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The plant-based bread schtick of Ben and Esther’s Vegan Jewish Deli

Bagels and marble rye elevate fish-free and meatless versions of deli classics

A vegan take on the classic Reuben sandwich
A vegan take on the classic Reuben sandwich

Hailing from a cuisine characterized by the likes of schmaltz, schmears, corned beef, and brisket, the staples of a Jewish delicatessen would not appear to be likely candidates for veganization. Nevertheless, the newest addition to San Diego’s sandwich landscape attempts exactly that.

Place

Ben & Esther's Vegan Jewish Deli

6663 El Cajon Blvd., Suite Q, San Diego

If Ben & Esther’s Vegan Jewish Deli strikes you as the sort of concept more likely to emerge from the entrepreneurial wilds of Portland, Oregon, you would be exactly right. Via local partnership, the deli counter’s founder — and namesakes’ grandson — has chosen San Diego as the location for his third shop, the first outside of Portland.

Found on El Cajon Boulevard, right where the College Area meets Rolando Village, the small venue presents as a traditional delicatessen, offering such items as egg and cheese bagel ($8), chicken salad sandwich ($12), and tuna melt ($12) — not to mention the so-called Jewish Penicillin, matzo ball soup. Other than the shop’s explicit name, the only real indication things may be a tad different here is a note at the top of the menu, reading: “Our menu is 100% vegan... The ingredients listed are not derived from animals.”

A small vegan deli in the College/Rolando Area

Given this is not our first vegan rodeo, it’s fairly easy to translate what this meant for most of the classic deli items, which replace meat and poultry with to-be-expected soy or tempeh alternatives. Such was the case with my obvious first target, the deli classic Reuben sandwich ($14), which swaps the traditional corned beef for peppery layers of tempeh.

A vegan lox sandwich, wherein salmon is replaced by carrot

Obviously, this substitution is not designed to trick anyone into believing it’s a genuine corned beef sandwich. However, by leaning on the Reuben’s other flavor-forward ingredients — sauerkraut, Russian dressing, and in particular the provocative earthiness of a solid marble rye — this surprisingly luscious vegan rendition does a fine job recreating the sense of eating the real thing. For fun, let’s call it Reubenesque.

Depending on the source, most bagels are vegan.

What really got me curious were the traditional seafood items, in particular the lox bagel sandwich ($12), which Ben & Esther social media refers to as its not-lox sandwich. I wondered how the place might recreate the experience of cured salmon. The answer, it turns out, is with a sort of pickled carrot preparation.

A vegan black and white cookie

Which does look the part. However, in flavor and texture, lox resembles little else in this world, and carrots betray an altogether different sort of sweetness than salmon. (A better, or at least more interesting bet, may be the whitefish, reportedly replaced by smoked heart of palm.)

Here again, the sandwich relies on the rest of the traditional lox bagel package: capers, red onions, and a convincing enough non-dairy cream cheese. Sliced tomatoes add to the sandwich (which is not served open-faced), and the inclusion of fresh dill lends to the perception of a salmon product, given frequent associations between the fish and herb that most of us share.

And again, a saving grace is the bagel. While several Jewish baked goods — including challah bread, babkas, and cookies — employ eggs, butter, and/or milk, most traditional bagels and rye bread recipes do not require animal products. In other words, they were vegan to begin with. So, if you’re of the belief that a sandwich is only as good as its bread, you’ll be in luck at this particular vegan establishment.

And, I’m happy to report, the assortment of vegan cookies served at Ben & Esther’s hold up fine in plant-based form, whether rugelach, hamantashen, or one particularly large and unforgettable favorite: the black and white cookie ($3.50).

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A vegan take on the classic Reuben sandwich
A vegan take on the classic Reuben sandwich

Hailing from a cuisine characterized by the likes of schmaltz, schmears, corned beef, and brisket, the staples of a Jewish delicatessen would not appear to be likely candidates for veganization. Nevertheless, the newest addition to San Diego’s sandwich landscape attempts exactly that.

Place

Ben & Esther's Vegan Jewish Deli

6663 El Cajon Blvd., Suite Q, San Diego

If Ben & Esther’s Vegan Jewish Deli strikes you as the sort of concept more likely to emerge from the entrepreneurial wilds of Portland, Oregon, you would be exactly right. Via local partnership, the deli counter’s founder — and namesakes’ grandson — has chosen San Diego as the location for his third shop, the first outside of Portland.

Found on El Cajon Boulevard, right where the College Area meets Rolando Village, the small venue presents as a traditional delicatessen, offering such items as egg and cheese bagel ($8), chicken salad sandwich ($12), and tuna melt ($12) — not to mention the so-called Jewish Penicillin, matzo ball soup. Other than the shop’s explicit name, the only real indication things may be a tad different here is a note at the top of the menu, reading: “Our menu is 100% vegan... The ingredients listed are not derived from animals.”

A small vegan deli in the College/Rolando Area

Given this is not our first vegan rodeo, it’s fairly easy to translate what this meant for most of the classic deli items, which replace meat and poultry with to-be-expected soy or tempeh alternatives. Such was the case with my obvious first target, the deli classic Reuben sandwich ($14), which swaps the traditional corned beef for peppery layers of tempeh.

A vegan lox sandwich, wherein salmon is replaced by carrot

Obviously, this substitution is not designed to trick anyone into believing it’s a genuine corned beef sandwich. However, by leaning on the Reuben’s other flavor-forward ingredients — sauerkraut, Russian dressing, and in particular the provocative earthiness of a solid marble rye — this surprisingly luscious vegan rendition does a fine job recreating the sense of eating the real thing. For fun, let’s call it Reubenesque.

Depending on the source, most bagels are vegan.

What really got me curious were the traditional seafood items, in particular the lox bagel sandwich ($12), which Ben & Esther social media refers to as its not-lox sandwich. I wondered how the place might recreate the experience of cured salmon. The answer, it turns out, is with a sort of pickled carrot preparation.

A vegan black and white cookie

Which does look the part. However, in flavor and texture, lox resembles little else in this world, and carrots betray an altogether different sort of sweetness than salmon. (A better, or at least more interesting bet, may be the whitefish, reportedly replaced by smoked heart of palm.)

Here again, the sandwich relies on the rest of the traditional lox bagel package: capers, red onions, and a convincing enough non-dairy cream cheese. Sliced tomatoes add to the sandwich (which is not served open-faced), and the inclusion of fresh dill lends to the perception of a salmon product, given frequent associations between the fish and herb that most of us share.

And again, a saving grace is the bagel. While several Jewish baked goods — including challah bread, babkas, and cookies — employ eggs, butter, and/or milk, most traditional bagels and rye bread recipes do not require animal products. In other words, they were vegan to begin with. So, if you’re of the belief that a sandwich is only as good as its bread, you’ll be in luck at this particular vegan establishment.

And, I’m happy to report, the assortment of vegan cookies served at Ben & Esther’s hold up fine in plant-based form, whether rugelach, hamantashen, or one particularly large and unforgettable favorite: the black and white cookie ($3.50).

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