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 babkas 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.
Wise Sons in San Francisco. Photo by Jay Firestone
It’s a small place, smaller than the coffee shops and used-clothing stores that long ago began to gentrify San Francisco’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 feel 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 4-by-4-inch 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 Brussels 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 circa 1902 Lower East Side but is channeled through very modern locavore, ethically sourced sensibilities. Wise Sons stands out as the best. The pastrami has the melty tenderness of Langer’s 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 in 2003 as students at UC Berkeley, where they once threw a barbecue 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 Corps 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.
Wise Sons’ L.E.O. (lox, eggs and caramelized onions) with a toasted bialy. Photo by Rob Eshman
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. So, I asked Beckerman, why not bring Wise Sons back home?
“I would love to open a deli in L.A.,” he said.
We talked about new-wave delis, and I pointed out that they tend to fall into two 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. At Wise Sons, 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.