Toronto’s legendary Pancer’s Deli takes Costa Rica by storm

Lorne Pancer moved to Costa Rica to retire from delis and ended up opening a deli.

Pancer, third generation sandwich man — son of Stan, grand-son of Moe — left North York a year and a half ago to look at iguanas and soak up the sun and retire from the deli game. Fast forward two years and he has opened up a Costa Rican location of Toronto’s oldest deli.

“I feel like I’m in a Seinfeld episode,” Pancer, 63, recently said, sitting in his small delicatessen courtyard, nestled on the beach, a
40-minute drive from an active volcano. “I came down here to re- tire. I have pastrami coursing through my veins.”

Costa Rica is the latest and least likely location of Pancer’s, Toronto’s iconic Jewish delicatessen staple that was opened in 1957 and remains a family business, with even the Latin American branch family-owned. Playas del Coco, the Costa Rican town now serving Pancer’s knishes, is a popular retirement destination for people from the Northeast, and Pancer says that, as folks realized his profession, they put the squeeze on him to serve rye bread and tongue.

At first, Pancer resisted the pressure. But then he began to think that there just might be something to the novelty of bringing latkes to the tropics.

Inside Pancer’s Costa Rica location

“I heard from enough people that I thought, ‘OK, let’s try it,’” Pancer says. “I know our food is good — I’ve grown up with it —
but I had no clue it would take off like it has down here in Costa Rica. At the end of the day, there’s not one piece of meat [left]!”

The meat at Pancer’s is more than iconic; it’s part of the family. Generations of locals have grown up on the trademarked secret
recipes for blintzes and chopped liver, with the comfort food being a staple for Torontonians in their times of need.

Julian Pancer, Michael Pancer’s son and Lorne’s brother, represents the fourth generation of Pancer chefs. Recently, he cooked for three generations of the London family — owners of Post City Magazine — and recounted his favourite Pancer’s story.

Julian Panver and Mrs.London at the Pancer’s Toronto

“My grandfather could be tough, this is well-known,” began Julian, over plates of coleslaw and corned beef, tuna salad and baby
beef. “He had a customer, though, who had completely stopped eating — he was battling cancer, and the daughter asked him for some food. My grandfather left the restaurant and brought this man his pastrami. They sat together and ate.”

Lorne Pancer says the customers are different down south han on Bathurst Street, less demanding, less loud.

“There’s an expression down here, ‘pura vida,’ which means true life,” Lorne says. “It roughly translates to: if I’m running short of brisket, I’ll have the pastrami. Nobody’s in a hurry. The vibe is very relaxed.”

But don’t let that fool you — the locals are raving about Pancer’s like it’s the best thing since, well, sliced bread. They’re going through fifty to seventy loaves of rye a day. The most popular item? The pastrami sandwich. It’s a hit, and at $12.75 plus tax, it’s a steal. The Costa Ricans have never had any- thing like it before, and it’s clear they can’t get enough

Touring Pancer’s on Bathurst with Julian Pancer and 88-year- old Mrs. London offering colourful commentary, you truly grasp the cultural significance of the place. Mrs. London says she used to eat at Pancer’s twice a week — “I didn’t want to cook” — and that on the Jewish holidays Stan Pancer sliced her brisket.

“Do you know your great-grandmother used to make baked carp? I used to drive her home after work,” Mrs. London tells Ju-
lian, who looks on with a huge smile, filling everyone’s plate. “Your name means so much to people. It was just, ‘We have to go there.’ The question was if we could get in,” she says.

Julian Pancer isn’t resting on nostalgia. As a classically trained chef, he has reignited Pancer’s delivery business, which soared during COVID.

“It’s not about changing things, it’s about making little things better, running smoother,” he says. His culinary skills exceed Mrs. London’s expectations. “This liver is unbelievable,” she declares.

Meanwhile in Playas del Coco, Lorne Pancer assures Post City that business is good and it’s worth disrupting his retirement.

There are no immediate plans, says his brother Michael, to open a Pancer’s in, say, Venezuela, but the Costa Ricans love his pastrami, and the Jewish delicatessen could work on the moon.

“I’d open anywhere, but the problem is you need an operator like Lorne, who lives and breathes deli,” Michael Pancer says. “You can’t franchise something like Pancer’s. Everyone loves our deli, but to make it the right way it really has to be in your blood.”

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