Editor’s note: 5 Food Thoughts is a new recurring series highlighting notable people in Salt Lake City’s food scene.
SALT LAKE CITY — It didn’t take long for Michael Feldman to realize he wasn’t in New Jersey anymore.
The owner of Feldman’s Deli remembers when he moved to Salt Lake City. It was the year 2000. He and his wife, Janet, wanted some classic East Coast Italian food — the mom-and-pop stuff they grew up with — and asked his assistant where to go.
Her response: “Have you tried Olive Garden?”
His response: “Are you kidding me? Tony Soprano would shoot me if I went into Olive Garden.”
Luckily, Feldman has found some good Italian spots since then. (More on that later.) He’s also brought authentic East Coast Jewish deli food — Reuben sandwiches, corned beef, gefilte fish, bagels with lox and schmear — back to Salt Lake after it was largely absent for decades. People seem to like it: During a recent afternoon at Feldman’s Deli, the place is packed. One wall is covered in local awards and news coverage.
Feldman sat down with the Deseret News, telling us about a deli’s place in Jewish culture, the food he’s most proud of and why he thinks Feldman’s has been so successful.
When Salt Lake first had a Jewish deli
Decades before Feldman arrived in Salt Lake, there was Lu Dornbush Delicatessen, a downtown Jewish deli that Lu Dornbush, a Holocaust survivor, owned and operated from the 1950s through the 1970s. Other local Jewish delis popped up occasionally in the years that followed, but they never lasted long. Currently, there’s one other Jewish deli (Kosher on the Go) in Salt Lake. Feldman launched his deli after trying 9th South Deli, a now-defunct Jewish-style deli in Salt Lake that closed in 2015.
“He was very popular, his deli was very popular,” Feldman said of Dornbush. “So that told me if we built it right, they would come.”
What makes Feldman’s so successful
Shortly after Feldman’s opened in late 2012, a reviewer from Salt Lake City Weekly gave the deli a glowing review — “And the rocket ride started right then,” Feldman recalled.
“I’m a big believer in content as driving business,” he added. “But the No. 1 thing that drives business is customers talking about it.”
Minutes later, at a nearby table, the point is driven home: “My boys told me about this place,” a customer is overheard telling his friend, who he’d brought to Feldman’s for the first time that afternoon.
Who to thank for Feldman’s signature dish, the Jersey-style Sloppy Joe
That would be Ernest Hemingway, believe it or not.
No, the Sloppy Joe at Feldman’s isn’t what you’re used to — “Because everybody thinks of the chipped beef on a bun … the Manwich, cafeteria kind of sandwich that we all know,” Feldman said. The Sloppy Joe at Feldman’s is specific to New Jersey, by way of Cuba.
As the story goes, Hemingway frequented a bar in Havana called Joe’s, which served a double-decker sandwich with beef tongue and ham on Cuban rye with house dressing. Hemingway told his friend Thomas Sweeney, the mayor of Maplewood, New Jersey, about it and he also fell in love with the sandwich. Sweeney wanted to replicate it back home, but kosher delis in New Jersey couldn’t serve the ham. They substituted corned beef and pastrami, added coleslaw, and the New Jersey Sloppy Joe was born. It’s been described as “somewhere between a Reuben and a Cuban.”
The Sloppy Joe at Feldman’s is served on some miraculously fluffy rye bread. You can eat it in one sitting, if you’re really hungry, but when eaten as leftovers, its flavors settle into each other beautifully.
“It’s just a magnificent thing, it’s a life-changing thing,” Feldman proclaimed. “Once you have this, you’ll never look at sandwiches the same again.”
But where can you get authentic East Coast Italian in Salt Lake?
Back to Feldman’s Olive Garden problem. He’s tried a number of local Italian restaurants over the years, and he recommends Celeste Ristorante in Murray (5468 S. 900 East). Feldman is also partial to Nuch’s Pizzeria & Restaurant (2819 S. 2300 East), which is run by a fellow New Jersey transplant.
“That is Italian food that reminds me of where I grew up in New Jersey,” Feldman said of Nuch’s. “Plus, he makes the best New York-style pizza in the state of Utah.”
Why delis are important to Jewish culture
Needless to say, Salt Lake’s Jewish community is much smaller than the one Feldman grew up in.
“Most of the Jewish people that live out here are what I call unassimilated. They don’t belong to a synagogue,” said Feldman, who counts himself among the unassimilated.
Feldman’s Deli is just a few blocks west of Congregation Kol Ami, a local Jewish synagogue. And while Feldman’s leaves religion to the synagogues, it’s become a local gathering spot for Jewish culture generally. Five times a year they host “Old Jews Telling Jokes,” an evening of Jewish comedy that includes a full dinner — you get $5 off your ticket if you tell a joke onstage — that happens again on March 9.
“We are probably the place that has the highest concentration of Jewish people at any given time that we’re open, other than the synagogues,” Feldman said. “Synagogues are where people take their religion seriously. The deli is where they take their religious preferences for fun.”
Correction: A previous version incorrectly stated the Sloppy Joe sandwich at Feldman's Deli originated at Joey's Bar in Havana, Cuba. The name of the bar is Joe's, not Joey's.