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February 6th, 2008 Mike Thelin | Food Reviews & Stories
 

Pastrami Kingdom

Kenny & Zuke’s Delicatessen cures downtown Portland—with meat.

     
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Meat and Greet: K&Z co-owner Ken Gordon communes with his pastrami.
IMAGE: JENNA BIGGS

Nearly 50 years ago, a declining chunk of downtown Portland known for its Jewish delis was dealt its death blow by urban renewal. Clearing room for Portland State University’s drab concrete buildings, Keller Auditorium and a pair of freeways meant lights out for the Jewish enclave once known as South Portland. Even worse, its demise meant the end of neighborhood institutions like Adele’s, Colistro, Helperin Kosher Delicatessen and the Star Bakery, leaving an entire generation of Portlanders ignorant of a decent bagel or matzo ball soup.

So when chef Ken Gordon of Ken’s Place and local food blogger Nick Zukin (Extramsg.com) announced last spring they’d debut a full-service Jewish deli adjacent to Portland’s newly minted Ace Hotel, Kenny&Zuke’s Delicatessen became the most anticipated restaurant in years. It was downtown PDX’s first truly egalitarian new restaurant in decades when it opened last October, and it delivered better pastrami than we Portlanders have ever had to call our own.

Kenny&Zuke’s is housed in a pleasant corner space where light spills into the dining room from gigantic windows that nearly span from floor to cathedral ceiling. Even when it’s packed—and it usually is during the day—it rarely feels overcrowded. Open all day, K&Z’s is a neighborhood spot for downtown residents to grab breakfast and office workers to eat lunch, and yet on weekends it’s a destination—you might wait an hour to get in the door for brunch.

There’s nothing more worthy of a drive across town than a pastrami sandwich ($10.75) at this place. Piled high as Mount Tabor on ovals of housemade rye, the savory beef brisket—cured, smoked, steamed and encrusted in peppercorned fat—is so tender it could be gummed by the toothless. As personally confirmed on an early-January trip to New York City’s famed Katz’s Deli, Kenny&Zuke’s pastrami on a good day is good enough for even the most persnickety New York transplant.

You’ll want to enjoy it a million different ways—and you can—as it shows up in roughly a third of the restaurant’s 75 or so menu items. Try it in the morning, scrambled with eggs and served with potatoes and toast ($8.75), or on rye with hollandaise and poached eggs ($10.75). After 11 am, have it club-style with turkey and Swiss ($12.25), savor it in the Ken’s Special with chopped liver, coleslaw and Russian dressing, or ask for it on grilled rye with sauerkraut and Swiss for a Reuben ($11.50) that is without equal in this hemisphere. You can even try it on a burger with Swiss cheese and side of crispy fries ($11.75).

Kenny&Zuke’s also hits the bull’s-eye with its matzo ball soup ($5.75): a duo of airy dumplings the size of a child’s fist in a subtle yet salty bath of uncommonly good chicken broth.

Dinnertime at Kenny&Zuke’s is Portland’s best-kept secret (there’s hardly ever a wait). The daily specials ($16.75) are often excellent and always big enough to share. Soaked in buttermilk and fried in duck fat, Wednesday’s fried chicken is the best highbrow birdie in Portland. On Thursday the bird is bigger—a moist slab of roast turkey served with an awesome sage stuffing, both generously slathered with giblet gravy.

Kenny&Zuke’s is also downtown’s newest bakery. Other than its excellent rye bread, it also boasts a bagel ($1.35, $2.75 with cream cheese) worth craving. Born of a recipe from K&Z part-owner and Oregonian food writer Michael Zusman, the bagels have just the right balance of firm and chewy. The diminutive cousin of the Goliath bagels popularized in modern sandwich making, these babies are best enjoyed simply. (Toasted and smeared with house scallion cream or simply butter, the salt-and-pumpernickel bagels are especially good.) The deli’s brownies ($1.75) are also superb, probably because longtime Pearl Bakery head baker Tim Healea manages K&Z’s baking program. There’s also a takeout counter where housemade egg salad, salty traditional lox, smoked sable, whitefish salad, hard salami, pastrami and corned beef can be bought by the pound. You can admire co-owner Zukin’s tribute wall to rare sodas and mustards while waiting in line—K&Z’s sells nearly 20 types of root beer alone.

If Kenny&Zuke’s has any problem, other than its dry meatloaf ($13.75), it’s that the quality of the pastrami can be inconsistent. While usually this meat, which much of Portland has rightly elevated to a lofty status—a level shared only with the fish-sauce wings at Pok Pok—is great, once in a while the pastrami arrives a dry and disappointing version of its otherwise perfect self. Then again, Kenny&Zuke’s didn’t expect to sell so much of it. The deli has sold more than 1,600 pounds (that’s 7.1 Mike Thelins) per week since opening day, says Zukin, plus another 400 pounds of corned beef.

Kenny&Zuke’s is a big hit for folks seeking the ultimate comfort food: a chorus of fat, smoke and salt that makes Jewish deli food a carnivore’s dream and a cardiologist’s nightmare. It’s also a welcome sign to see a true deli in a part of town where there’s little to be had on the dining scale between bar food and credit-card blowout after 5 pm. And Kenny&Zuke’s is open until 3 am on weekends.

Most importantly, the opening of Kenny&Zuke’s illustrates—more than any streetcar, tram or condo tower ever could—how downtown Portland has come full circle in the past 40 years: from a place we nearly abandoned, to a place just for special occasions or a night at the bars, then back to its old self. A place we choose to occupy morning, noon and night.


EAT: Kenny&Zuke’s, 1038 SW Stark St., 222-3354, kennyandzukes.com. Breakfast, lunch and dinner 7 am-midnight Tuesday-Thursday, 7 am-3 am Friday, 8 am-3 am Saturday, 8 am-10 pm Sunday. $-$$. Inexpensive-moderate. Mike Thelin recently retired his WW food column, “Eat Me,” to become executive director of the Portland Indie Wine Festival.
 
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