San Diego’s Cucina Urbana founder makes a culinary pivot: She will open a Jewish deli this month
Trailblazing restaurateur Tracy Borkum, long known for her portfolio of California Italian dining venues, is pivoting to a new concept inspired by her family roots: the Jewish deli.
Late this month, she and chef partner Tim Kolanko will debut Gold Finch, a 1,400-square-foot restaurant that will be housed on the ground floor of a recently renovated life sciences office campus in Torrey Pines. Designed as a breakfast-and-lunch spot, the restaurant represents Borkum’s modern take on the classic Jewish delicatessen.
Ardent fans of the traditional deli needn’t lament. Versions of the beloved noodle kugel, potato latkes, knish and corned beef on rye will be well-represented on Borkum’s very diverse and fulsome menu.
“A lot of American Jewish delis have been focused on Ashkenazi and heavier northern European cooking, but there’s the other side of Jewish cooking that’s very much based on the California palate, which is middle Eastern, Southern European — more of the Sephardic cooking that comes from warm-weather countries,” said Borkum, whose Urban Kitchen Group opened the now well-known Cucina Urbana in Bankers Hill 13 years ago.
“We’re calling it the modern delicatessen. It’s certainly not kosher — we have bacon on the menu. So it’s not like your traditional deli, which I’m not sure exists today in most places.”
She’s right. Cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, long the epicenter of the Jewish deli, have seen a gradual decline in the iconic homage to Jewish immigrant culture. In an article this month about a museum exhibit documenting the Jewish delicatessen, the New York Times reported that at one time there were an estimated 3,000 such delis in New York City in the 1930s. Today, there are just a few dozen, according to the New York Historical Society.
Gold Finch marks a key turning point in the evolution of Borkum’s Urban Kitchen Group, which has eight restaurants, including two newer venues at the Mingei museum in Balboa Park, plus culinary offerings at the Rady Shell at Jacobs Park. Since opening the original Cucina Urbana, Borkum has been in expansion mode, developing more of her signature California Italian eateries in San Diego and Orange counties. She currently has five Cucina locations.
“Our intention and commitment is still to Cucina, and we are currently looking at a lease for another Cucina in the county, so we’re certainly not throwing the baby out with the bathwater,” she said. “It’s just an interesting time to have other experiences.”
Gold Finch is located in the Muse at Torrey Pines, the former longtime home of Scripps Research. Redeveloped last year at a cost of $100 million, the updated three-building campus on Science Park Road has 186,000 square feet of office and lab space, plus sweeping, eastern-facing views from its all-glass buildings.
The deli will be housed on the lower level of one of the buildings and will be a convenient dining amenity for office workers in the area. The new restaurant, though, cannot rely alone on traffic from the office park, especially given the still prevalent practice of working remotely, Borkum said. For that reason, she is also marketing it as a dining destination.
“Right now in the office market, there’s more a hybrid scenario occurring where a lot of people are going back to the office but not five days a week, and I’m not sure that’s going to change, so I think there’s a commitment now to incentivize people to come back to the workplace with things like food and beverage. And a lot of people in the science industry have to come back to work, so that is a positive outlook for us.”
The Gold Finch space, which will be designed to be light and airy with stone and wood accents, will feature a glass facade, a floor-to-ceiling glass door, and outdoor patio.
Borkum says she is excited about a concept — and menu — that evokes her own memories of growing up in London’s Jewish neighborhoods. She’s especially enthused about the banana fritters and halvah ice cream dessert that was inspired by her recollection of her grandmother making banana fritters.
A menu item that is more in keeping with Sephardic cuisine, Borkum said, is a shakshuka, prepared with a poached egg in a green tomatillo sauce with spinach and za’atar. Among the offerings sure to whet the appetite of deli devotees are challah French toast, matzo ball soup, berbere spice fried artichoke with sumac aioli, and a chocolate babka bun with orange cream and streusel.
If the new venue proves successful, Borkum said she would like to open more locations.
Even as Borkum and her team prepare to launch a new concept and also build on the Cucina brand, she acknowledges the lingering challenges rebounding from a pandemic that shut down indoor dining during the height of COVID-19. Now she is grappling, as everyone is, with rising costs.
“We were fortunate with the support we got financially from not only the federal government, but also our landlords,” said Borkum. “But the cost of doing business now is above and beyond anything we’ve ever seen. Labor, food, construction — it’s all through the roof. And equipment, you either can’t get it or you’re paying two or three times what you paid a few years ago
“We haven’t made up for the loss financially during the pandemic, but our financial picture Is very hopeful. Maybe we’re gluttons for punishment doing another project. At least once a day someone tells me I’m crazy.”
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