Once upon a time, Brenner Brothers Bakery churned out traditional Ashkenazi (Eastern European Jewish) breads in the heavily Jewish neighborhood of the Central District, and Sephardic Jews (those with Spanish-Jewish ancestors) manned the stands of Pike Place Market—which boasted lunch spots like the Cozy Corner to serve them.
Today, Seattle's Jewish community plays an undersized role in the city's culinary scene. Food traditionally thought of as Jewish in America—the bagels, lox, and pastrami sandwiches specific to New York Jewry—arises more often in discussions of what Seattle lacks than in celebration of the food scene.
Even as Seattle's Jewish population has skyrocketed since the turn of the millennium, restaurants and cafes serving markedly Jewish food have struggled: Matzoh Momma disappeared before the rush began, Leah's Bakery and Cafe turned its focus to catering in 2008, and Stopsky's Delicatessen pivoted to pickles in 2014. By 2015, when a Brandeis University study noted the 70 percent increase in Seattle's Jewish population, Jews made up 5 percent of Seattle's population—more than twice the percentage of Vietnamese people in town. Yet, while pho flourished, the only options for matzo-ball soup were mediocre mall versions. Seattle's only true, full-service, sit-down kosher restaurant is a vegetarian Indian restaurant in the suburbs.
But hope abounds among fans of bourekas, pastrami, and gefilte fish (yes, we exist). A pastrami start-up, a bagel window, and a kosher meat food truck have all opened recently, carefully taking baby steps into Seattle's edible landscape. And not one but two Jewish delis, both run by well- established local culinary professionals, plan to be open by the end of the year.
When Eltana opened its doors at the end of 2010, the wood-fired bagel shop ran into resistance from New York bagel purists. Its small, vaguely Montreal-style bagels failed to satisfy East Coast transplants chasing the chewy, blistered rings of memory.
Enter Westman's Bagel and Coffee. Opened by Monica Dimas—of Neon Taco, Tortas Condesa, and Sunset Fried Chicken Sandwiches—and baker Molly Westman, it takes its cues from the traditional New York bagel shop both in its singular focus on bagels and in its style of bagel: hand-rolled and freshly baked. Plump but not oversized, amply schmeared with the house-made cream cheese (from local dairy, natch), the bagels live up to the exemplars of the East Coast—though not without the option for a few original flourishes such as Maldon salt sprinkles and caviar schmear.
The tiny walk-up window evokes the street-side stands of the New York roots of this style of bagel, and the presence of a decidedly non-Jewish Big Apple favorite—the bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich on a soft roll—cements it. Seattleites finally have their New York bagel shop. The only question that remains is if the long lines and overwhelming fandom that greeted it can keep it in business—and maybe even encourage more of its ilk.
David Youssefnia chose to start small with his pastrami business: Pastrome began as a backyard hobby for the New York transplant, but the entrepreneur quickly saw an opportunity. Using his start-up expertise, he slowly built up a rabid fan base through catering, private events, and custom orders.
His slow-growth business plan matches the long process of making pastrami—it gets brined, rubbed, smoked, and steamed before it even sees a glimpse of mustard or rye bread—and gives him some protection against the constant fluctuation of the daily restaurant business. It makes it a bit harder for the public to get their hands on the highest quality Jewish deli meat in the Pacific Northwest, but it's that insurance against cost overruns that allows the perfect pastrami to exist in the first place. Pastrome's periodic pop-ups give newcomers a chance to taste his meat, but committed carnivores subscribe to the monthly meat club, which drops off in South Lake Union.
Finding Seattle's only kosher-certified meat requires similar effort. KoGo, a kosher food truck that also specializes in pastrami, hopes to one day set up shop on a regular basis, but it is currently selling its meat and cured fish only via online ordering until further notice.
But while Americans traditionally think of Jewish food as this particular brand of Eastern European cuisine filtered through the Lower East Side in the early 20th century, Eggs and Plants (Belltown) and Aviv Hummus Bar (Capitol Hill) offer a different version: that of Israel. Israel, as a melting pot of Jews from around the world, doesn't really have its own cuisine, but instead highlights the foods brought there by immigrants. Which is why the star sandwich at Eggs and Plants—a small cafe tucked in next door to a glassblowing studio—is actually of Iraqi heritage. Sabich, a stuffed pita that resembles a salad bar gone beautifully awry, piles fried eggplant with eggs, hummus, a salad of cucumbers and tomatoes, another of cabbage, and pickles, before it succumbs to a dousing of tahini. Other dishes include a Yemeni flatbread, a Persian omelet, and falafel (the cafe notes its Egyptian lineage). What brings them all together is the shared history of migration from home countries, each brought by Jews of different national origins, to Israel.
Falafel shows up on the menu of Aviv, as well—one of few dishes served there besides the namesake dip. Restaurants around the city sell hummus and falafel, staples of the entire the Middle East, but Aviv's singular focus on these twin pillars of chickpea-based greatness—and making them fresh to order—transforms each into a revelation. Aviv's hummus leaves behind the clumpy, thick memories of grocery store tubs, instead providing diners with fluffy, warm pita to swipe directly through the airy, fresh dip. Like the difference between the classic American taco-night specimen, with a hard shell, shredded cheddar, and iceberg lettuce, and a made-to-order street taco fresh off the grill, the hummus most Americans know (and some even love) shares only a name and a loose strand of DNA with what Aviv produces.
That revolutionary look at how we think of various food of Jewish origins is what Seattleites hope to see from a few impending newcomers, too. Toward the end of the year (or, perhaps, in early 2019), the folks behind latke sandwich truck Napkin Friends will open the Frelard doors of Schmaltzy's Delicatessen. But nobody need wait that long: Come this summer, the owners of Nourish Catering plan to open Dingfelder's Delicatessen on Pine Street and 13th Avenue, featuring sweet and savory kugels, babkas, knishes, and black and white cookies, along with their signature pastrami sandwiches.
As this trend solidifies, Jews and Jewish food fans should be sated. But we're probably not getting kishka anytime soon.