Flavor Trends, Strategies and Solutions for Menu Development

10 Deli Inspirations What’s not to like? Favorite deli flavors go beyond tradition

Chef Jason Alley of Comfort and Pasture in Richmond, Va., changes up the Reuben with his “Reubenesque,” housemade pork pastrami and Thousand Island dressing spiked with fermented red-chile paste, served on an Asiago roll.

Fueled by the national movement to revive all kinds of traditional products—pickles, cured meats, artisanal breads—traditional Jewish-American deli delights are being reinterpreted with sustainable, high-quality ingredients and a modern, signature edge.

1. Reuben Sandwich

The sandwich that most typifies today’s deli phenomenon sees a combination of corned beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut and Thousand Island dressing, grilled between two slices of rye or marble rye bread. Swapping turkey for the corned beef makes it a Rachel.

  • Recast Reuben or Rachel sandwich ingredients as an entrée salad over greens.
  • Substitute any smoked fish for the corned beef in a sandwich.

Kim Chee Reuben Sandwich: Pastrami, homemade kimchi, Swiss cheese, Thousand Island spread, toasted rye ­
—The Pineapple Room, Honolulu

Vegetarian Reuben: Coriander-rubbed and smoked beets, sauerkraut, Russian dressing, Gruyère
—The General Muir, Atlanta

2. Pastrami and Smoked Meat

Iconic pastrami and the lesser-known (but not for long) Montreal-style smoked meat, which uses a different spice rub, are showing up beyond the deli. Pastrami spices also are being used on other proteins and even veg-centric menu items.

  • Introduce pastrami or smoked meat as an ingredient in something familiar, like nachos, pizzas, cheese fries or stuffed baked potatoes.
  • Add chopped pastrami wherever you might use bacon, such as in roasted Brussels sprouts, potato salad, or in a dip or sandwich spread.

Shrimp Pastrami: Frisée, rye crisps, spicy rémoulade, watermelon radish
—Cured, San Antonio, Texas

Smoked Meat Peppercorn Poutine: Shaved Montreal smoked meat, sautéed mushrooms, peppercorn gravy
—Smoke’s Poutinerie, all locations

3. “Everything Bagel” Spice

Starting with bagels, this flavorful mixture of sesame seed, poppyseed, minced onion, garlic and pretzel salt brings crunchy texture and an interesting appearance to a variety of foods.

  • Mix “everything bagel” spice into soft cheese, hummus, yogurt or any other dippable/spreadable ingredient to create a shareable plate or sandwich filling.
  • Dust on pretzels, chicken wings or flatbread for a distinctive variation on these bar-food classics.

Everything Bagel Spice Crusted Salmon:Cream cheese gnocchi, smoked salmon, lightly pickled cucumbers and fresh dill
—Columbus Inn, Wilmington, Del.

Everything Croissant:Croissant filled with cream cheese and green onion and topped with everything bagel topping (including poppyseed, sesame, garlic, onion and sea salt)
—Neighbor Bakehouse, San Francisco

4. Smoked Fish

In the deli tradition, this category of smoked and cured fish could include anything from lox and herring to gefilte fish—all products that cry out for artisanal adaptations.

  • Incorporate any smoked or cured fish in a rillette or pâté, salad or sandwich (smoked trout rillettes, smoked trout chef’s salad, smoked trout BLT).
  • Use smoked fish in egg dishes, including quiches or frittatas, scrambled eggs, eggs Benedict or deviled eggs.

Pretty in Pink:Nova, beet and horseradish cream cheese, dill, pumpernickel bagel
—Baz Bagel & Restaurant, New York

Herring “Under a Fur Coat:” Seven-layer dip, Russian-style salad of herring, potatoes, onions, carrots, beets, mayo, eggs
—Kachka, Portland, Ore.

5. Schmaltz

Given the popularity of nose-to-tail utilization, it stands to reason that schmaltz—rendered, clarified chicken fat—is finding a home on innovative menus.

  • Use as a cooking medium for caramelized onions, fried eggs, sautéed potato pancakes and more.
  • Drizzle on top of roasted or sautéed vegetables, where you might use olive oil.

Sweet & Sour Meatballs, schmaltz-toasted challah
—Mile End, New York

Charcuterie Plate for Two: Smoked kielbasa, schmaltz, rabbit liver mousse, cotechino, smoked pork loin, fried pig ears, haus mustard, challah
—Bronwyn, Somerville, Mass

6. Babka

Evoking shades of “Seinfeld,” this traditional, yeasty, twisted bread can be stuffed with cinnamon or chocolate and topped with streusel—the concept invites innovation.

  • Repurpose babka of any kind in bread pudding or French toast.
  • Consider rendering a babka with savory ingredients, such as ham and cheese, spinach, jalapeño cream cheese or olive spread and feta.

Babka Ice Cream Sandwich: Babka ice cream between slices of Russ & Daughters Chocolate Babka
—Russ & Daughters Café, New York

Salted Caramel Pecan Babka Roll
—The Sycamore Kitchen, Los Angeles

7. A Schmear

As much an action as an ingredient—and a signal expression of the Yiddish language—a schmear refers to a thin smear or spread, traditionally of butter but also of cream cheese or other ingredients, on a bagel or other baked breadstuff.

  • Invoke deli culture by referring to a schmear of condiment (such as mayo) on a sandwich.
  • Offer toasts or crostini with an array of interesting soft toppings for schmearing, such as hummus, crushed avocado, whipped cheese,  pâté and so on.

Dap & Schmear: Nori, salmon, ricotta cream cheese and rice wrap
—Original Grain, Syracuse, N.Y.

Avenue A: Nova, schmear, avocado, grapefruit, cucumber, onion, dill
—The General Muir, Atlanta

8. Mustard

In the deli tradition, mustard is the keystone condiment, with its crucial flavor profile. Offering and/or calling out housemade or specialty mustards is one good way to leverage the trend.

  • Seek out specialty or flavored mustards for sandwiches, sauces and other menu items, including regional favorites.
  • Soften mustard seeds in sherry vinegar and add to salads, dressings and protein crusts for texture and a jolt of heat.

A Sammie for Jew: Two fried eggs, cream cheese, kosher beef salami, and Raye’s Mustard on Portuguese bun
—Peck’s, Brooklyn, N.Y.

Pop’s Pastrami Sandwich, buttermilk-fermented cucumber, caraway cracked rye berry, anchovy mustard and dill
—Harry & Ida’s Meat & Supply Co., New York

9. Bialy

The bagel’s smaller, flatter, hole-free, onion-festooned cousin is undergoing the same artisanal rebirth as the bagel itself, both on its own and as a deli-referential sandwich bread.

  • Use a split, toasted bialy as the base for a Deli Benedict topped with pastrami or salami, poached eggs and hollandaise.
  • Utilize leftover bialys in a stuffing or savory bread pudding.

Bialy Dough Pizza
—New York Bagels ’N Bialys, Scottsdale, Ariz.

Bacon, Egg, Lettuce and Tomato on a bialy
—Outliers Eatery, Portland, Maine

10. Knish

Given the growing popularity of new-wave empanadas, hand pies, bao and other stuffed, savory pastries, can this Eastern European stuffed snack be far behind?

  • Offer the option of a knish as a premium sandwich-bread option.
  • Experiment with different fillings for the fluffy, flaky dough, from a bacon-egg-and-cheese breakfast knish to mini bar bites with broccoli and cheddar.

Knish Reuben: Corned beef, sauerkraut, Swiss, Thousand Island
—Vandal, New York

Knishes: Potato and onion; potato and corned beef; potato with mushroom and kale
—Wise Sons, San Francisco


About The Author

Joan Lang

A freelance writer and editor living in the Portland, Maine, area, Joan Lang has been writing about food for more than 30 years, beginning her career in the financial and B2B press. She formed her own food and editorial consulting firm, Full Plate Communications, in 1989. She is a graduate of the New York Restaurant School and holds degrees in architecture and journalism.