Napoleon Bakery makes a nice Reuben panini, but it's no deli
Here's a question I get a lot, usually from people who have moved to Kansas City from one of the coasts: Why isn't there a decent Jewish delicatessen in the metro?
It's a good question. There used to be: In the 1940s, the Kansas City City Directory listed 67 delicatessens operating in the metro, including the Milwaukee Deli, the Chicago Deli, the Cincinnati Deli and the New York Bakery and Delicatessen, which outlasted all of its rivals until it closed, somewhat uncermoniously, last year. It's now a flea market.
But how can a city that once supported sixty-seven delicatessens be left, in the 21st century, with none? (I don't really count the Houston-based Jason's Deli chain, which has six locations in the metro, as a real delicatessen, but there are many people who do). The Orlando-based TooJay's Gourmet Deli didn't have a latke luck opening its first franchise operation outside Florida; that Johnson County venue was short-lived.
So what gives?
"It's the saddest thing that Kansas City can't support a real delicatessen," says Ann Slegman Isenberg, the managing editor of The Independent magazine. "Kansas City doesn't have a huge Jewish population -- maybe 20,000 people -- but even non-Jews love deli food. I think its because there are so many other dining options now. People love Thai food, Vietnamese food, and lighter fare than tradition deli food. I will say that d'Bronx makes a great matzoh ball soup."
Rick Hellman, editor of the Kansas City Jewish Chronicle, says the problem isn't limited to Kansas City: he heard a story on National Public Radio last year that suggested the culture of delicatessen dining is dying all over the country. "It's considered very heavy food," he says. "I really liked TooJays when it was here and I know some people complained that it was out in the suburbs, but I don't know that it could have been any more successful in midtown. Look what happened to the New York Bakery. I loved owner Jim Holzmark's corned beef. It was excellent. I really miss it."