Serving up Jewish deli classics with Aaron Magden

Aaron Magden (left) with brother Harley (Courtesy of Aaron Magden)

The Jewish-owned deli has always been a staple of Jewish communities across the United States, offering a space for local Jewish people to gather and enjoy deli staples like pastrami, pickles and knishes. For deli owners, the increasing price of ingredients and the embracing of more trendy food by health-conscious individuals has made it difficult to stay afloat. Ted Merwin, the author of “Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli,” stated in a 2021 CNN article that the number of Jewish delis in New York City has shrunk from over 1,500 to 20 since their peak in the 1930s.

But in Fulton, Aaron Magden, 43, is determined to keep the Jewish deli tradition alive. He wants to show that there is still a space for them in the increasingly competitive restaurant market.

Together with his brother Harley Magden, Aaron Magden runs Mikey & Mel’s Famous Deli, named for the brothers’ father and grandfather. The restaurant is built upon the memory of the Jewish delis that the Magden family frequented while growing up in Cleveland.

“We’ve always been deli guys,” Aaron Magden said. “We spent time with our father and grandfather, always going to various delis around Cleveland. We would rather go out to get corned beef sandwiches than a big steak.”

Magden is also a member of Temple Isaiah, where he recently participated in a class on the history of Jewish foods for teens. He brought in samples of different kinds of pickles from the deli’s “Aaron’s World-Famous Pickle Bar” for students to try.

“I’m close with Rabbi [Craig] Axler,” Magden explained. “And he asked me to come in and talk about pickles and Jewish food in general. I brought in some pickles and some staple desserts like black and white cookies. They loved it, but it was funny that many of them had never had homemade pickles or Jewish desserts before.”

When Magden moved to Baltimore with his brother in 2006, he was disappointed to find a lack of good Jewish delis in the area. There were bagel and sandwich places aplenty, but they struggled to find true Jewish delis. When their father, Mikey Magden, died in 2018, Aaron and Harley Magden had the idea to pay tribute to him and their grandfather, Mel, by opening a deli in their name.

Construction on the restaurant started in February 2020, shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Mikey and Mel’s opened its doors in September of that year.

Opening a restaurant during the pandemic presented a challenge for the brothers due to the rising price of food and ingredients. But Magden noted that they are not in the deli business to make money, and that their food is well worth the price.

“I was at Subway the other day with my kids,” Magden recalled. “And a footlong sub was $13. But for $17 at Mikey and Mel’s, you can get an amazing corned beef sandwich with homemade chips and pickles and all that fun stuff. Like I said, we’re not here to price gouge people or to make a ton of money. [The deli] is something we do for our family and the community.”

Many of the employees that he manages are also Jewish, creating a sense of community in the business.

“We donate a lot of money to the [Jewish] Federation [of Howard County] and to Temple Isaiah,” Magden said. “We’re now more in touch with different synagogues, and we want to spread this type of food to people who may have never tried it before. I take a lot of pride in my Jewish heritage, and wanted to bring Jewish deli food to Howard County.”

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  1. For all his pride in his Jewish heritage, he still chooses to serve bacon on challah, an d sandwiches named for famous Jews that contain both meat and cheese. It’s a deli. It’s not a Jewish deli. Pastrami with cheese? If you asked for that at Katz’s they’d throw you out the door!


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