With recent news that the new Ace Hotel in Manhattan may include a branch of Portland's Stumptown Coffee, it's fitting that our own Ace on Stark Street should make room downstairs for something quintessentially East Coast: a Jewish deli.
When I think "Jewish deli," I think grouchy old ladies in crowded, condensation-rich rooms, serving surly backchat with my blintzes. Not here. Kenny and Zuke's Delicatessen is bright and airy, with great views of the sidewalk, and even when it's crowded, most of the wait staff—who are mainly under the age of 40, polite, and attractive—can move easily between the tables.
Is Kenny and Zuke's version of the Jewish deli a bad thing? Not in this writer's opinion, but it is different, and may take some getting used to for those with firm preconceptions about how such a place "should" feel.
Kenny and Zuke's is flexible: There's a good selection of vegetarian options, including an omelet with mushroom and caramelized onions and a big salad served with bagel chips and blue cheese. The blintzes with strawberries are marvelous, and there are four beers on tap including Double Mountain from Hood River, not to mention 29 bottled beers (including Schmaltz Kosher Hebrew Messiah Bold) and the widest selection of root beers you'll ever see. There's a deli counter for takeout, or sit-in diners can choose between tables and two stylish counters, open super late (3 am) on the weekend.
"We got pastrami or pastrami," this ain't.
Having said that, if you're a first-time visitor, trust me and get something with the quintessential Jewish meat. They cure it for five days, smoke it for 10 hours, steam it for three more days, and then hand slice it thicker than you'll find elsewhere. The result is rambunctious and almost too fatty, but not quite. You can have it with eggs any morning, or on weekends with eggs benedict, featuring a biting hollandaise and Challah bread—I didn't eat again until dinner. Every day after 11 am, the classic pastrami on rye or Reuben sandwich are just the ticket, served with a mouth-puckering homemade slaw or thin-cut, crunchy fries.
The latkes are always excellent, by far the best I've had—crispy on the outside and cotton soft on the inside, complemented by a delicious, chunky applesauce.
Chicken soup with matzo balls was a little lackluster on initial visits, but has since beefed (chickened?) up, now rivaling Rose's Deli for its evocation of mother-love. It may sound sloppy, but try some next time you're ill.
Kenny and Zuke's bagels are more rustic than Kettleman's in Southeast Portland, and a little drier—but I don't feel there's a "right" way to do a bagel, just people's different tastes and opinions. Their garlic and onion bialys, too, are flatter than I'm used to, but still excellent taken home and toasted with goat cheese. Or—why not—with some of the deli counter's fantastic homemade lox, creamed or pickled herrings, chopped chicken livers, or whitefish salad.
Kenny and Zuke's is so ambitious that they're already selling sweatshirts. I admire the intention and expect this place to be a cornerstone of Portland's culinary future. Who knows, perhaps in 20 years, the waitresses will be old, grouchy, and just as "authentic" as the food.