A deli that is all about authentic New York

Eating on the Edge: For his I Love New York Deli, Jon Jacobs has to have the half-sour pickles exactly right. And have you heard the one about the two guys who drive cross country with the things that you can't get anywhere but New York?
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Shane Coakley talks to a group.

Eating on the Edge: For his I Love New York Deli, Jon Jacobs has to have the half-sour pickles exactly right. And have you heard the one about the two guys who drive cross country with the things that you can't get anywhere but New York?

The half-sour pickle is simple in preparation but has a very short shelf life before it becomes something other than half-sour. So to serve a true half-sour pickle in Seattle is a feat of logistics, especially since it appears none are commercially made here. Only one person in this city, as far as I can tell, has succeeded in bringing the half-sour to Seattle.

But before we get to the pickle, I will state the obvious, that for somewhat inexplicable reasons, Seattle has very little New York-style (for lack of a better term) deli food, the kind that is everywhere in that city, served in places with names like Ben's, Sarge's, Artie's, Katz's, Eisenberg, Mendy's and Barney Greengrass.

Many of us have eaten the stuff in New York, Los Angeles, Miami, or maybe Cleveland, and most of us at least vaguely recognize it: pastrami sandwiches, chopped liver, bagels and lox, chicken soup with matzo balls, food that we associate with being Jewish because so much of that food and the culture overlap.

Anecdotally, there seem to be many ex-New Yorkers living in Seattle. You probably know one. Maybe you are one, living here because some software web-marketing company hired you. You brought your writer/artist spouse so now there are two more of you. And you've got friends. So why the dearth of delis?

Jon Jacobs, the owner of the young and quickly growing enterprise called I Love New York Deli, has some theories. "No one wants to do the logistics," he said, meaning the ingredients are difficult to procure. "And everyone wants to see visible lean."

In other words, here in the joyless, soy-vegan kingdom, fat scares us, and New York deli food is not exactly health food. The pastrami, made from beef navel, is streaked with tender, succulent ribbons of fat. The chopped chicken liver is cut with rendered chicken fat or schmaltz.

"We're used to bread sandwiches," said Jacobs, 56, who moved here in 1977 with his wife and then young children. "The main ingredient is the bread. You got your panini on focaccia whatever, or you order a ciabatta roll with ham. It's all bread with a little bit of meat. In my place, when you order a corn beef sandwich, it's mainly corned beef with a little bit of bread.'ꀝ

Jacobs, who was born in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn and grew up on the north shore of Long Island, opened the original I Love New York Deli in November 2007, as a stand in the Pike Place Market. Last summer, he opened a second, sit-down deli in the University District at NE 52nd Street and Roosevelt Way NE. This summer, he will undertake something unprecedented in the city, a full-service, authentic, New York-style deli on First Hill, open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, helping fill the void in this city of around-the-clock dining.

"It's going to look just like this," he said pointing to a photograph on his restaurant's wall of the counter at the legendary Katz's Delicatessen on the Lower East Side. His third restaurant, near the corner of Boren and Madison, will be his largest by far at 6,300 square feet and will have its own bakery, the culmination of a long-held dream for Jacobs.

"I talked about doing this all the time, ask anyone," said Jacobs, who worked as a manager for Trader Joe's for 12 years before opening that first deli two and a half years ago. He guessed correctly that to make it, he had to start where he could not fail, in the market.

"We're giving people something they have missed for so long." — deli owner Jon Jacobs

Tourists ensured foot traffic. A scene from the Jennifer Anniston movie, "Traveling," was shot with his stall in the background. Television hosts did stand-ups next to his place. He gathered instant buzz. Before Washington Mutual became Chase, its executives were in the habit of catering lunch from Jacobs. He quickly built a loyal following that followed him to the U-District and will presumably follow him, with others in tow, to First Hill.

"We're giving people something they have missed for so long," Jacobs said. "Like the other day, these two old Jewish guys from Olympia were in here. We call it nosh and kibbitz. They're just eating and talking. I hear them talking about sneaking into Ebbets Field (home of the defunct Brooklyn Dodgers). That's what it's all about."

Jacobs was studying to become a pharmacist at Long Island University, raising his family in Ronkokoma, Long Island, with his wife Lorraine — they have been married for 38 years and have four grown children and seven grandchildren — when his architect uncle suggested the young man move to Seattle to help him open a deli. His uncle put him to work instead as a construction manager. They had a falling out and Jacobs went with what he knew: food. He had worked in delis since age 13. He took a job at Denny's as a short-order cook on the graveyard shift. In the morning, he delivered newspapers. He also took a job stocking shelves at Safeway, wondering back then if he had made a mistake moving to Seattle.

But as long as he worked around food, he was comfortable. He loved to eat and over the years put on a lot of weight, topping out at 430 pounds before submitting to gastric bypass surgery. He now weighs 190.

"I still love food, but I don'ꀙt have to always eat it," he said.

Now, back to the pickles.

It takes a unique passion to ship half-sour pickles to Seattle over the weekend in five-gallon buckets. First, Jacobs makes a series of calls to the Ba-Tampte Pickle Products company in Brooklyn. He asks the person who answers the phone when the newest batch of half-sours went into the brine, like exactly when, as in just now or four hours ago. He can be unrelenting sometimes about certain details like this — he has his reasons — and he said he understands why the Ba-Tampte people might occasionally get a little fed up with him.

Notified of a fresh batch of half-sours, Jacobs dispatches his guys, two Russian fellas with their own truck. Every few weeks, they drive with hardly a stop from New York to Seattle with groceries you can find only in New York, lox, smoked whitefish, cheesecake, pastrami, corned beef and half-sour pickles. When the pickles are ready, the Russians pick it up, leave town, and within about 50 hours, they pull into Seattle, call Jacobs, even if it is in the middle of the night, which it often is, and drop off the load.

"The biggest problem is logistics," said Jacobs, who regularly rises at 2 am to start his day. "It took me a while to figure out."

Ba-Tampte supplies supermarkets like Safeway with half-sour pickles, but the shipments are slow and infrequent and the pickles usually well past full sour by the time you purchase them. Authenticity takes a lot of footwork. At I Love New York, a half-sour tastes like it was a cucumber a week ago. Because it was.

Jacobs orders his store's cheesecake from the legendary Junior's restaurant in Brooklyn — he buys the wholesale version, slightly different from the version served in the restaurant on Flatbush Avenue. He orders the pastrami and corned beef from a supplier on Avenue U in Brooklyn. He has the rye bread custom-baked locally. Ditto for the bagels. He can make from scratch a good number of dishes: the chopped liver, knishes, noodle kugel, blintzes, latkes, and rugelach. The kugel and chopped liver are from his maternal grandmother's recipes.

Whether you enjoy this kind of food or not, you have to marvel at the integrity of the inventory, assembled to maniacal detail. There are other establishments that serve food in the New York deli tradition — Roxy'ꀙs Diner in Fremont is one — but no one else has gone to the exact same lengths to recreate the full experience of the ritual.

I Love New York sells all varieties of Dr. Brown's soda, in bottles no less (which is hard to find in New York let alone Seattle), Wise chips, Drake's cakes, Chock Full o' Nuts coffee, jars of gefilte fish, and bottles of Fox's U-bet chocolate syrup, the key ingredient in an egg cream.

"New York has this mystique," Jacobs said. "We know it from movies, or from watching Seinfeld but we're not all going to get there. But you can come here. For $8.95 (the price of most of his sandwiches) I gave them a trip to New York."

If you go: I Love New York Deli, 93 Pike Street (in the Pike Place Market), 206-381-3354, 7 am-6 pm.Mon.-Sat., 7 am-5 pm Sunday; 5200 Roosevelt Way NE, 206-523-0606, 6 am-8 pm Sun.-Thu., 6 am-10 pm Fri-Sat. www.ilovenewyorkdeli.net.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Hugo Kugiya

A former national correspondent for The Associated Press and Newsday, freelance writer Hugo Kugiya has written about the Northwest for the Puget Sound Business Journal, The Seattle Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times. His book, 58 Degrees North, about the sinking of the Arctic Rose fishing vessel, was a finalist for the 2006 Washington State Book Award. You can reach him at hugo.kugiya@gmail.com.