“OHMIGOD. You HAVE to try Kenny and Zuke’s. It’s just down the street? Three short Portland blocks.” Says Johnny with enthusiasm, in response to our query about a good breakfast place. With a boyish face and dirty blond hair pouring over his forehead, he is manning or boying the hotel front desk today. We thank him and head out.
I can see tables and chairs on the sidewalk after the second block. No one is sitting outside on this cool autumn day, though. We walk into a Deli that feels transported directly from New York City to downtown Portland. Conversations in every corner from pairs as well as groups make this place come alive. It has the best of both worlds: the NYC style and menu, along with the West Coast’s delicate touch, like organic soy milk that curdles in your coffee. By the time our calm (another West Coast touch) waitress comes to take our order, I am Johnny-enthusiastic, rattling off about how thrilled we are to be here for the first time. He wisely takes over the conversation to ask what she might recommend for a good sample taste of their food. She suggests Challah French toast and pastrami with eggs. “Great. We’ll have those then.”
Despite my addiction to coffee, I can only handle one cup with this curdling soy milk. We are talking about books when she finally appears with our breakfasts. Mine: three slices of Challah French toast with a side of maple syrup. That simple. But the sweet aroma rises like sounds of a violin solo. An almost transparent batter covers each piece bronze, feathering a few millimeters outside the edges. So enthralled by this olfactory delight I only notice that his, is an impressively large plate. “Bon Appetit.” She says
I pour the maple syrup, promising myself to only have a couple of bites, then cut a piece and place it in my mouth. At that moment the whole world slows down to allow me to fully experience the sweetest, lushest, French toast I have ever tasted. It practically oozes nectar, simply divine. I may have discovered a rival for uncle Paul’s french toast, but that’s another story for another day. My eyes widen with pleasure after each bite, which turns out to be however many it takes to finish one whole piece plus the crust of another. “You HAVE to try some of this.” I tell him. He appears just as delighted with his meal. From his plate, I sample potato latkes, copper in color, dotted with onion slivers. A perfect crunch on the outside gives way to the lumpy albeit soft interior.
“Did you know that the secret to pastrami is mustard?” I didn’t. So he proceeds to make his signature perfect bite. He picks up a triangle of toast, glossy from the melted butter. On a corner he adds a little of everything: pastrami, eggs, green peppers, and a touch of Dijon. In that morsel my teeth first meet the rye toast, another crunch, then feel an intermingle of the fluffy scrambled eggs alongside salty, thewy meat. All in all, a robust flavor to contrast my delicate French toast. Being fed by him naturally adds an extra dimension to that taste.
“Let’s imagine we are in Europe and do as they do. Let’s just stay for a while.” I remember doing exactly what he says in Vienna a few years ago. A group of us started at a coffee shop with lunch, then spent the afternoon talking about life, politics, art, literature, probably throwing in a few sexual innuendos, until it was time for dinner. Only then did we leave to go to another restaurant.
At Kenny and Zuke’s, the two of us stay at the corner table by the window, for a few hours, adding to the Deli’s energy with our own share of conversations. Sadly, we don’t leave much room for lunch. Still, learning to merely be, relax in the company of one another, and luxuriate in the moment, are just as good.