Friday, January 08, 2016

They have the meats: Les & Mark bring back their Jewish deli for one overstuffed meal

“Save the Deli” is not just the name of David Sax’s 2009 book. It’s a call-to-arms for anyone wishing they could walk down the street and get a pastrami on rye, made like they used to make them, as easily as you can get a Big Mac.

Louisville had a traditional Jewish deli, Les & Mark’s Deli, in Hikes Point in the latter half of the 1970s. Owners Mark Suna and Les Naiman, from New York and New Jersey respectively, missed the food of their youth and opened it after putting $500 down. Their deli also was a place to socialize, and not just for Louisville’s Jewish population. Mitch McConnell was a customer who posted flyers on their walls advertising his first run at elected office.

Naiman and Suna split after a few years, unable to balance what Suna calls their “Odd Couple” qualities. Mutual friends kept them in each other’s orbits through the years as Naiman continued in the food business, running his own Nosh Box deli and catering. Suna went into commercial real estate. The men eventually made peace and renewed their friendship.

This Sunday, Jan. 10, they will also renew their recipes for corned beef, coleslaw and more, all made in accordance with kosher rules, for a lunch service open to the public, benefitting the synagogue Keneseth Israel. Meat by the pound also will be for sale. All proceeds benefit the synagogue’s community outreach efforts. Adding to the festivities, writer Ted Merwin will be on hand to discuss his new book, Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli.

Another reason to do this now, says Suna, is that a lot of their old customers are just that — old. It’s not just the customers who are becoming scarce; where there were once 2,000 delis in New York, today there are five. Louisvillians looking for the real thing have to drive to Cincinnati or Indianapolis, though as Keneseth Israel executive director Yonatan Yussman points out, Shapiro’s in Indianapolis “isn’t even Kosher.”

The reasons for the decline are both social and financial. While those old delis were started by immigrants who couldn’t find their favorite old country food in their new cities, the great-grandchildren of those originators have long since assimilated into the American melting pot of Domino’s, Taco Bell and, well, the Melting Pot.

Additionally, quality meats are expensive, and kosher meats are more expensive than regular meats. The 2014 documentary Deli Man points out that of those five delis left in New York, four own their buildings. But it only takes one person passionate, crazy or well-funded enough to do it again in Louisville.

Suna mentions that Republic Bank CEO Steve Trager once worked as a Nosh Box server. Today, his nephew Michael Trager-Kusman keeps the family in the food business as a co-founder of NuLu restaurant Rye, which has flown in bread from New York’s Katz’s Deli, one of those final five.

As for Les & Mark, they’re getting back in business for a meal to have fun and to enjoy their friendship and community. Suna says now, “I don’t want to do it where it’s a job. I want to do it where I’m affecting change and helping others.”

“Kosher Deli Day” will be held at Keneseth Israel, 2531 Taylorsville Road, on Sunday, Jan. 10, from 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.

C. 2016 Insider Louisville

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