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Sam & Gertie’s to put a vegan spin on the Jewish deli

“We owe it to our people in the world not to let deli die.” - Andy Kalish

Vegan Deli1 image
Leland Smokehouse Bagel Whitefish-Style.

Potato latkes. Matzoh ball soup. Kreplach. Lox and bagels. All evoke scrumptious memories of some of our favorite Jewish delicacies. These and more will be served at the new Jewish deli, Sam & Gertie's, due to open this December in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago.

But Sam & Gertie's is the not the Jewish deli you grew up with: No, this Jewish deli is vegan.

And it is a concept nearly 25 years in the making.

"I've always wanted to have a small Jewish deli that was reminiscent of my childhood," said Andy Kalish, Chicago restaurateur for the past two decades. "I grew up in the suburbs of Detroit with a strong deli culture."

But when Kalish and his wife Gina moved to Chicago over two decades ago, the local deli culture was not as they hoped it would be.

The Kalishes have been in the food business pretty much the entire time they've lived here. "I kept saying to my wife, you know we should open a deli and she'd say 'bagels are dead and delis are dead' and we just agreed to disagreed."

They have run Kal'ish, a very successful vegan restaurant, since 2016. "When we came up with the idea for Kal'ish," Kalish said, "we knew we wanted to have a restaurant in our neighborhood and my wife was very clear that it had to be plant based."

"You don't have to be vegan to eat our food," Kalish is quick to point out. "In fact, most people aren't."

But now the demand has increased to a point where they needed to expand, and they needed more space. "We had been operating this restaurant next door to Kal'ish called Longacre, Detroit style vegan pizza. The business was fine, but it was not a passion for either of us." Which is how they decided to turn that space into Sam & Gertie's.

Sam & Gertie's is named after Kalish's maternal grandparents and a portrait of the couple will hang in the restaurant. He has many fond memories of going to their home regularly while growing up, describing Friday night dinner tables filled with chopped liver and creamed herring-"and my grandmother made the most magnificent chicken noodle soup and matzoh balls and kreplach and I just loved it. I loved it then and I love it now. I suppose this is an homage to them."

The bagels they serve will be baked by Steingold's, a two-year old Jewish deli located in the nearby North Center neighborhood of Chicago. In fact, Kalish cites Steingold's as part of his inspiration to finally realize his own deli dream. "I think he [Aaron Steingold] felt the same way-that we owe it to our people in the world not to let deli die."

"They showed us that deli is not dead-it just needed somebody that really loved the food to actually make it-not just turn it over to people who just make sandwiches, but people who know the flavors," Kalish said.

In addition to the specialties mentioned earlier, Sam & Gertie's will also serve plant-based corned beef, pastrami, turkey, and a Reuben-plus many other favorites. The 600-square-foot space will have seating for ten but will predominately be a grab-and-go place. They also plan to bake vegan challah every day along with mandelbread and other sweet treats.

"It's been a wonderful challenge," Kalish said, "for us to create foods that are reflective, and I would say respectful, of the animal-based analog, but we try to create a broad and pleasing sensory experience."

He explained that while vegan deli sandwiches can be found in restaurants all over the country, those places also serve Asian and Mexican fare, while Sam & Gertie's focus will entirely be traditional Jewish deli fare, thus making it the first vegan Jewish deli that he's aware of.

Interestingly, neither Kalish, nor his wife Gina are vegans, yet they are committed to the ideals that many vegans hold dear. According to their web site for Kal'ish, "We are trying to create a dining experience that weighs less on our bodies and our environment than animal-based alternatives, while being profitable and long lasting."

Rochelle Newman Rubinoff is a freelance writer living in the northern suburbs of Chicago.


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