There comes a time in every food enthusiast’s life when you encounter a dish that feels as if it were made for you. Like a restaurant has been secretly observing your eating habits for years to deliver this perfect creation to your plate. Spying on you. Watching as you develop a taste for pickles; for sauerkraut; for all things vinegary and tart. Observing from afar as you establish a passion for frying various foods on your shit electric stove at uni. That time you deep-fried a tartiflette! Always observing; always knowing.
Which sounds extremely creepy! But if Monty’s Deli, a Jewish deli in East London, has been violating my GDPR, I couldn’t care less, because it has created my dream sandwich. Except, unlike what Time Out or Tom Kerridge would have you believe, it’s not Monty’s famous salt beef Reuben. It’s not the renowned pastrami on rye, either. It is, in fact, one of the few vegetarian options on the menu: the salty, oily, latke Reuben, made with the traditional fried potato pancakes, layers of cheese, and rye bread.
“We've never had time to develop a proper vegetarian version of our sandwiches, and to our surprise, we'd get a lot of vegetarians coming in and asking if they could eat something,” Owen Barratt, co-founder of Monty’s Deli tells me on a freezing day in November. “We were like, ‘No? We only do this one sandwich, and it's jam-packed full of meat.’”
“So, one day, and I can't remember who did it,” he continues, speculating it was probably his business partner, Mark Ogus, “we just got all the vegetarian stuff we had, and that's it.”
Monty’s Deli, it’s fair to say, is pretty meat-focused. The eatery began life as a food stall on Maltby Street Market in South London, where Ogus sold a version of his grandfather Monty’s salt beef and pastrami Reuben sandwiches. After selling out almost every weekend, Ogus launched a successful crowdfunding campaign to open a permanent Monty’s Deli site in Hoxton in April 2017. This year, two satellite sites in Victoria and Spitalfields Market followed, allowing Ogus and Barratt to bring their salt beef, pastrami, chicken soup, and smoked liver to diners across the capital.
But not many, I’d guess, come to Monty’s Deli specifically for the latke Reuben. Barratt isn’t under any illusions about which dish has made the restaurant famous.
“Everyone comes in for the [meat] Reuben, even though we make everything else,” he says. “[The salt beef Reuben] is big, it's got melted cheese, and I think when people see it they want to eat it.”
Not to undersell Monty’s classic Reuben, which I’m sure is salty and delicious and tender in all the right ways, but these customers on a meat pilgrimage are missing a trick. It’s the restaurant’s latke Reuben, filled with the Jewish delicacy of fried potato and onion, and sandwiched between two slices of rye with mustard, sauerkraut, coleslaw, Emmental, Russian dressing, and Sriracha, that they should be here for. It's unlike anything I’ve ever encountered, except maybe when hungover and stuffing a hash brown into a sandwich with cheese is the only source of salvation.
“The potato and onion mix soaks up quite a lot of that oil, so it's quite a fatty thing,” Barratt tells me after I ask him what makes the latke Reuben sandwich so good. “So, you need acid to cut through that, and we do that with sauerkraut which is fermented cabbage, and that cuts through the fattiness. And then we have coleslaw, which is delicious and creamy, because of the mayonnaise, and we have a bit of spice from the Sriracha…”
“Which is not traditional Jewish condiment,” he clarifies.
Sitting in a booth at Monty’s Deli, the latke Reuben strikes me as a classic “leftovers” sandwich. Just like a turkey sandwich with Brie, cranberry sauce, and stuffing on Boxing Day, it’s an efficient yet gluttonous way to use food leftover from a celebration. Seeing as latkes feature prominently in the Jewish celebration of Hanukkah, taking place this year from the 2nd to 10th of December, it seems the sandwich and post-celebration lull could go hand in hand.
I ask Barratt about the significance of the latke during Hanukkah. He looks slightly panicked.
“Good question. Fuck. So, latkes,” says Barratt, then pauses. “So, I'm not Jewish. Mark is Jewish. And I love Jewish deli food but the significance of the latkes I believe is at Hannukah, you have lots of fried food, and it's all about the oil that you fry it in. And that oil is, um. It's something to do with the oil … there's oil that never went out?”
This goes on for a while, and I feel bad for surprising Barratt with a GCSE RS question that he has not had time to prepare for.
“That's the story that we have at Hanukkah, and that's why we have lots of oil, to remember the magic oil. Not magic. Holy,” he continues. “Yeah, it's all about the oil. So, you have lots of fried stuff, like latkes, doughnuts, apple latkes. It's one of the best.”
Later, Barratt clarifies the significance of latkes in an email, after conferring with Ogus. “SO,” he writes, “At Hanukkah, we eat things fried in oil to remember the Hanukkah miracle of the oil that lasted eight days.”
Whatever the reason, I am happy to convert to this latke worship. Kneel at the altar of golden, bubbling oil, and attend the church of Monty’s Deli.
That counts as a religion, right?