The Reuben Sandwich is a pastrami-loaded favorite served at Delirama. (Alan Chazaro)
¡Hella Hungry! is a column about Bay Area foodmakers, exploring the region's culinary cultures through the mouth of a first-generation local.
Although Delirama—a new, independently-owned deli in North Berkeley—won’t officially open its doors until Monday, August 8, the place is already poppin’ with pastrami.
That’s because it’s owned by Cash Caris and Anahita Cann, the innovative couple who delivered popular Oakland pop-ups Pyro’s Pastrami and Psychedelic Pizza. Both ventures earned an underground reputation for their unique, pastrami-loaded offerings—pastrami pizza, pastrami bagels, pastrami cream cheese and even pastrami tacos. The pop-ups birthed a religious following of pastrami worshippers who have since been anticipating Delirama’s debut.
When I stopped by to chat with Caris at the funky, retro-inspired Solano Avenue restaurant, we kept getting interrupted by hopeful patrons who thought the deli was open. One listened intently as Caris described the initial menu before promising to return for lunch on opening day, saving notes on her phone’s calendar. Another gentleman just kept peering in longingly from the street. Between the two of them, I’d never seen so much eagerness to consume pastrami.
That’s the kind of gravity Delirama has. In just a few days, they’ll start serving their constellation of quirky, homestyle pastrami goodies like “the OG Sandwich”—beef pastrami (or a vegan version made with celery root) on rye, with Thousand Island dressing, gruyere cheese and coleslaw. The opening menu also includes a Hawaiian- and childhood-inspired “POG Juice” and fresh-baked bagels and bialys (a “cousin” of the bagel with an indentation in the middle that Delirama fills with caramelized onions and pastrami bits).
During my visit, Caris told me about the magic that goes into making pastrami—a laborious process that takes an average of 30 days—and his journey into the food industry over 15 years ago. He also hopped into the kitchen to make me one of his favorite dishes, the Reuben.
“[Pastrami] really is like a spiritual experience,” he told me while grilling fresh slices of meat to heavenly perfection. After one bite, I agreed.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
KQED: It seems like you’ve had a long love affair with pastrami. When did that begin?
(Laughs) We’ve definitely had a long affair. The first pastrami I remember eating as a kid was from those 10-cent packs at Lucky’s. You could get thin cured meats for real cheap. My grandma would always get one pack of pastrami and I would fry it in a pan. Then, when I worked at Togo’s later on, when I was probably like 16, I saw pastrami again. I ate pastrami there every day for free. It was completely different from what I knew. I just got interested and started tinkering at home with it. I never made it in a restaurant, though, because it’s very time-consuming. When I got older, I did a cross country trip with Anahita. I started to think about different types of cuisines I could do for a food pop-up. I thought about doing tacos, American food, fresh Italian pasta, burgers. I can make it all. But the one thing I realized that I had the strongest connection to was pastrami. I could live without any of the others, but I would never want to live without pastrami, rye bread and mustard.
What’s your connection to the Bay Area, and how does your food reflect that?
I was born and raised in the South Bay; I’ve spent the largest portion of my life in San Jose. I love it, but it’s not a place for pastrami right now, unfortunately. That time is nearing though. It’s something I want to do—open more Deliramas.
As far as pastrami fitting into the food scene, the Bay is so food-centric, but pastrami itself doesn’t exist much here. The fact that it’s not here as much as I want it to be, that’s what gave us our purpose. The Bay needs pastrami. We are putting in the time and love to provide it. Certain communities already know about pastrami, but we want to spread it. Doing this with craft and originality, that’s what it deserves. I’ll never use injection or anything in the meat to speed up the process. It is owed the time and energy that it takes. It’s not easily done. To make 2,000 pounds of it and flip it and constantly check it and watch the temperatures. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, to be honest, but also the most rewarding. We want to integrate our California roots with the deli style of the East Coast.
What’s the most popular item that you’re bringing to your menu?
The OG [sandwich]. That’s the original, in California, in terms of pastrami. We use rye bread, Thousand Island dressing, coleslaw and gruyere cheese on pastrami. We also add “Dad’s mustard”—our house mustard. So many people have really gravitated towards it [at Pyro’s]. We’re giving them a peek into the [pastrami making] process and what goes into it. We’re not just ripping open a pack and steaming it and slicing it.
I heard that you’re also planning to do pastrami tacos. I’m very intrigued.
Have you had a Crunchy Taco Supreme at Taco Bell? It’s sort of like that, but not exactly. We take parts of the pastrami, those little bits and pieces that don’t go into the sandwich, and we cook it— adding aromatics and spices, lettuce, sour cream and shredded sharp cheddar. Nostalgia catches people’s eyes, so that’s why I mention Taco Bell. It also taps into my roots [as a Mexican American]. My family is from SoCal and the Bay, but my great great grandparents were from Mexico on my mom’s side. The tacos taste incredible, but we won’t add that to the menu until September. People have always been asking me to do tacos, so I think they’ll be popular.
I recently kicked it with the Vegan Hood Chefs; I’m sure they’d be hyped to see your vegan options. Can you tell us how your vegan pastrami is made?
I used to live in Portland and was vegan. When we thought of Delirama, we knew we needed to have vegan options—at least 50% vegan and vegetarian on the menu—for the sake of the planet, the people. I didn’t want to use any soy or texturized protein. I wanted it all to be 100% plant-based and non-refined. Our vegan pastrami is made from celery root. It’s definitely a versatile root that is overlooked. We take the root, we brine it, smoke it, steam it. It’s chilled, then sliced super, super thin. It’s cooked al dente. We brine it again. It has this really great umami, smoky, salty savoriness. It makes for an amazing reuben sandwich. We throw it on our vegan rye, and our vegan Thousand Island sauce, get that all nice and melty with vegan cheese; it’s delicious. You feel good after it. A seitan is pure gluten and sodium. It’s like bread on bread. But this is fresh. You can never replace the meat fully, but it’s a delicious option and opens up the pastrami experience to people who wouldn’t expect to get something substantial at a deli.
Where are your favorite delis in the Bay?
A really well-done deli that comes to mind is Ok’s Deli. They do everything from scratch and have extremely talented people working there. That’s up and coming for sure. It’s off Telegraph. They started as a pop-up as well.
There’s also Picnic. It isn’t a deli though. It’s a woman-owned rotisserie. They make pastrami, too. They serve it on a baguette with coleslaw. Their pastrami is underrated. They have some of the best pastrami in the Bay. I don’t think people know about it, to be honest. They don’t blast it out.
In San Francisco, we like the pastrami sandwich at Little Red Window. For nostalgia, we go to Molinari for sandwiches. We’re also going to check out the Saint Sandwich shop next. We haven’t been yet, but we keep hearing great things about it.
You’ve operated successful pop-ups and now you’re about to open your first brick-and-mortar deli in a few days. How does it feel?
It’s emotional. We’re days away from opening and it almost doesn’t feel real. It’s here though, it’s gonna happen, but it’s still hard to believe. There have been a lot of roadblocks. We tried for a while to get a brick-and-mortar. We [previously] had another spot locked down, and it was ripped from underneath us. It was a local spot. We were paying back our [loans] and everything looked set, but it got sabotaged. If we didn’t find a new spot within 5 months, we wouldn't have been able to survive. We had used up most of our capital. It was a scary feeling. To be here now is amazing. I’m confident in what we can do, and I have pure intentions with this brand and vision. It all happened for a reason. It was a blessing in disguise because we’re sitting here now.
What early experiences have shaped your connection to the local food industry?
When I was a teenager, I raised some money to go to the SF Academy of Arts for Motion Picture and Television Production. But I needed a job. I didn’t have much experience, but I found a weird posting about an Israeli caterer in Santa Clara. It was a strange place with a dark, dingy kitchen. The couple running it didn’t speak English. But it smelled good. I was introduced to foods I’ve never seen before. Different spices and aromas. It took me by surprise. They hired me on the spot. I just washed dishes at first. I was young and without experience; I had to earn everything. Two months into it, the owner’s wife came over. She pointed at two bags of onions that needed to be chopped. That’s how I got into the kitchen, and I just stayed there. I eventually moved to an assistant on the hot line and kept moving up. We only communicated with body language the entire time. It was bonding, but not much guidance was given. Then I had to make a choice one day: Do I stay in the kitchen or keep making films? I was barely scraping by, but I just couldn’t stop thinking about the kitchen. So I went all in.
Delirama (1746 Solano Ave, Berkeley) opens on Monday, August 8. Service will begin at 7 am until 3 pm (or until sold out). They will open every Mon., Thu. & Fri. 7 am–3 pm and Sat. & Sun. 9 am–5 pm (or until sold out).
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