There’s a section of Lombard Street in downtown Baltimore once known as “Corned Beef Row,” but it isn’t home to quite as many Jewish delis as it was in its heyday. While only the historic Attman’s and Weiss delis remain on Lombard (which have been open for more than a century and 80 years, respectively), a rich Jewish deli history is still being written for Baltimore in places like Pikesville and Owings Mills.
Stores such as Edmart Deli (opened in 1958), Lenny’s Delicatessen (1985), The Knish Shop (1970s) and Miller’s Deli (1963) have been serving customers in the county for decades, while the Essen Room in Pikesville (2017) and AJ’s Deli in the Mount Vernon Marketplace (2018) are new establishments offering up the old classics.
Lenny’s Delicatessen in Owings Mills was a member of the “Corned Beef Row” club until recently. It shut down its Lombard Street location in 2017, but still has locations on Reisterstown Road and in the Horseshoe Casino on Russell Street. For Ted Merwin, Pikesville resident and author of “Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli,” Lenny’s is an example of how Baltimore’s Jewish delis incorporate a mix of Jewish and African American cultures.
“A place like Attman’s has a predominantly black clientele, with really not a lot of Jewish customers, and Lenny’s is fascinating because it’s not so much about the customer base as it is about the actual place,” he said. “They serve a combination of Jewish food and soul food. There’s corn beef and pastrami and there’s also fried chicken and mac and cheese and that kind of stuff. … I think there are similarities between what we consider soul food and Jewish food. It’s heavy and fatty and nurturing and satisfying.”
Historically, Merwin believes Jewish delis are an integral part of the establishment of American Jewish identity, describing their function as a gathering place that is second only to synagogue.
“Jewish delis are really an American thing. What the deli did was really help create the unitary American Jewish identity.
With all these Hungarian, Lithuanian and Ukrainian [communities], the deli was the place, that because it was that sort of gathering spot, all different kinds of Jewish people and non-Jewish people could feel comfortable.”
Lenny’s Delicatessen owner Alan Smith recognized this aspect of his family’s business, which started off with a mostly Jewish clientele that has grown to employ and serve members of the non-Jewish community.
“Early on, people used to come to us to see all their friends and we still have lots of breakfast clubs that come in, we have groups of guys who like to come in to play cards,” he said. “It’s a familiar place that resonates with not only the Jewish community but the non-Jewish community.
They want the same thing.”
To get a feel for the current climate in Baltimore’s Jewish deli scene, the JT editorial staff stopped by the tried and true Attman’s Deli, Pikesville kosher mainstay the Knish Shop, overstuffed sandwich and dessert aficionados the Essen Room and the spanking new pastrami slingers AJ’s Deli.
After we stuffed our faces (and recovered from our food comas), we got to writing. We’re happy share the highlights of our two-day deli crawl.
(It should be noted that most so-called Jewish-style delis are not actually kosher, and that’s largely true of Baltimore as well. Of the restaurants below, only The Knish Shop has kosher supervision.)
— Connor Graham
The story of Attman’s Deli, this close-quartered delicatessen agleam with industrial lighting and awash in the reverberating din of the employees shouting to each other in deep bass tones, is the “stereotypical story about Russian immigrants,” said Assistant Manager David Greenberg. The deli has a long and storied history: Harry Attman arrived in America in 1905, working his way across the ocean as a barber. After a stint in a Rhode Island grocery, he came to Baltimore and founded the grocery store and light lunch spot that still bears his family name.
Upon its founding in 1915, the store was mainly a spot for imported teas, breads and other dry goods with a small, supplemental sandwich menu. It was Seymour Attman, Harry’s son, who, embracing the “Attmansphere” — as he termed the hustle and bustle of the shop — transformed the grocery store into a bona fide delicatessen offering all the perennial favorites.
The deli has witnessed the tides of history. During the riots following Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1968 assassination, while even the building next door to Attman’s Jonestown deli burned, the deli’s building was preserved. Seymour Attman, the owner at the time, fed law enforcement and emergency personnel and kept the deli open all night during the rioting.
Attman’s success is rooted in its adherence to what works and to “having something that a lot of people like and they can’t get elsewhere,” Greenberg said. Attman’s methods of preparing and serving corned beef are markedly old-school. In the days of delis past, corned beef was placed in barrels full of brine to cure for three days. The beef was then delivered whole to delicatessens who had to remove the beef — up to 300 pounds per barrel — and put them into boiling pots of water to cook.
Greenberg claims Attman’s is one of the only delis that still receives its corned beef in barrels and cooks the beef in house. In fact, says Greenberg “they go from the pot to the counter where they’re sliced. They never make it into a showcase.”
The JT staff tried Attman’s all-beef hot dogs with bologna. The hot dog was succulent and savory, with the tang of the pickle and onions perfectly offsetting the richness of the hot dog. The matzah ball soup was also a favorite, with thick egg noodles and a sumptuously soft matzah ball, was neither too salty nor too bland, but just right. I washed down my hot dog with the iconic Stewart’s cream soda, the perfect deli accompaniment. But, barring an affection for cream soda, juices, colas and even beers were also available in the cold case opposite the cashier. To finish off the meal, we ate chocolate tops replete with their usual rich chocolatey-ness and velvety texture.
— Victoria Brown
When you get the hankering for a busy old-school/new-school marketplace deli experience and you’re a little more uptown than down, head over to AJ’s Deli in the Mount Vernon Marketplace at Park Avenue and Centre Street, housed (and this is really old-school) in the former Hochschild, Kohn & Co. department store building.
The energetic marketplace bustle will prepare you for the friendly and welcoming energy of proprietor Alan Morstein (former owner of Regi’s American Bistro), who opened what he calls his “deli with a twist” in November 2018.
“I call myself a kosher-style deli, but it’s more of a modern deli,” Morstein said about his menu that is packed with traditional favorites with a fresh, farm-to-table bent. “[I’m] doing things a little different than the traditional delis. I still have my roots in traditional deli, and I always will have my roots in traditional deli.”
Morstein started in the business with Alan’s Deli, 40 years ago in Ocean City, Maryland.
“In those days, I was serving pastrami that was fatty. I was serving fatty corned beef, I was serving salads laden with mayonnaise,” he said. “The modern is using more fresh herbs, more vinegars, locally sourced products. The roots are like the deli of my parents, but now it’s the deli that my kids take me to when I go to visit them in New York and Hoboken. It’s more that twist, versus what I was brought up on.”
Upon the JT team’s arrival at the rustic bar/counter that fronts AJ’s, backed by colorful New York-style deli décor and subway-type graffiti, Morstein offered samples of his crunchy house-made pickles made with Kirby cucumbers, his fresh, non-mayonnaise-y, crispy, cole slaw and savory-herby potato salad. From his “Bar Bites” menu the team relished the smoked whitefish appetizer, served on a cool slice of cucumber topped with lox and compact, salty capers. Next, AJ’s warm thinly sliced, lean pastrami on rye with spicy mustard topped off the meal with what felt like a fairly healthy indulgence.
When asked what he considers the AJ’s Deli specialty, Morstein answered without hesitation, “Making the guests happy,” then added, “Our pastrami is authentic New York pastrami. It’s the real deal. It’s the ‘Harry Met Sally’ of pastrami.”
— Susan C. Ingram
You probably won’t find a homier, more down-to-earth, kosher experience anywhere than at the Knish Shop at 508 Reisterstown Road, well, unless you’re at your bubbe’s.
That family atmosphere is courtesy of owners Mosi and Emily Treuhaft, who took over the Pikesville institution in 2005. While keeping the traditional deli atmosphere and menu true to its 45-plus-year-old roots, the Treuhafts have added their own touches to the menu and started a busy catering business in 2008.
On a recent afternoon, a line of customers ordered takeout and selected items from deli cases packed with chicken, fish, brisket, gefilte fish and soups, an array of cold salads, including couscous and cucumber-tomato, and knishes in many guises: spinach, mushroom, sweet potato, kasha and meat (a customer favorite). The shop makes fresh challah on Fridays.
Mosi, a native of Switzerland, and his wife Emily, from Savannah, decided to take the plunge as first-time business owners when former owner Fred Weiss made the suggestion. Mosi’s experience ranged from kosher butcher Wasserman & Lemberger to Hoffman & Co. caterers and a stint at Tov Pizza during his Ner Israel days.
“Really, it was a nice gift from God,” Emily said.
“It was a lot of fun, but it was very hard,” Mosi said, who was 25 when they took over. “Pulling 100-hour weeks was not as hard then as it is now. It was a much simpler place. We basically just did deli.”
One of the Treuhaft’s five children, Chany, was eager to chat as the team sat down to a generous lunch spread of knishes, roast beef and pastrami sandwiches, cold salads and sushi prepared by chef Jimmy Yeh.
The sushi menu, added in 2010, includes the Manhattan roll with cucumber, shiitake mushroom, carrots and thinly sliced avocado, a favorite of our vegan teammate along with the salads. The Queen roll combined fresh savory tuna inside with a surprise of crispy, fried garlic sprinkles.
A last addition to the table was the ancient Jewish staple cholent, the perfect, velvety, meaty comfort food for a winter Shabbos lunch.
“Cholent is an anchor,” Mosi said. “That is real Jewish soul food. This goes back to the time of the temples.”
While the team chowed down, Mosi and Emily talked about their family-
oriented philosophy. In addition to Chany, their older children work in the shop when home from school and nephew Betzalel Muller has worked there about five years.
“Friendly and good food,” Mosi said, when asked why people should stop in. “[We] give a homemade feel to a retail location. It will remind you of what you eat at home in a good way. If you give people a good plate of mashed potatoes, you’re going to make them more happy than ever before.”
— Susan C. Ingram
By the time we got to The Essen Room on Hooks Lane in Pikesville, the last stop of our Jewish Deli crawl, Marc, Susan and I only had room for desserts and sides. Luckily the Essen Room’s dessert can hardly be contained to two very large display cases.
Opened in November 2017 by Neil Parish and Lou Ellison, The Essen Room might be better known for its enormous overstuffed sandwiches and soup with matzah balls the size of a grapefruit, but the JT can certify that the sides and desserts are nothing to sneeze at.
When we arrived at 2 p.m. on Thursday afternoon, there was hardly a place to sit, and a long line at the register. It’s no wonder we didn’t speak to Ellison until right before we left. He said the busy lunches are nothing new, and that he and the rest of the Essen Room crew have made a lot of friends because of it.
“You become friends with a lot of the customers, most of the customers are really nice good people,” he said. “There’s a camaraderie. Customers have come here after losses in their families and we sit down with them and cry with them sometimes.”
Luckily, the occasion for us at the JT was not a somber one. In fact, after nourishing their sweet teeth, Marc and Susan were joyous as ever.
“I’m used to Baltimore chocolate top cookies, which are a hard shortbread cookie, with a very dark icing, so I wasn’t sure I’d like this, but it’s delicious,” Susan said. “It’s a much softer cookie, almost like a sugar cookie, and a milk chocolate cake icing, and it’s delicious together.”
Marc was not only a fan of his crunchy and sweet rugelachs, but the pickle bar.
“I love that there’s a pickle bar with good pickles,” said Marc. “They’re fresh, nice and crunchy, and you can get your pickle from all over the pickle spectrum,” including pickled green tomatoes.
If the bold fermented flavor of the crispy, not soggy, sauerkraut wasn’t enough to bring me my much needed mid-afternoon second wind, a cup of the rich, dark and strong coffee would be. I vouch for both.
In order to get a feel for the many items we didn’t get a chance to eat, including an array of bagels and omelets, eight kinds of knish, or five varieties of Reuben sandwiches, I asked Ellison what his favorite item was.
“Everybody asks, ‘What’s great? What’s great?”” said Ellison. “Honestly, all of it is great. Sometimes there’s a little bit of a wait, but once they get it it’s worth it.”
— Connor Graham