Bring me your bialys, your chocolate babkas, your lox, capers, and schmears yearning to be free! It's a cliche, perhaps, to kvetch about the Bay Area's lack of decent Jewish deli food, when we can find just about everything else here from Burmese tea salad to Himalayan momos. But try telling that to a nostalgic deli-lover. An empanada is not a knish; a wonton is not a kreplach; a morning bun, however glorious, is not a slice of babka.
Yes, there are pockets here and there: Saul's in Berkeley, of course, and Miller's East Coast Deli on Polk Street in SF, a few halfway-decent bagel shops, the Russian grocery stores and bakeries on Clement Street that stock sour pickles, rye bread, farmer cheese and stuffed cabbage. But where to bask in the kibbitzing atmosphere of Manhattan's Barney Greengrass on a Saturday morning, where platters of salami-and-eggs or whitefish salad are smacked down on Formica tables? Where can we inhale a perfume like the heady aroma inside Russ and Daughters on a Friday afternoon, equal parts smoked fish and buttery-cinnamony rugalach, with a hint of onion bagel?
But the Bay Area is a land more attuned to kale and lardo than chicken liver and schmaltz. Then again, if every other ethnic cuisine, no matter how obscure, can find its niche, why not this one? So far, the success of Wise Sons Deli, Evan Bloom's and Leo Beckerman's 10-week-old pop-up restaurant, bodes well for saving the deli. Started as a popular offering at Off the Grid, Beckerman and Bloom are now setting up shop at Jackie's Cafe on every Saturday morning from 9am to 2pm, turning the marble-tabled Valencia Street spot into their own version of Langer's.
The menu is short, a mixture of specials (mushroom-and-barley soup, corned-beef knishes) and staples (schmaltz on rye, housemade corned beef and pastrami sandwiches). No egg creams or Cel-Ray tonic, just Bolyan's sodas, De La Paz coffee and Mexican Cokes. Neither Wise Son has a restaurant background (Bloom has a degree in architecture; Beckerman worked in public health) but they're learning fast. Beckerman takes the orders while Bloom and his small crew slices pastrami and assembles sandwiches in a plugged-in, makeshift semi-kitchen where a bucket of potato salad jostles against a bin of bialys near a couple of Reubens toasting on a jerry-rigged griddle.