SAN FRANCISCO — For Leo Beckerman and Evan Bloom, it all started with a pastrami sandwich. Not one that they ate, but one that they didn’t. Brussels sprouts chips and celery root remoulade were easy enough to find in San Francisco, their hometown, but when it came to tracking down pastrami on rye and other stick-to-your-ribs essentials that anyone who grew up Jewish might call “Yiddish soul food,” they came up empty-handed.
And so Bloom, 27, who has a degree in architecture, and Beckerman, 29, who worked on health care in developing countries, embarked on a quest to put kneidlach, kugel, and nosh on the Bay Area’s culinary map with Wise Sons Jewish Delicatessen. It’s working.
Hipsters, harried moms with kids, and a man in a mechanic’s jumpsuit are some of the customers in line at the deli, which Bloom and Beckerman opened a year ago. Here is how it works: You wait in line along a half-wall, behind which is the kitchen. You watch the young cooks grate mounds of carrots, slather horseradish mayo on sandwiches, and ladle out servings of matzo ball soup, which the menu warns is “not as good as your bubbe’s.”
You order at the register off a menu board, then you (hopefully) find a table and wait for the meal to arrive. Each table is set with a coffee can loaded with flatware and napkins, which are in no short supply, much to the relief of anyone who attempts to pick up a neatly stacked pastrami Reuben, griddled with sauerkraut, Swiss cheese, and Russian dressing.
The business partners, who met at the University of California Berkeley, tried out their idea as a series of pop-ups around San Francisco. They served limited menus while they worked on a business plan for a full-fledged restaurant. A year after their first pop-up, Wise Sons opened in a former taqueria on the grittier end of the hip Mission District. A puposeria, a doughnut shop that brandishes a faded Coke sign, and mystical stone stores are a few of their neighbors.
The duo posted a sign above the door that reads, in stark letters, “quality, friendliness, service” and festooned the walls with vintage photographs of beaming ancestors — soft-focus portraits of glamorous women and proud bar mitzvah boys. “I have way more pictures of my family hanging here than I do at home,” says Beckerman.
Bloom’s great-grandparents owned and operated a Jewish deli in Swampscott. A shelf in the kitchen is stacked with cookbooks like “Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous” and “Secrets of a Jewish Baker,” but they’re props. Bloom and Beckerman developed their menu after coaxing closely guarded recipes out of family members. It led to arguments, says Bloom. One was over whose grandmother's recipe for chocolate babka was better. But after trial and error, they did what any business partners do: compromise. The delicious result would make both bubbes proud.
Same goes for tender house-smoked pastrami, brined for seven days, fluffy challah, tangy half-sour pickles, and perfectly salted chopped liver. This time of year, they offer a Passover catering menu and they’re holding Seders for four nights beginning March 25 ($70 per person, $40 for children under 12). Red wine and prune-braised brisket or a vegetable tagine with preserved lemon are the main courses.
Amid the artery-clogging fare, there are indications that this is a decidedly West Coast interpretation of a deli. Everything is made fresh in the tiny kitchen except the bagels. Smoked mushroom Reubens and veggie hash offer vegans the rare opportunity to indulge in deli fare. Beckerman and Bloom run a stall every Tuesday at the Ferry Building, San Francisco’s big farmers’ market, which gives them a chance to get to know the farmers from whom they source produce.
Any restaurant is an open target to criticism, but delis seem to invite particularly fervent reactions. “If I had a nickel for every time someone brought us a recipe — and it’s always for the ‘best’ challah or kugel,” says Bloom.
“Sometimes it’s great, sometimes it needs a lotta love. So many people have their idealized version of deli food. One customer said ‘If you [don’t] start serving tongue, I’m calling the ADL.’ ”
Wise Sons Deli, 3150 24th St., San Francisco, 415-787-3354, www.wisesonsdeli