Now that you’ve all broken your week of unleavened, unfermented Passover eating with pizza and beer, it’s time to jump back on the pastrami-sandwich bandwagon with a trip to San Francisco’s newest Jewish-style deli, Shorty Goldstein’s.
First, the name. Wince-worthy as it seemed on first hearing, owner Michael Siegel came by it honestly: Shorty was the nickname of his great-grandmother, Pauline Goldstein, and no Jewish deli-meister can hope for success without paying hommage to his bubbe. Born in Tucson, Arizona, Siegel, who worked as a chef de cuisine at Betelnut for 5 years before jumping into restaurant ownership this year, grew up on the Jewish comfort food made by his Philadelphia and New York-bred relatives. Every year, “Shorty” would come visit for a month, enlisting the young Michael as her helper in rolling and stuffing the dozens of potato knishes she’d make for the family. Afterwards, Siegel’s grandmother would dole them out, one at a time, making them last.
Throughout his culinary career, through training in French, Mediterranean, and Asian cuisines, Siegel kept returning, in his mind, to the familiar briskets, latkes, and stuffed cabbages of his youth. And now, here they are, only done with a San Francisco spin, so that the cauliflower and beets are pickled in-house, the chopped chicken livers are packed in jam jars, and the rugulach are filled with apples and cardamom or strawberries and black pepper. (The small, fluffy knishes, however, are true to their originals.) So far, it’s working: open for breakfast and lunch weekdays only in the Financial District, Shorty’s has been enviably busy since its opening day.
During the first week, the line of suits and skirts-and-heels stretched back past the door by the dozens. Always curious about the next new thing–and never one to turn down the chance of tasty pastrami without the need for a plane ticket to New York or LA–we grabbed a counterside seat next to two nice ladies of a certain age. They were the kind who, in my New Jersey youth, would have been ace rugelach bakers active in the synagogue sisterhood. Here, they were enjoying a corned beef sandwich and a tongue sandwich (a Thursday-only special), respectively. This being San Francisco, there’s just no way to relate their enthusiasm for the tongue sandwich without it sounding irredeemably but unintentionally dirty, so I won’t try, but suffice it say, it was a nice tongue sandwich, very much appreciated.
Although there’s room for tables in the wood-floored, chalkboard-walled room, seats are limited to metal stools ranged along narrow counters clinging to the edges of the exposed brick walls. Despite friendly servers and pleasant amenities–cutlery with a nice heft to it, a tall glass dispenser of spa-like cucumber-mint water–the setup that doesn’t encourage lingering, or ordering more than can fit in a single-plate line in front of you.
According to Siegel, their house-cured pastrami is their top seller, outselling even the popular corned beef two to one. And, like the corned beef, it’s some good stuff, flavorful and moist, maybe cut a little too thick, not quite as magically spicy/fatty/umami-fantastic as Wise Sons’, but still an excellent reason to leave your desk. (They’ll also double the meat, should you need the full mouth-stretching, Carnegie-Deli experience.) If only the bread were better. This beige, fluffy stuff hardly tastes of rye, and there’s not a caraway seed in sight. Why not Semifreddi’s Odessa Rye, or Acme Bread’s New York Rye? After all, if the kitchen’s going to all the trouble to make the Fridays-only tuna salad from super-scratch, using seared fresh albacore bound with house-made mayonnaise loaded with dill, red onions and celery, it should be embraced by bread that’s worthy.
The bread is certainly better toasted, when small squares serve as a delivery vehicle for a jar of satisfyingly dense chopped chicken-liver spread, paired with surprisingly elegant wisps of pickled baby fennel.
Since the open kitchen at the back of the restaurant has only a small flattop grill, making toasted sandwiches by the hundreds isn’t an option; so far, the only hot sandwiches are the daily grilled cheese along with Wednesday’s Rachel, which Siegel describes as a sister to the Reuben, made with pastrami, cole slaw, and Swiss.
There’s a very nice looking bowl of chicken soup with matzoh balls, although we were still having too much of a matzoh hangover from the past 8 days of Passover to try it. And while Shorty’s is no Gracias Madre, there is a daily vegetarian soup (potato-green garlic on a recent visit), the aforementioned grilled cheese and veggie sandwich, a well-stocked farmer’s market salad (recently, baby lettuces, artichoke, avocado and Midnight Moon gouda, in a raisin-molasses dressing) and a pickle plate (currently, some pleasantly crisp cauliflower, tender asparagus and regrettably mushy, over-vinegared beets).
But enough of that. How’s the egg cream? An egg cream, I must point out to you kombucha-swilling West Coasters, contains neither eggs nor cream. Essentially, it’s an ice cream soda with no ice cream, made with a few fingers of chocolate syrup (purists swear by Brooklyn-born Fox’s U-Bet) and milk foamed into a frothy, bubbly drink by a powerful jet of seltzer. Seltzer that’s released, properly, from a glass siphon bottle, not a soda gun or worse, a screw-top bottle of lazy sparkling water. A real egg cream needs a sting behind it, the bubbles crisp and sharp on your tongue; otherwise, you might as well be drinking Yoo-hoo. So far, no one in the Bay Area gets it right, to my taste–they’re always too flat, too rich, too chocolatey-sweet.
Shorty’s is getting close, although by my lights, their seltzer, even though it comes correctly out of a siphon, isn’t quite powerfully fizzy enough. During opening week, the egg cream was an eyebrow-raising $5, making the comparison to Pulp Fiction’s $5 milkshake inevitable. (It’s since been dropped to $4.) But Siegel makes up for any lack of bubbles by offering seasonal flavors to go with the typical chocolate and vanilla. Right now, there’s strawberry, made from a jammy concoction of fresh berries from Yerena Farms sweetened with agave syrup, and the pretty spectacular salted caramel, which is just as good as you’d think. Take that, New York!