Will Boston See a Return of the Deli?

Boston has been clamoring for a deli comeback, but demand alone may not be quite enough.

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Photograph by Sam Kaplan

Jewish food is having a moment in Boston. Just witness the delicate matzoh-based gnocchi that recently appeared on the tasting menu at West Bridge; the Indian-spiced kugel, flanken stir-fry, and gefilte-style shrimp being served at pop-ups like Kitchen Kibitz and Fatboy Secrets; and the house-cured lox that Cutty’s, in Brookline, is layering onto from-scratch Bagelsaurus bagels on Friday and Saturday mornings.

The ultimate expression of Jewish cuisine? That would be the Jewish deli, which at its core represents everything that’s fetishized in our current food-obsessed culture—artisanal techniques like fermentation (half-sours, kraut); cured and smoked meats (corned beef, pastrami); and house-baked everything (bagels, knish)—in other words, laborious preparations crafted in familiar, nostalgia-driven ways and served in laid-back environs. Unfortunately, the deli itself has been in a widely noted decline countrywide for decades, as evidenced in books such as Save the Deli, by David Sax. Could our collective food fixation precipitate a comeback?

The interest is certainly there. When Marblehead-based Evan’s New York Style Deli launched a Boston food truck this April, they had hoped to sell 300 piled-high sandwiches in their first week. They sold more than 500. In March, when New York chain Ben’s Kosher Delicatessen casually hinted in an interview that they’d someday like to expand to Boston, Twitter lit up—and president Scott Singer says he received emails from half a dozen Boston real estate agents. Steven Peljovich, who took over Brookline favorite Michael’s Deli in 2012, says that he closely follows deli-oriented stories around the globe, and has noticed a significant uptick in the past two years.

We may be ready for the return of the deli, but getting one up and running isn’t as easy as meeting demand. Just ask Rebecca Roth Gullo (the Gallows) and Rachel Miller Munzer (Hungry Mother, State Park), who have both looked into opening one in the city. All of that curing and smoking requires plenty of space—tough to find in Boston, where rents continue to skyrocket. Deli work is also labor intensive, and the local hiring pool is shallow. And then there’s the red tape: “Smoking is not easy, at least in Boston. You have to have specific approval for what you can do—hot, cold, or with wood—and what you’d do for your smoke,” Roth Gullo says. To make the business model profitable, sandwiches would need to command upward of $15 a pop—a price that many diners may find tough to swallow.

That’s why Boston’s biggest deli splash of the past year—the opening of Moody’s Delicatessen & Provisions—happened in Waltham, where vast amounts of prep space are much more affordable. It’s also the reason why the Evan’s truck uses its Marblehead location as a prep kitchen. Even Singer says that before Ben’s can launch here, the chain will have to open a New York state commissary to bypass the prohibitive space costs in Boston.

And yet deli aficionados may eventually have their corned beef and eat it, too. Roth Gullo and Miller Munzer say they haven’t tabled their plans—they’re just biding their time for the right opportunity. Peljovich, for his part, welcomes potential newcomers: “People ask me all the time—are you worried that another deli could open up? I say that if they are a real deli, I don’t mind.”


The Rye Tide

These days, you don’t need to seek out a deli specialist to enjoy a bang-up Reuben.

Veal Reuben, $10, TR Street Foods

The takeout arm of Tavern Road offers a veal-based version of the corned-beef extravaganza, topped with pickled cabbage, Muenster cheese, and “TR” special sauce on rye bread.

Corned-Beef-Tongue Reuben, $11, the Salty Pig

The Salty Pig is known for its Italian fare, but the lunch menu offers a Reuben that stars house-made corned beef tongue and Russian dressing, further amped up with Swiss cheese and sauerkraut. 

Classic Reuben, $10, Deep Ellum

This Allston gastropub does right by the traditional Reuben with layers of corned beef, Swiss cheese, and Russian dressing piled high between two slices of toasted marble rye.

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