To me, Judaism means chicken matzo ball soup when I’m sick – steaming bowls laden with root vegetables and parsley and sprinkled with mini mandel . It’s about the crispiest of latkes piled with applesauce and sour cream on Hanukkah, and chocolate-dipped matzah on Passover. Most of all, Judaism evokes memories of my grandmother – who tried at countless seders to convince me that gefilte fish wasn’t gross – and my many attempts to re-create her favorite apple cake years after she passed away.
I didn’t grow up religious, but I grew up well fed. Which means I’ve been at a loss every time I’ve been homesick for a blintze or a lox-schmeared-bagel in the six years I’ve lived in the Bay Area. There are a few so-so delis here, but none compete with those in my hometown of Los Angeles, or on the East Coast where my extended family lives – or with my grandmother’s cooking.
So I felt like it was a mitzvah for Jews and non-Jews alike when I heard about Wise Sons Jewish Delicatessen – currently a Saturdays-only pop-up restaurant in Jackie's Vinoteca & Cafe, but coming soon to an undetermined Mission District location.
Leo Beckerman and Evan Bloom, the owners of Wise Sons, described themselves to me as more “culturally Jewish” than religious. They told me they met in college while cooking for hundreds of students craving a taste of Jewish culture at UC Berkeley’s Hillel House. But it wasn’t until a few years later when Evan, an avid cook who’s interned at restaurants like Fog City Diner and helped organize the S.F. Street Food Festival, became frustrated with the lack of house-made pastrami here that the idea for Wise Sons began. The pair started experimenting with their own recipes and soon realized they could fill San Francisco’s smoked-meat-shaped hole. In an inspiring leap of faith, they quit their day jobs, tested recipes, and began scouting for locations.
Evan said their grandmothers told them opening a deli was “the worst idea ever.” “They want us to use our college degrees and be doctors or lawyers,” he explained. “ But I told my grandma we’re doing something way more important — we’re bringing Jews together.” Hence the tongue-in-cheek moniker. Wise Sons is both a play on Passover tradition (the wise son is one of the four sons in the Passover haggadah) and their bubbies’ concerns.
Unlike their grandmothers, Evan and Leo have had confidence in their business from the beginning. “Comfort food is trendy,” Evan explained. “People want food with a story.” The pair described Wise Sons as part foodie-San Francisco, part deli of yore. They care about the places they buy their meat and produce from, and they go for high-quality, all-natural ingredients. “That’s what the people who originally made these dishes used, after all,” Leo explained.
I’d heard rumors that Wise Sons tended to sell out by the end of every Saturday, but I didn’t worry too much about rushing on the day of my first visit. It was pouring, and everyone knows how San Franciscans feel about stormy weather. When I arrived near the corner of Valencia and McCoppin, though, I was able to spot the café instantly, thanks to the huge umbrella-clutching queue snaking out from the doorway. I then realized I wasn’t the only one who believed a legit deli was long overdue here.
No one seemed to care that the line was long and the space inside was tiny and unadorned — the only signs that Wise Sons had infiltrated the dining area were squeeze bottles of deli mustard and Russian dressing scattered around the narrow tables. Excitement was as palpable as the smell of freshly-baked rye. The boys made sure there were plenty of free samples to tide over waiting customers, including a generously-sized pile of their soon-to-be-legendary babka on the front counter.
Wise Son’s menu changes weekly. I went a little crazy on my first visit, and sampled the chocolate babka French Toast with blood oranges and fresh cream, the golden borscht with crème fraiche and fried sage, and, of course, their corned beef reuben with cold swiss and coleslaw. Evan and Leo had told me their dishes occasionally play on recipes from decades-old, worn-and-torn Temple cookbooks. Others might be inspired by a Thomas Keller recipe, a post from the “Asian Jewish Deli” food blog, or friends from other modern-minded delis around the country (New York’s Mile End is a big one). All are absolutely, ridiculously delicious.
The guys were so busy during the day that they barely had time to give me a brief hello with my pickle plate, so they invited me to talk shop over sauerkraut during their off-hours.
Evan and Leo cook mostly in La Cocina’s industrial kitchen, but they still test out recipes in Evan’s comparatively tiny living space in the Mission— where the pastrami magic started not so long ago. I had to step around buckets of fermenting salt-cured pickles and stacks of cookbooks to enter Evan’s kitchen.
Evan, wearing a Canter’s Deli T-Shirt, and Leo, his long dreads tied back with a green bandana, greeted me while simultaneously cooking and dancing to tunes by Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye. Like any good Jew, they showered me with food as soon as I walked in the door — a potato knish here, a crispy bialy chip dipped in Russian dressing there. Leo showed me how to punch down sauerkraut (five pounds cabbage, three pounds sea salt) in a bucket as Evan worked on the pastrami brine.
Evan does most of the cooking, and he asked me to smell the “pastrami water” he was stirring. The mixture of pink salt, sugar, smashed garlic, pickling spice, and bay leaves left me kind of queasy. The concoction would soon become a tantalizingly-delicious brine, though, that their brisket would soak in for days. (Sorry, DIY-friendly readers: no matter how much I begged, the guys wouldn’t share their complete brine recipe.)
I loved how relaxed Evan and Leo were. Even though they had to make 1,000 rugalah later that night for an upcoming Purim event, they spent a good amount of time joking around — naming one of their pickle buckets Schlomo, for instance. As I watched Evan slice the fat off a giant slab of beef for the pastrami, I asked them what comes next.
“We’re looking for a permanent restaurant space,” Evan said. “We’re hoping to open a brick-and-mortar establishment by the summer.” Once that happens, maybe Leo will let Evan focus on some of their more creative plans — like a happy hour where you get a pitcher of beer and a ball of “braid-your-own” Challah dough. Their next big event is coming up on April 20th: They’re holding a Passover Seder at Coffee Bar.
Evan and Leo know that wherever they end up, many of their customers will arrive with high expectations and a few cooking tips of their own. “Everyone thinks their hometown deli’s smoked meat has the best flavor, or their family recipe for kugel is the most delicious,” Evan said. Wise Sons even plays with that idea by describing their matzo ball soup as “probably not as good as your grandmother’s” on the menu.
One of the best things about Jews, though, is that we’re good at creating new memories wherever we settle. I know my grandmother would be thrilled that Wise Sons is carrying on the culinary tradition — and that I’m eating it all up.
Note: As of June 2001, Wise Sons' pop-up has moved to Heart on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. but check their website here for menus, news, and more up-to-date info. Pro tip: Go early if you want smoked meat (and trust me, you want it)! You can also contact email@example.com for more information on their upcoming seder.