Whether they’re dairy delights like bagels and lox, or meaty favorites like pastrami on rye, many classic Jewish dishes have one thing in common: They’re off limits to vegans.
Or they used to be. Vegan Jewish deli is starting to change that.
Consider Julie Podair’s vegan lox. “I’ve yet to meet someone who isn’t excited about it,” said Podair, the founder of Goldie’s Vegan Deli a new San Francisco-based brand that does pop-up restaurants and catering, is sold at the local wellness-centric female coworking space the Assembly, and is available nationwide online as a packaged product. The star of Podair’s menu is the Goldielox, made from carrots, salt-roasted whole, then sliced and marinated. In the lunchboxes available at the Assembly, it comes alongside vegan crackers, pickled onion, cashew cream cheese, and addictive black-and-white cookies made from chickpeas. On the pop-up’s menu, eaters can also find “whitefish” salad—made from hearts of palm and chickpeas, mixed with celery, dill, red onion, and vegan mayo—or pastrami lox, which is made by dipping the carrots in molasses and pastrami spice. Sometimes, Podair says, customers are perplexed: “They can’t believe it’s not fish.”
A biochemist who used to work with biofuels, Podair arrived at making carrots taste smoky after a series of thrill-seeking moves; these included teaching science, working as a recruiter in tech, and finally quitting her job to start a personal chef company, offering meal prep and dinner party catering to Bay Area residents. Originally from New Jersey, Podair grew up with a family supportive of her vegetarian choices, and her current business is the result of meeting vegan Israeli clients through her catering. “They would get very upset if there was nothing vegan on the menu,” she said. So she started experimenting, applying her scientific past to many trials and errors, until the flavors were just right.
Podair lives in the Mission neighborhood where, just a couple of weeks ago, Michelin-starred chef Aaron London opened Al’s Deli, a casual spin on his acclaimed restaurant, Al’s Place. While not defining the new eatery as Jewish deli per se, London takes inspiration both from Montreal-style smoked meats and Israeli cuisine, and the menu includes a variety of vegan dishes, like the creative latke “pockets” stuffed with avocado and grapefruit, to counter the cream-cheese-and-lox-stuffed version. “A lot of the food I had in Israel was vegan,” London said. “So, I didn’t change it. I let the dishes drive the menu rather than a quota of meat or vegetables.” And yet vegetables seem to be at the wheel these days; just ask the fans who line up daily at the counter of The Butcher’s Son in Berkeley, a vegan deli so popular it recently had to move across the street, into a bigger space.
In Los Angeles, chef Megan Tucker has been, for the past nine months, running Mort and Betty’s, a series of vegan Jewish deli pop-ups named after her grandparents. Tucker grew up in Philadelphia and has been vegan for the past seven years. When she’s not working full-time as the prepared food associate coordinator for Whole Foods’ southern Pacific region, Tucker is developing recipes aiming to recreate the flavor of her childhood’s comfort foods—minus the animal products. Eventually, says Tucker, some of the proceeds of the side gig will go toward her big dream: opening a farm-animal sanctuary. “When I was trying to decide what type of a food company I want to start, I realized I really should do what is most authentic to me—and that was to veganize the Jewish deli,” she said. She made carrot lox, corned beets, mushroom pastrami, and a white carrot “fish” salad. At a recent block party, Mort and Betty’s served Reuben tacos, with corned beets, vegan cheese, and avocado. Veganizing the Jewish deli, according to Tucker, is all about the flavor profile: “You got black pepper, mustard seeds, coriander, mustard flavor, smokiness, fresh herbs with dill and parsley, vinegar, and lemon.” Soon, Tucker’s vegan food will make an appearance on screen, in an upcoming short film Bra Mitzvah, written and directed by LGBTQ activist Stacy Jill Calvert.
A good pop-up is always an indicator of a budding trend, but a brick-and-mortar spot, like Al’s Deli, is a sign the trend is here to stay. Such sign is also the Orchard Grocer, operating in New York City since late 2017. Like Podair, the women behind it aren’t trained chefs; rather, they are the owners of a vegan shoe brand, MooShoes, who decided to divide the retail space and create a one-stop shop for all things vegan. Sisters Erica and Sara Kubersky have been vegan since childhood, and have built a menu that includes Jewish classics: a Reuben, tuna on rye bread, a bagel with cream cheese. All the ingredients, of course, are vegan, making the coveted Reuben finally accessible to kashrut-keepers who can’t have the cheese-on-meat version. “It’s good that people come in and have a little familiarity, and then we veganize them,” joked Erica Kubersky. “I didn’t stop eating animals because of the way they tasted, but as an ethical decision, and having the foods you enjoy can still be a part of veganism. Sometimes I want a big salad and sometimes I want a Reuben.”
For everyone involved, the vegan Jewish deli is rooted in the past, while looking forward. Of his latest venture, London said: “It’s a ‘deli’ in a way to me, in that you can stop by there whenever and grab something tasty for in-house or to go, but it is not a traditional deli.” Similarly, the new wave of vegan Jewish offerings is inspired by the classic deli’s pillars—comfort, availability, a relaxed approach to dining—but the interpretation is getting increasingly liberal. “It’s getting to enjoy the flavors I grew up with, but having them made of plants, and about making it easy for people that have that inclination,” said Tucker.
Podair concluded: “The Jewish deli is just generally coming back, and even if people are very healthy and vegan, they still want to eat classic comfort food. No one just wants to eat kale.”
Flora Tsapovsky is a San Francisco-based food and culture writer.