The phrases “Jewish deli” and “plant-based” don’t usually go together, but that may be changing thanks to a new Jewish deli in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood. Owners Gina Marino-Kalish and Andy Kalish, who are married, claim that their latest restaurant — named Sam and Gertie’s after Kalish’s maternal grandparents — is the U.S.’ first Jewish deli where the menu is entirely vegan.
At first glance, Sam and Gertie’s menu looks familiar to anyone who has frequented a Jewish deli in the past 125 years. Diners can order a bagel with a schmear or cold-cured “läks;” sandwiches stuffed with corned beef, pastrami, or “whitefish-ish” salad; chopped “livah;” latkes with sour cream or apple sauce — the perennial debate! — and even that long-lost deli classic, a potato knish.
It is only upon closer examination that you realize that this deli is not at all traditional. The whimsically named läks is actually thinly sliced tomato; the chopped livah consists of lentils, onions, walnuts, and beans; and the pastrami is vital wheat gluten and an amalgam of milled legumes, root vegetables, and natural starches. None of the items on the menu contain any animal products whatsoever.
One of the standout dishes at Sam and Gertie’s is the creamy “whitefish-ish” salad made with hearts of palm, soy-based cream cheese, and vegan mayo. This dish was especially challenging to recreate, according to Kalish, “Capturing the umami-rich, silky, and flaky nature of seafood is endlessly vexing.” But that isn’t stopping Kalish and his wife from trying to come up with a vegan version of gefilte fish. “We’re damn close, but this one is a grind. I still have a little while before Passover to get there,” muses Kalish.
All over Chicago, traditional Jewish delis have been closing their doors. Two of the latest casualties include The Bagel, a suburban deli that served its last bowl of matzah ball soup in November 2018 after 31 years in business and Milt’s Extra Innings, a kosher establishment that closed in March 2019 after opening only 17 months prior.
The initial response to Sam and Gertie’s, however, has been enthusiastic. In fact, Marino-Kalish can’t make her vegan deli creations fast enough. The restaurant, which for now is only open Friday through Sunday, sold out completely each of its first two weekends in business.
Kalish credits the frenzy to a combination of “an enormous amount of nostalgia” from Jewish patrons — some vegan, who thought their deli days were behind them — and the growing interest in a plant-based diet. “It is undeniable that more and more people are aware of the toll that an animal-based diet has on our bodies and our environment. It transcends all demographics — people want to live longer, live healthier, and have a planet that’s not on fire,” Kalish points out. Indeed, Kalish notes that at their other vegan restaurant (which opened in 2016 and serves diner classics alongside Mexican food), about 75% of the customers are omnivores. He expects that to be true of Sam and Gertie’s as well.
With veganism moving from niche to mainstream, vegan restaurants in general are on the rise all over the United States — from health food eateries to diners to pizzerias. Fast food chains now offer plant-based burgers and major league baseball stadiums, like Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City and Globe Life Park in Arlington, Texas, offer a variety of vegan and vegetarian eats. It stands to reason that delis and sandwich places would not be far behind.
Not only are vegan restaurants doing well in the States, but veganism is a bona fide trend in Israel. With some 400 vegan and vegan-friendly restaurants, Tel Aviv in particular has been called the vegan capital of the world, and Israel’s Tourism Ministry has actively promoted the country as a destination for vegans. It’s no coincidence that many staples of Israeli cuisine — from hummus to falafel — are naturally vegan. “Veganism is a natural extension of how we love to eat in Israel historically: plant-based,” says Inbal Baum, founder of Delicious Israel, a culinary tour company in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. “If someone wants to shift to a plant-based diet in Israel, that shift from the typical dietary staples (eggs, dairy, schnitzel) is a much smaller jump than from the American diet of burgers and steaks.”
Traditional Ashkenazi deli food may be closer to that American meat-centric way of eating, but Kalish, who grew up near Detroit where his mother had a catering business, doesn’t view his vegan deli as that big of a departure from tradition. “What I am doing with Sam and Gertie’s is an extension of my family’s traditions, religion, and culture — it’s just unique in that I am using plants to create the foods. I think most people are good with that.”