Portland food has changed. It wasn't that long ago that "Portland food" meant an extra pile of alfalfa sprouts on the sandwich or, for dinner, a nice piece of salmon (not that there's anything wrong with salmon). What it really did not mean was meat. Well, there was always the Ringside, where a local might enjoy a good steak or prime rib -- in the dark, where no one was likely to spot you, and if they did well, what were they doing in the Ringside? And there was always Sayler's, where people were challenged to eat a 72 oz. top sirloin dinner in one hour. If they could choke down 4.5 pounds of beef, plus all the trimmings (and that's a lot of trimmings), the meal was free. But even at Sayler's, it was acknowledged that this was a grotesque event, chronicled by a wall of photos: gluttons cramming down huge portions of dead cow . . . in Portland, meat was, well, unfortunate.
Maybe it's the influx of immigrants from the East Coast and the Midwest, but things have definitely changed. Chefs are packing them in with marvelous concoctions of the nasty bits, much of which is actually, well, pork. Suddenly, Portland people are willing to gather in public, even in broad daylight, and eat meat. It's weird.
All of which is to say I finally made it to Kenny and Zuke's, a fairly new and thoroughly astonishing (for Portland) deli. There have actually been a few places in town (notably Milo's City Cafe and The County Cork) corning their own beef and grilling incredible Reubens, but K&Z are the first to expand this to a full deli menu, most particularly and deliciously by producing their own pastrami. Real, fatty and smoky pastrami. Mmmmm. Unheard of in Portland since the old deli in the city courthouse went out of business 20 years ago, real pastrami is nothing at all like the "pastrami" sold in local groceries and butchers. To make it perfect, the deli even bakes their own rye bread, the first true Jewish rye to cross my lips in decades.
Kenny & Zuke's sits on one of Portland's hippest city blocks, sharing the sidewalk with Clyde Common (with a lunch crowd scoffing down some of the best burgers in town), the Ace Hotel (with a lobby lounged with hipsters and their Macbooks), and a Stumptown Coffee shop (more hipsters and more Macbooks). The deli was packed and it was fortunate for me that I was on my own and more than happy to eat at a counter. But even with the lox and the chopped liver and the kreplach, and everyone happily noshing and schmoozing, it doesn't look like any deli I've ever seen. It looks like Portland: huge windows and all the light available on a murky February afternoon.
And the pastrami? Well, the pastrami was every bit as good as advertised and after my long long pastrami famine, probably better than advertised. So was the rye bread, with its crunchy crust and soft salty interior. The sandwich? Well, maybe I'm just old, but I think that cutting pastrami in slabs is a mistake. To me, pastrami should be cut super thin and then piled into a grotesque heap on the bread. Like this. The thick slices make it a difficult sandwich to bite into and I made the mistake of asking for mustard, which was slathered on with a heavy hand. Great mustard, but it made the bread soggy and that much more difficult to handle. And my waiter had a difficult time with the drink order, but it was admittedly very noisy and he may just have mis-heard me.
Still, I'll be back (no mustard next time) because it was great meat. And very decent slaw and an exceptionally good pickle. What else can you ask for?