East Coast transplants regularly complain about our food, as if every corner of the country should have the exact same menu. It’s a strange expectation. When New Yorkers come to town, they don’t go on about our lack of Statues of Liberty and street garbage, just as we don’t go to New York to whine about the lack of salmon and hiking … well, not often, anyway. (I’m pretty good at fending off New Yorker complaints about Seattle food, because I’m from Montreal and enjoy mentioning that Montreal bagels and delis are both clearly better than those in New York.) It’s like a T-shirt design I saw the other day: “If New York is so cool, how come you moved to Seattle?” (Can’t argue with a T-shirt.)

Any talk of the Seattle Jewish deli scene always seems centered around what used to be. Stopsky’s on Mercer Island shuttered a few years ago. Bellevue’s Brenner Brothers Bakery closed in the late ’90s. Matzoh Momma and Leah’s Bakery recently pivoted to catering-only, which is the “I just think we need to see other people” of closings.

For years it’s been tremendously difficult for find a decent pastrami sandwich. I just want some lunch.

The answer is partially the numbers. While Seattle’s Jewish population has been growing rapidly since the turn of the millennium, it’s still only about 65,000, far less than the approximately two million in New York. If New Yorkers suddenly woke up with our deli scene, there’d be a citywide mental breakdown. Clearly we need some sort of government Jewish-deli relocation program.

But the numbers alone don’t explain it. Culture plays a part too. For instance, did you know that every other building in Seattle is a Thai restaurant? If you spun a dreidel in any direction, you’d probably hit one. Market research firm Scarborough found that Thai food is more popular than pizza here, and yet we have only about 900 Thai residents in Seattle. That’s a small Thai person/Thai restaurant ratio, and none of them stock rye bread and matzo-ball soup.

Still, unlike the ending of Infinity War, there’s reason for deli fans to hope. In a couple of months, Dingfelder’s Delicatessen will bring Capitol Hill its own bona fide Jewish deli, replete with pastrami, pickles, kugel, and unifying black-and-white cookies. Fremont will land one as well at the end of 2018, when the folks behind latke sandwich truck Napkin Friends open Schmaltzy’s. I honestly hope the two battle each other, so the press can call it “The Great Dingfelder/Schmaltzy War.”

Until those two open, we’ll have to cope with the few options we have. The recently launched Westman’s Bagel on East Madison hand-rolls fresh bagels that possess the power to silence the shrill complaints of ex-New Yorkers. How do you know Westman’s is legit? Because they have a smoked-whitefish-salad sandwich on the menu. That’s a deep-cut Jewish deli offering. It’s the sandwich Larry David didn’t want named after him in an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm. (If you want to enter the fierce regional bagel debate, Eltana offers Montreal-style bagels.)

There aren’t many new purveyors of pastrami, and the ones that exist are a little hard to find. Pastrome does only pop-ups and catering, and the kosher food truck KoGo rarely makes appearances. You may have to turn to some of Seattle’s old standbys.

Anyone driving down Howell in the Denny Triangle has no doubt noticed the giant red “Corned Beef” sign. Even though I’ve been there a few times, I only just realized that the joint is called Market House Meats, not Corned Beef. While not technically a Jewish deli, the minimalist spot has been around since 1948 and features an array of sizzling meats, including pastrami, corned beef, and brisket. There’s also Roxy’s Diner in Fremont and Goldberg’s Famous Delicatessen in Bellevue, slinging matzo balls, bagels, and all sorts of noshes.

So that’s like … five or so places? In all of greater Seattle? I guess it’s a start?

While it’s still hard to find a joint that even remotely recreates the feeling of Katz’s in New York or Schwartz’s in Montreal, Jewish fare is on the horizon. And thank Old Testament God, because if I hear one more person say “You haven’t really been to a deli until you’ve been to so-and-so,” I’m going to slap them with a piece of whitefish.