There are a number of foods I claim to know a lot about. I can talk pizza with the best of them. Ask me about a good burger, I gotch-ya-back. Pretty much covered with most Italian, Thai and an assortment of other passion centers.
But the one cuisine of which I’ve made a practice…the one that I can profess superior understanding…the food that is programmed on my DNA… is deli. That’s right, Jew food. Old-school, East-Coast, Matzoh Ball soup, pastrami, latkes – deli.
It starts, as many of my stories start, on the milk crates in my mom’s restaurants. Where I used to sit in her kitchen, as a young boy, during summers, sick days and other days off. She had what we called a ‘coffee shop’ that I’ve explained is most like a diner, but has a lot of overlap with the world of deli. She house-made her corned beef, she had a mean matzoh ball soup on occasion, she fried up the matzoh brie and the blintzes. It wasn’t true deli, but it hinted.
Moreover, we were east coast Jews, so we ate lots and lots of latkes (and other such curios). I had a lot of family: grandparents, great aunts & uncles, cousins – old people. And old people love deli. So, anytime we gathered, we ate bagels, lox, lox-eggs-onions, smoked fish of all varieties, kasha varnishkes, pastrami, brisket, stuffed cabbage, gribenes, kishke, kreplach, kneidlach…
My closest friends and family don’t quite know the extent of my passion. I make matzoh brie weekly, I do matzoh ball soup monthly, kasha varnishkes on occasion. My interest is tolerated and not often shared by those that know me best (matzoh brie is an acquired taste). But the obsession goes deeper for me as I frequent the delis that dot the bay area and make pilgrimages to delis when I travel. I’ve conducted extensive tours of the major cities, often comparing my favorite dishes from multiple establishments in a single weekend (blintzes and pastrami in LA, whitefish, bagels and MB soup in NY).
But San Francisco has always been a slight disappointment. I wouldn’t go the extreme like many who claim there is NO good deli here. Millers on Polk has decent fare (especially their egg/bagel breakfast sandwich) – the MB soup is satisfying, albeit a little busy, their chopped liver is a little dense, but tasty, the meats are solid – not anything to write home about, but it’ll do. Moishes Pippic in Hayes valley has even better soup and great Chicago-style hot dogs. They also do better pastrami, corned beef and a delightful brisket special on Fridays. House of Bagels has quite good whitefish salad and liver – their bagels are passable, considering the alternatives. Sauls in Oakland never did much for me, but again, it is passable for high holidays and occasional fare.
But then came Wise Sons. I was skeptical. Mission hipster jew-food? I went in with every expectation to be critical. On my first visit, I was somewhat disappointed. I ordered the Matzoh Ball Soup and was told they were out of the balls. I got some of the broth and noodles, but sat in sadness lamenting my missing balls. I love those balls.
The pastrami was redemptive. I had a reuben and was amazed by the balance of brine and fat, spice and texture. It was up there at the top of the canon of pastramis (Langer’s in LA still holds top position). Great rye, sauerkraut, dressing – there was hope.
I since returned multiple times and tested out most of the menu items. And I am here to say that San Francisco is finally not only a contender in the deli world, but a dominant force, thanks to Wise Sons. What Leo Beckerman and Evan Bloom have accomplished is nothing short of legendary. They have managed to take the recipes of old-school, proper deli and bring them into a world of local sourcing, farmer’s markets and high-cheffing.
Let’s start with the Chocolate Babka. It’s an easy target. It sits next to the cashier and taunts you: “hey, fatass, eat me. no, you won’t pass me by”. Then there are the breakfast call-outs. The semite is a tasty grilled sandwich with eggs, cheese and a crispy pastrami. Their matzoh brie is legit. I like mine cooked well, but they understand texture and salt (Evan told me he uses maldon, like I do with mine – instant props). On the weekends they have Beauty’s Bagels from Oakland (Montreal style, cooked in wood-fired oven) which are seriously the best we have to offer in the Bay Area. Pair these with the incredible off-the-charts smoked trout salad.
There’s a dozen other breakfast dishes, all worth the visit. And here’s the thing…the place isn’t that crowded at 10am on weekdays. Go sit without waiting on line, like the weekend hoards do. You’re in the know now.
For lunch, it’s mostly about the Pastrami. Try the rueben, try the standard one double-baked rye. Get nasty with pastrami fries, smothered in russian dress (shut the front door!) Or go for the gusto with the Deli burger, ground with pastrami in the meat (i think about 1/3). Read the fine print to see the 1/2 sandwich and small cup of the matzoh ball soup.
They still set up at the Ferry Building Farmer’s Market on Tuesday. They cater so you can have Wise Sons at your holiday meals. So stop bitching about deli and bagels in San Francisco. Those days are over. We’re a powerhouse now. I only wish I thought of it first.