I am writing to you, dear readers, for the first time as a married woman. Empanada Boy and I were married in a wonderful beach ceremony in Cannon Beach, Oregon on August 3. We then paraded through town behind members of the world-class Mama Digdown’s Brass Band to a reception at the Cannon Beach Chamber of Commerce. There was dancing, speeches and, of course, great food and drink. EB and I spent most of last week honeymooning in Victoria, B.C. (more to come on the food we ate there), but we had plenty of time to visit some Portland restaurants during the week before the big day. Top on my list was Kenny and Zuke’s Delicatessen, located in the relatively new and incredibly hip Ace Hotel.
My favorite restaurant in Portland used to be Ken’s Place, a small, casual spot on Hawthorne Ave. Chef Ken Gordon served home-style comfort food with highlights like stellar fried chicken and a warm calamari salad that I couldn’t help but order every time I came. The best part was that if you stayed late enough, Ken would come out and chat. He would opine about the best place to get certain delicacies and about the importance of providing diners with a pepper grinder on every table. Ken closed his place a few years ago to fulfill his dream of opening a New York-style delicatessen, exactly what Portland lacked. His dream was shared by Nick Zukin, a prominent Portland food blogger (extramsg.com). Together they started curing their own meats and baking their own rye bread and bagels. They baked rugelach and babka. They even brought in a bevy of small batch sodas (pictured here). The results are like nothing New York has seen— at least for a long time.
Empanada Boy, Daddy Salmon, Mango Mama and I spent a long time perusing the lengthy menu, trying to decide which combination of the impressive variety of meats to put onto our sandwiches. There was pastrami, corned beef, tongue, beef salami, even chopped liver. How would we decide? Then Mango Mama happened upon a great solution: we could order the Meat Sampler for four and get to try all of them! EB and Daddy Salmon decided to start things off with some borscht. It was wonderfully refreshing and packed with sweet beet flavor. EB was especially pleased to find crunchy apple slices among the chucks of beets floating on top. As good as the borscht was, though, I knew I needed to save my strength for what was to come. I was right. Thanks to my mom striking up a friendly conversation with Nick Zukin when we walked in the door, we were given a pile of pastrami so large, rich and fatty that it alone would have been enough for lunch. The pastrami was like none I’ve ever tried before. Its edge crackled with peppercorns; its luscious fat striped and marble through each tender, moist and salty slice. The corned beef was also delicious, coming apart in smaller crumbled chunks. Tongue was succulent and smooth, while salami was salty with a touch of spice. Chicken liver was appropriately decadent. This mound of meat came with house-made half-sour pickles, mustard and a gigantic platter of sliced rye bread. It was far more than the four of us could eat. We took about a third of it home in a box.
Nick Zukin, who later took EB, Mango Mama and me on a tour of the kitchen, insisted that we try some dessert. Immensely full as we were, we couldn’t decide between the honey almond cake and the cheesecake. (I would never normally order cheesecake, but Zukin said it was the best dessert on the menu.) We ordered both, and both were phenomenal. The almond cake was moist with honey and full of toasty flavor. I could have eaten more despite my increasing fullness. Much to our surprise, the cheesecake was indeed excellent. It was far lighter and more mousse-like than the dense, heavy versions served at places like Junior’s in Brooklyn. The bottom crust was also flavorful and soft enough to eat, unlike the cardboard slab graham cracker crusts that line most cheesecakes.
I can truthfully say that our meal at Kenny and Zuke’s was one of the best I’ve had in my life. As our kitchen tour confirmed, every element at this restaurant is carefully tested, researched and planned before being served to customers. Meat is cured according to a traditional, yet precisely formulated method. Pickles are carefully barreled and stored. And bagels are made to meet a gold standard of toothsomeness. Ken Gordon and Nick Zukin are not only purists when it comes to representing the genre, they are also perfectionists. And the result is near heavenly.
Kenny and Zuke’s Delicatessen
1038 SW Stark St.
Portland, OR 97205