By Sam Litvin
Like a rainbow and a pot of gold, the College Area eruv terminates at the new Ben and Esther’s vegan Jewish Deli at El Cajon and Montezuma Blvd.
An eruv is an area demarcated with wires on top of light poles within which an observant Jewish person can walk around on Sabbath. The fact that Justin King chose a location near Del Cerro, the original neighborhood of the San Diego Jews, with synagogues as well as many Middle Eastern eateries was more coincidence than planning. Then again, there are people who think there are no coincidences.
King lives in Portland where he built up and sold a chain of barber shops. After selling the chain in 2019, he began investing and felt like having a coffee and bagel place in his office. The bagel and coffee expanded to a Jewish deli, selling the food that his grandmother and grandfather (Ben and Esther) used to make in New York and Miami where King grew up. There was one problem though: King is a vegan.
King is not the type of vegan to make anyone feel guilty for not being vegan. He says “I don’t have a problem with meat, I have a problem with what’s behind it.” He loves fish. He loves eggs. But at some point, he realized that while he loves to eat these things, it doesn’t mean he should. “I love a burger, I don’t like killing for it.”
The beef industry is a massive pollutant. It causes mass deforestation and takes up majority of our fresh water for production (500 gallons per pound of meat). Poultry is responsible for some of the world’s worst pandemics. Dairy industry creates massive nitrogen runoff contributing to climate change. Fishing is collapsing fisheries around the world while cows, pigs chicken and even fish have been shown to suffer as they live in terrible conditions. For these ethical reasons, King couldn’t eat any of the food at his deli.
To fix his dilemma, King began experimenting by replacing the meat with vegan substitute while making sure the taste was unchanged. To his surprise, business took off! Within a year he moved to a new location and after a trip to San Diego, an old friend from the barber industry, Marc Bennett convinced him to open up a shop in San Diego. Bennett’s barbershops were suffering during the pandemic and so they figured San Diego would be a good beachhead for their future expansion to “normalize vegan food”.
The goal was to open in 2021 but the San Diego beachhead turned out to be less Hawaii and more Normandy. What took one month for permits and construction in Portland, took six months in San Diego due to the infamously convoluted, costly and lengthy permitting process in San Diego. But in spite of the pitfalls, and to the joy of many San Diegans, they were finally open on New Year’s Day.
That day a line formed outside the door. I came to try out B&E on Jan. 6 and it was just as busy. The people who came looked less Crown Heights and more Queens. I saw Jews and Israelis, Asians, Hispanics and African Americans. Men and women, young and old.
Arlene Samaniego isn’t Jewish but will drive hours for a good vegan place; she came for the steak and egg sandwich. Karen Pearlman (pictured above left) who is Jewish and has been vegan since 1982 brought her friend, a New Yorker Joson Feathers (pictured above right) for Reubens and knishes because they love vegan and Jewish food and they love to support both with their patronage. Zoe Meyers stopped by for a veggie bagel on her lunch break. She isn’t Jewish but is happy to try anything that’s vegan. And Louis Ashkenazi, a vegan Jew, was overjoyed to bring his daughter for a bagel cream cheese schmear, matzo ball soup, benny’s brisket, hamentaschen and kugel.
Why was such a diverse crowd eager to try Jewish vegan food? Well, San Diego is becoming a center for vegan food, especially near Del Cerro area where there is a vegan donut shop, Thai, vegan market and even vegan Mexican food in La Mesa. So a new vegan deli is just the thing to provide a vegan alternative to the local DZ Akins. It is actually surprising that there are not more vegan Jewish delis considering that the modern day vegan movement originated in Dimona Israel by the African Hebrew Israelites from America in the seventies.
So how does Ben and Esther’s compare to the old classics? Anyone who has been to New York’s Katz’s deli knows that at a Jewish deli the prices and portions can both be enormous. The prices at Ben and Esther’s start at $8 for bagel sandwiches like Lox and Schmear, and range $9-$14 for sandwiches like the New Yorker or Rubin which were normal human size. Of course, if you need something that will remind you of Katz’s, you will pay like Katz’s for the “Grand Puba”; a $25 corn beef sandwich which might even stop Guy Fieri in his tracks. They also have many other crowd favorites including salt bagels, rugelahs and the massive kosher dills that the rapper Kosha Dillz would approve of.
The prices were a little high, but not due to inflation, but because of the heavy subsidies we pay to the meat industry. This is why even though vegan food should be cheaper and more abundant than meat and dairy, especially given the fight against climate change, it is still more expensive. King said that he “doesn’t fault people for eating meat, it’s expensive to be vegan.” Something he hopes politicians will soon realize and correct. For now he says that we can all help with our dollars by making it cheaper as more of us to try it. In his words “I want my money to dictate where the future goes.”
But how does this food actually taste? Well, the sandwiches were delicious, I personally liked the New Yorker. Dolmas were great but the Mediterranean (Israeli) salad could have been chopped finer and fresher for my Israeli taste. The babka was not bad for a vegan bread. It was even better on the second day with tea and ice-cream.
And what is the dish that would make people switch? Ironically it is the Egg, Cheese and Bacon breakfast bagel that is the crowd favorite. It’s like the Jews have been waiting 3,000 years for vegan bacon to finally be available.
So whether you are a fan of vegan o Jewish food, or just want to save the world with a meat-less Reuben sandwich, I suggest you stop by Ben and Esther’s. Because in the words of an eccentric Jewish New Yorker Joson Feathers: “This is the best knish, oh my god.” And that’s an opinion we can all trust.
Ben & Esther’s is located at 6663 El Cajon Boulevard.