Jewish delicatessens are often lovingly described as sacred temples of meat—and for good reason. From the briny pastrami and corned beef layered inside a deli sandwich, to the schmaltz-glistening bowls of chicken soup with matzo balls, there are many carnivorous delights to be had.
But let it be known that the delicatessen also has serious breakfast game. It all started with simple combinations like salami and eggs, which were originally eaten, most often, for dinner. (Fun fact: The Jewish comedian Alan King co-wrote a book with Mimi Sheraton called Is Salami and Eggs Better Than Sex? Memoirs of a Happy Eater.)
Over the decades, as some delicatessens began to incorporate more smoked fish and other ingredients traditionally designated to Jewish “dairy” restaurants onto their menus, the breakfast options swelled. These days, innumerable small joys await those who take their first meal of the day perched on counter stool or tucked into a booth. There’s the savory perfume of browning onions wafting off the griddle, the sunshine gleam of a halved grapefruit sprinkled with sugar, and the bottomless cups of coffee that invite diners to linger a while before embarking on their days ahead.
“People are surprised to hear that breakfast is my favorite meal in the deli,” said Zane Caplansky, owner of the Toronto delicatessen, Caplansky’s. Caplansky listed smoked fish draped over freshly-baked bagels, chocolate babka French toast, and smoked meat hash with eggs on rye toast as evidence of the deli breakfast’s superiority. And if that’s not convincing enough, he offered one additional, definitive word: “blintzes”: thin, eggy crepes that are stuffed with creamy farmer’s cheese or berries, rolled into parcels, and fried.
One may also add to that list matzo brei, which softens the Passover cracker in beaten egg and pan fries it until it’s puffed and golden brown. Then there’s challah French toast, which follows a similar method, swapping out the matzo for the traditional Sabbath bread. “I’m really partial to challah French toast, especially with fresh berries,” said Ted Merwin, author of Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli. “I love the way the eggy bread absorbs even more egg and keeps some of its softness and sheen even after being fried.”
In recent years, as America has enjoyed a small but robust “artisanal delicatessen” evolution, the breakfast options have gotten even more enticing. “It seems to me that deli owners everywhere are upping their game with delicious riffs on old dishes,” said cookbook author Joan Nathan. Over the past few months, she has eaten breakfast at several delicatessens while traveling around the country to promote her newest cookbook, King Solomon’s Table. She noted the pastrami scrambled eggs at Stein’s Market and Deli in New Orleans, a dish of eggs with smoked trout at Saul’s Deli in Berkeley, and a board of smoked sable, goat cream cheese, and fixings with a bialy at New York’s Russ & Daughter’s Cafe as highlights.
While little can beat the thrill of dining in the delicatessen itself, it is eminently possible to create a worthy Jewish deli breakfast at home. This spread features one old school classic: lox with scrambled eggs and onion (nicknamed the “LEO”), which Arthur Schwartz describes as “one of the most sublime creations of the Yiddish kitchen,” in his book: Arthur Schwartz’s Jewish Home Cooking: Yiddish Recipes Revisited. It also highlights a custardy baked version of challah French toast that is designed to be prepped ahead and feeds a hungry crowd. To round things out on a fresh note, halved grapefruit get an update as a bright salad with arugula, fennel and hazelnuts. Plunge the French press and pass the maple syrup: Jewish deli breakfast is served.