A burly man in a white apron appears behind a bright red dutch door and, with a gently gruff Brooklyn accent, apologizes to a customer for accidentally cutting an edge of crust off her sandwich bread. Every last bit of rye is crucial to contain some 10-plus ounces of corned beef and pastrami piled within. He offers an extra slice as appeasement. This is the Dingfelder’s Delicatessen way: family recipes via old school Jewish deli dispensed at 14th and Pine.
Seattle had been in a deli drought. Then came Dingfelder’s, which debuted as a walkup window, then morphed into a sit-down space. In the new year, a popular food truck that sells latke-based sandwiches will open a place called Schmaltzy’s in Ballard. Northgate will soon be home to deli-bakery Zylberschtein’s from Josh Grunig of Standard Bakery. Even bagels have staked out a presence here; LoxSmith Bagel will bestow fermented and lye-boiled bagels unto Ballard next summer, and back in January 2018, Westman’s Bagel and Coffee brought babka, challah, schmears, and bagels blessed by New York transplants to a window on Madison. Now Seattle has a spectrum of options, from modern to classic.
A 54-year-old former New Yorker, Vance Dingfelder stays loyal to the deli traditions he learned from his family, like his grandfather, a taxicab driver from Brooklyn who taught him how to order a sandwich when he was just seven years old. “He said to me, ‘You tell the guy to make it juicy and give him [an extra] 50 cents...to leave a little bit of fat.’”
Dingfelder opened his place in September with his wife, Stephanie Hemsworth, and spends his days crafting pastrami and corned beef, slowly cooked for upwards of four hours. His sandwich meats are hand sliced and uber succulent, tempered by the tang of Russian dressing slaw or a swipe of chopped chicken liver. “People expect the meat to be cut razor-paper-thin, but if you cook it properly,” he emphasizes, “you can slice it thick and it still melts in the mouth.” The sandwich’s eyebrow-raising $18 price tag, notes Dingfelder, is the cost of making it the way grandpa would approve.
Other newcomers take modern liberties with the Jewish deli canon. Jonny Silverberg of Napkin Friends, a food truck famous for sandwiches where latkes play the role of bread, doesn’t adhere to the doctrine of monster pastramis. His playful latke sandwiches—contemporary delivery of traditional flavors—will be on the menu at Schmaltzy’s, and provide a good preview of the sorts of twists Silverberg might put on reubens or babka or black and white cookies. “We’re stepping into a type of food that people have extremely strong opinions about,” he acknowledges.
That ardor is famously on display at some of New York’s most iconic Jewish eateries—Katz’s or Russ and Daughters—and now, finally, maybe in Seattle. Dingfelder, with his force of knishes, kugels, matzoh ball soup, and jaw-testing sandwiches, would love to eventually forge the local version of that pantheon. “I hope that I get to bring my grandchildren to Dingfelder’s,” he says, voice cracking, “and say, ‘Hey, this is how you order a sandwich.’”