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Posted by Rob Eshman
This column will be part of our cover story Thursday on why the New Wave deli bandwagon seems to be passing LA by. This sidebar is about my visit to Wise Sons Delicatessen in San Francisco:
The pastrami smoker at San Francisco’s Wise Sons delicatessen sits wedged between a short, wooden prep counter and a window facing Mission Street. It is tall and boxy and could easily appear, to those of us who don’t come across pastrami smokers very often, to be either a small refrigerator or, perhaps, a homemade time machine.
Out of that box comes a supple hunk of peppery cured meat, which a young man sporting two arms full of tattoos carves into a row of pinkish red slices, each crusted in pepper and cure. Using his hands and the blade of his knife, he nestles the slices between two pieces of rye bread, halves the sandwich and sets it on a plate, with a pickle.
The pastrami at Wise Sons is home-cured. That rye bread? Made earlier that morning on the very same counter (by day, a Hobart mixer the size of a bar mitzvah boy is pushed into a corner by the door). The chefs pickle their own pickles, have their lox cured and smoked nearby to their specification, bake their own rich chocolate babkes and, of course, roast the chicken and vegetables that will bubble away in their giant cauldrons of amber-colored soup.
For generations, this is what every neighborhood deli did, and Wise Sons is finding a way to do it again. The whole place, truth be told, is a kind of time machine.
My family went there for Sunday brunch earlier this month. It’s a chaotic experience. The smell of smoked meat, chicken soup and rye embraces you like a steam sauna the instant you step inside, and the sound of a dozen frantic conversations, the shouts of the counter help and the clattering of dishes drown out your inner peace. You know you’re in a deli.
It’s a small place, smaller than the coffee shops and used-clothing stores that long ago began to gentrify San Francicso’s largely Hispanic Mission District. You order at a high counter—the cooks, kitchen and food are all behind it—and sit at scrunched-together tables. One wall is covered with old photos of the owners’ very Jewish-looking relatives -- centuries of Beckermans, Solomons and Blooms, all looking down on you, hungry and loving. Another wall is plastered with pages from a now-defunct, Orthodox Yiddish weekly, Das Edisha Vert. The black-hatted rabbis in the photos must be eternally taunted as they overlook plate after plate of ideal renditions of their favorite foods -- none of it certified kosher.
It was 11 a.m., but so what: We ordered the chicken soup with a matzah ball, a pastrami sandwich, a four-by-four square of noodle kugel, the L.E.O. (lox, eggs and caramelized onion, with a toasted, and home-baked, bialy), a plate of pastrami-scrambled eggs, coleslaw, an egg cream, coffee and something called vegetable hash -- caramelized onions, carrots, potatoes and brussel sprouts topped with two fried farmers-market eggs.
I’ve now eaten at several of the country’s new-wave delis, where the food harks back to the 19th-century Lower East Side but is channeled through very modern locavore, ethically-sourced sensibilities. Wise Sons stands out as among the best. The pastrami has the melty tenderness of Langers with a beefier, richer flavor. The lox was lean and wild, and the kugel was soft as pudding. That homemade bialy could have come off an Orchard Street pushcart.
I cornered Leo Beckerman. who is the co-chef and co-owner of Wise Sons, along with his friend Evan Bloom. They met as UC Berkeley students in 2003, where they once threw a barbeque for 250 students at the Hillel House.
I’ve met a lot of deli owners in my time, and not one of them looks like Leo, who sports a thin hoop earring in each ear, a rasta nest of hair gathered up in a headscarf, and a dreamy look in his eyes. Maybe in 20 years he’ll be paunched out, balding, swallowing Tums from the bottle and snapping at the counter help, but for now he looks as satisfied as a Peace Corp volunteer watching the villagers eat their first successful crop.
Beckerman grew up in Los Angeles, attended the Oakwood School in North Hollywood and worked in the nonprofit world before his forays into cooking with Bloom led to Wise Sons.
“I just wanted a good pastrami,” he told me.
The two used family recipes, Joan Nathan’s cookbooks and a lot of trial and error to come up with their menu. “No single recipe survived intact,” Beckerman said.
Even though his favorite L.A. deli is Brent’s, with its massive dining room and unlimited choices, Beckerman said where he sees most delis fail is by offering too many mediocre choices in too big a room. That certainly seems to be what finished off the once-beloved Junior’s on Westwood Boulevard. Why not bring Wise Sons back home?, I asked Beckerman.
“I would love to open a deli in L.A.,” he said.
We talked about new-wave deli food, and I pointed out that they tend to fall into two general categories: the kind that tries to redefine, or update, the classics, stuffing their knishes with duck confit or wrapping their matzah balls in bacon. Then there’s the kind that tries to produce idealized versions, using great, local, sustainable ingredients—the way we should be eating. Wise Sons is a redefiner. The coffee, for instance, is served from the kind of giant metal tank you’d see at Camp Ramah, but its label reads “Bolivia Cenaproc,” and it is dark, fair-traded and delicious.
That’s what Wise Sons aspires to old-fashioned food for the future -- as if that pastrami smoker/time machine really could take us all backward and forward, to a past where Beckerman’s relatives ate pickles from a barrel, and to a future where their great-great-grandchildren can enjoy the same great pickles, made from the harvest of some local farms.
At Wise Sons, the time machine is working.
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Posted by Rob Eshman
There are about 70 kosher restaurants in Los Angeles.
The New York Times article on kosher dining in Los Angeles mentions four of them. Why? Who knows? Maybe the writer, Jennifer Medina, had a limited expense account. Maybe she doesn’t drive, so she could only go to the places within a few blocks (let’s say she has uncomfortable shoes, too). Maybe the New York Times figures, Hey, it’s LA, who cares?
The article, which appears in the Oct. 10, 2012, Dining & Wine section, is entitled, “Los Angeles Kosher: Beyond Corned Beef and a Knish.” You might assume what follows is a definitive, Times-esque journey through, well, kosher Los Angeles.
We learn about Mexikosher—we spend a lot of time at Mexikosher. Katsuji Tanabe’s fusion of Mexican, kosher and a bit of Asian cuisine really does stand out. I long ago wrote that in a just world Tanabe's habanero orange salsa would replace ketchup. The Mexico City born non-Jewish Tanabe, who first learned kosher cooking at Shilo's, is a genuine kosher star.
Medina smartly, rightly singles him out. She also enjoys Kabab Mahaleh, an authentic if standard Persian kebab house, Haifa, a stalwart Israeli joint, and a newish place called Beverly Hills Thai.
The way she justifies such a short list is by making the claim that LA’s kosher restaurant mirrors its exceptional ethnic dining scene.
Hmm. Are there Mexican kosher restaurants in New York? Four. Are there Thai kosher restaurants in New York? Two. Persian kosher in New York? At least six, including the renowned Colbeh. How do I know Colbeh is renowned? Because I read about it in the New York Times.
I won’t even bother asking how an Israeli place like Haifa, which does have good food, qualifies as ethnic in the context of kosher.
So, if a handful of ethnic kosher restaurants does not set LA’s kosher dining scene apart from New York’s, or any other city’s, what does?
Places come and go faster than a low-rated sitcom. A place like La Seine, headed by a tattooed Top Chef, featuring pitch-perfect cocktails, sushi, sous vide short ribs and Saturday night jazz—flared up and flamed out in a year.
Prime Grill, which defines high-end kosher in Manhattan, crashed and burned here. LA’s equivalent of Prime Grill, where the kosher mover and shakers meet, is Pat’s—dependable, haimish, not New York, not really even LA.
In what other Jewish city in the world will Steven Spielberg’s mother seat you at your table, as Leah Adler does at her kosher dairy restaurant Milky Way? How's the food? Did I mention Leah Adler is Steven Spielberg’s mother?
Then there’s Thursday nights at Bocca in Encino, where the Israelis cut loose with dancing and wine and abandon—it’s like a scene from Tony and Tina’s Chuppah.
Go to GotKosher on Pico for an authentic Tunsian tuna sandwich—along with the (non-kosher) Tuna Conserva Sandwich at GTA on Abbot Kinney, it's among the best tuna sandwiches in town. And ask owner Alain Cohen to shave some of his stash of kosher bottarga on your pasta.
Come on NYT. "Kosher in LA?" You didn't even get past the appetizers. There’s Afshan downtown, whose Persian food meets the discriminating palates of the near-100 percent Iranian clientele at the shamata and jewelry markets. The kosher Subway came and went, along with its $9 meatball sub, but Nagila Pizza has now fed generations of loud, rambunctious families. There’s the outdoor, impromptu kosher hot dog grillers on Pico Blvd. after Shabbat, with their whiff of beef and danger, and there’s Jeff’s Gourmet Sausage, where you can get home-cured sausages from duck to goose. Jeff’s is across from Doheny Meats—and at both you can buy air-dried beef strips—biltong—as good as in Jo’berg, or so my South African friends tell me.
The vegan rabbis I know—a larger number than you’d think, even for LA-- take their meetings at one of two Real Food Daily restaurants, both kosher. Sit long enough at the outdoor tables at Delice Cafe, where Julien turns out Parisian-level pastries and sandwiches, and you'll soon see half the people you meant to call that day. And for sheer culture clash, seeing the Chabadniks serve the bikini-clad surfer babes at the Fish Grill in Malibu on Pacific Coast Highway—now that’s a New York Times story and a sitcom.
And of course—of course—Tierra Sur. It's in Oxnard, but a creature of the LA kosher consumer market. It’s former chef (and current advisor) Todd Aarons left behind a legacy of locally-sourced, seasonal, simple California Mediterranean food, much of it made in an outdoor wood-fired oven.
The main criticism I have of kosher restaurants in LA is that more don’t aspire to—or the city’s kosher diners won’t support—more places that care as much about ingredients, and cooking, and service, as Tierra Sur. Inshallah.
The point is kosher dining in LA is quirky and dynamic—much like the city’s Jews.