Bring me your bialys, your chocolate babkas, your lox, capers, and schmears yearning to be free! It’s a cliche, perhaps, to kvetch about the Bay Area’s lack of decent Jewish deli food, when we can find just about everything else here from Burmese tea salad to Himalayan momos. But try telling that to a nostalgic deli-lover. An empanada is not a knish; a wonton is not a kreplach; a morning bun, however glorious, is not a slice of babka.
Yes, there are pockets here and there: Saul’s in Berkeley, of course, and Miller’s East Coast Deli on Polk Street in SF, a few halfway-decent bagel shops, the Russian grocery stores and bakeries on Clement Street that stock sour pickles, rye bread, farmer cheese and stuffed cabbage. But where to bask in the kibbitzing atmosphere of Manhattan’s Barney Greengrass on a Saturday morning, where platters of salami-and-eggs or whitefish salad are smacked down on Formica tables? Where can we inhale a perfume like the heady aroma inside Russ and Daughters on a Friday afternoon, equal parts smoked fish and buttery-cinnamony rugalach, with a hint of onion bagel?
But the Bay Area is a land more attuned to kale and lardo than chicken liver and schmaltz. Then again, if every other ethnic cuisine, no matter how obscure, can find its niche, why not this one? So far, the success of Wise Sons Deli, Evan Bloom’s and Leo Beckerman’s 10-week-old pop-up restaurant, bodes well for saving the deli. Started as a popular offering at Off the Grid, Beckerman and Bloom are now setting up shop at Jackie’s Cafe on every Saturday morning from 9am to 2pm, turning the marble-tabled Valencia Street spot into their own version of Langer’s.
The menu is short, a mixture of specials (mushroom-and-barley soup, corned-beef knishes) and staples (schmaltz on rye, housemade corned beef and pastrami sandwiches). No egg creams or Cel-Ray tonic, just Bolyan’s sodas, De La Paz coffee and Mexican Cokes. Neither Wise Son has a restaurant background (Bloom has a degree in architecture; Beckerman worked in public health) but they’re learning fast. Beckerman takes the orders while Bloom and his small crew slices pastrami and assembles sandwiches in a plugged-in, makeshift semi-kitchen where a bucket of potato salad jostles against a bin of bialys near a couple of Reubens toasting on a jerry-rigged griddle.
It’s not an ideal set-up (says Bloom dryly, “I’d like to be able to boil water”) but somehow, everything comes out delicious: thick-cut, lavishly fatty corned beef and pastrami sandwiches on springy, caraway-flecked sour rye bread, buttressed with heaps of fresh and crunchy coleslaw and sour pickles; a yeasty-chewy toasted bialy slathered with caper cream cheese and red onions, piled lavishly with Acme smoked salmon from the Polish neighborhood of Greenpoint in Brooklyn; plates of sunny yellow noodle kugel and hunks of babka densely ribboned with chocolate and caramel. They’re working hard to rehabilitate schmaltz (chicken fat); after all, why should lardo and duck fat get all the foodie love? Already, regulars are asking to have their Reubens griddled in schmaltz. “We’re like In-N-Out! It’s our animal style,” they laugh.
All the prep work–baking the breads, brining and smoking the meats, making the kugels, and more–is done in the community kitchens at La Cocina. Working there, they share the kitchens with an international mix of small-scale entrepreneurs, many of them women from Central and South America. It makes them think of all kinds of Mission-ready mash-ups–why not a corned beef pupusa? Or a dulce de leche hamantashen? A kale knish? How about a meatless Reuben stuffed with smoked shiitake mushrooms? (These last two have already been adopted on the menu, with great success.)
“I’d say the majority of our clientele isn’t Jewish,” says Bloom, and doing a quick one-over of the room on a recent Saturday morning, I’d agree with him; the mix is a resolutely urban one, united in a love for corned beef. Beckerman and Bloom have plans to get bigger and better. “We’d like to be open more than just on Shabbas,” jokes Beckerman, although they’re certainly positioned to scoop up the after-services crowd from nearby Congregation Sha’ar Zahav. They’ve been pounding the pavement looking for a permanent location in the Mission for the past six months, and will be hosting a Passover Seder dinner at Coffee Bar on Tuesday, April 19th. They’ve also got a full Passover catering menu in place for April 18th and 19th, the first two nights of Passover. Let all who are hungry, come and eat brisket.