Saul’s in Berkeley
Posted in Featured / Good Ideas / Places / San Francisco Bay Area | 1 Comment |
Finding a good white fish salad sandwich, a subliminally-creamy blintz, or a cured meat sandwich on real rye bread isn’t a scavenger hunt you’d think to embark upon here in Berkeley, California. Sure, we know there’s good food here, but a Jewish deli?
East coast arrivals to the Bay Area will probably have an unconscious half-life of how long they can grub around town before they need to point their compasses toward a deli. Well, I know that’s what happened to me. And within a month of moving to this beautiful area I had discovered Saul’s.
My first trip wasn’t what you might call a smash hit. I was there with two others who originated east of here, both of whom, like me, were raised by Jewish mothers. One swore that sinking matzoh balls were far superior to the floating variety, the other did a double take when the pastrami sandwich arrived, expecting a towering Katz-style monstrosity. Even though I saw the Acme bread bags on the counter I was remiss without my pumpernickle rye – the particular item that had sent me on this deli search to begin with.
We were all munching away, comparing our Saul’s spread to the deli’s back home, or to our mother’s and grandmother’s tables. Traditions were discussed, specific differences surfaced, and nostalgia kicked in, pulling us out of the present meal. We practically licked the plates clean, but we had so many comments about the way everything was served, how it was made, and most of all, how it was or was not different from what we were used to. We were defining what the Jewish foodway was to us.
After my first visit to Saul’s I thought of myself in a new light – as a picky eater. (I try to be the best omnivore I can be!) I hadn’t previously taken this kind of magnifying glass look at the culinary traditions of some of my ancestors, and I certainly hadn’t realized how specific I was about how things “should” be. I was the person who always wanted to try new things – why then would I be so closed-minded about food that was so close to my heart?
I had to go back to Saul’s, and I did. Three times. Four. Five… Once I stopped seeing visions of my Bubba’s brisket, I realized how smitten I was with this evolved food, especially the positively sumptuous blintzes. I fell in love all over again with the egg creams of my childhood, this time with house-made chocolate syrup instead of the cornsyrup-y standby U-Bet! The pastrami was better than ever.
Now, years later, I lead a food tour that stops at Saul’s in North Berkeley, so I’ve become quite intimate with the menu, but more importantly with the reasoning behind it. Rather than attempt cookie-cutter replications of Jewish deli meals from when the scene was at its heydey (like most deli’s do), Saul’s was boldly rethinking things. In a restaurant, I’ve learned, it’s hard to rethink things. There are tables to fill!
I was impressed by the conscientiousness here – switching from plastic to paper straws, composting, using no hormone-fed meats from conventional lot farms. This 25-year old eatery has questioned everything on the menu.
Co-owners Karen Adelman and Peter Levitt have what they call “projects.” A couple years ago, for instance, they assembled a team of plumbers, beer-makers, refrigeration specialists, and engineers to recreate an industrial-size soda machine since the only other way to get one was to sign on with Coke or Pepsi. Now they can make their own soda’s – even last minute flavors from farmer’s market ingredients can be used. Also, cornsyrup was now eliminated. Saul’s has been making their own pickles and horseradish for years.
A very recent change includes taking pastrami off the menu. This cured and smoked meat was especially hard to come by already, and with changes in Niman Ranch and shipping the only pastrami available to “food guy” Peter was the factory-farmed stuff. He refused to serve something he wouldn’t stand by – even a staple like pastrami must be done right or not at all. Peter and his team are in the process of building their own smoker and doing their own pastrami in house with meats sourced from local ranches instead.
Now kugel has become a vessel of sorts at Saul’s. Kugel lacks a clear-cut definition, yet it has millions of specific recipes depending on where you come from and with whom you grew up. Peter got to thinking: it is basically a custard, sometimes made with dairy and sometimes without. That is all that holds these vast kugels together as such. Seasonal kugels, both savory and sweet, are a menu innovation. Some will have corn, others noodles, bread, or potato. June is featuring organic apricots and prunes thickened with Challah, next month when peaches come into their height they, too, will be found in a Saul’s kugel.
This philosophy isn’t going against the grain just to be different – it is common sense. In many ways it is more true to the tradition that way. Jews have lived all over the world and have sponged up myriad foodways over the centuries. They’ve used what was readily available to them, and changed when it made sense to do so. As customs were being honed it was not a time of great abundance for most Jews, so it doesn’t seem any more authentic to have everything from soda bottles, half-baked rye loaves, meats, and more, inefficiently shipped from New York just for a brand name or nostalgia. Taste, sustainability, and freshness are all compromised. It also sounds the death nell for what is more a living food tradition than something set into stone in the mid 1900′s.
Saul’s is doing its best to breathe new life and inspiration into the deli movement. Last week Karen and Peter hosted a Deli Summit moderated by none other than Jewish cooking great Joan Nathan (watch the video here). The panel was composed of deli owners from Brooklyn, Portland, and Evan from San Francisco’s Jewish pop-up deli Wise Sons. All are evolving the storied Jewish cuisine in locally-, personally-relavent ways. It isn’t every day that you get to see an insightful public discussion about the trials and tribulations of rethinking classic deli fare while maintaining a commitment to excellent taste and also to sustainable practices. It was a thoughtful experience, to say the least. It wasn’t the first time Karen and Peter have organized such a discussion.
After the ideas from the panel have set in, one message has become especially clear is that nostalgia shouldn’t be protected at any cost. I’d more likely be honoring my grandmother by using local ingredients in her recipes, or what is readily available. I’d be more authentic if I turned the clocks further back, beyond the 1950′s to the more Old World Jewish fare. I’d have a tastier meal if I did without certain items when it made sense, if I did’t assume pickles, parsley, and lemon wedges had to come on every plate for it to be a bona fide deli meal.
Saul’s may not be an identical twin of our Jewish deli memories, but that is a good thing. It is a sign of life in this culinary tradition and a wakeup call about the magic of food in general. Agriculture isn’t something we can really control – or should, but that’s my opinion – so how can we guarantee good cucumbers for pickle-making 12 months of the year? Why not be more flexible? It takes customers being open to changing traditions, and it takes smarts to figure out delicious solutions. It’s harder than shipping everything from New York, and requires an equally-evolved business model to make it work. But Saul’s is doing it.
When you go, try the blintzes, the seasonal sodas, sweet and savory kugels, the tsimmes, the rye bread that’s made with organic flours at Acme, the lox scrambles, and the cornbeef to name a few of my favorites. There’s also halva, a Middle Eastern Jewish treat made from ground sesame seeds that’s hard to find around the Bay Area.
Check back to the Saul’s website to see if their pastrami is ready. If you can’t bare the wait, Wise Sons is serving their own pastrami on Saturdays, made in San Francisco with hormone-free meat AND I was just alerted that Avedano’s butcher shop and grocer (on Cortland St.) is using 5 Dot meat in their little electric smoker and making some mean – albeit thinly sliced – pastrami. And they’re open every day.
Food traditions aren’t frozen in time, they have been, and will be evolving. Adaptation, in fact, is at the root of many world cuisines any way. Be flexible with your expectations in terms of edibility. Don’t squirm when you’re straw is a little flaccid or you have to ask for organic ketchup to be brought to your table (to prevent wasting this quality stuff). Release your inner need for parsley and lemon wedge garnishes, and for cukes and tomatoes in December. Honor your ancestors by using their recipes with local, seasonal ingredients. It’ll taste better, promise.
Saul’s Delicatessen, 510.848.DELI, 1475 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, CA, open daily 8a-10p except Thanksgiving and Yom Kippur