Don’t try to tell David Sax that the Bay Area is a vast deli wasteland.
“No, not at all,” said the author of “Save the Deli.”
“If judged on its own merits, there is good deli to be had in San Francisco. If people went out and supported it more, and took a passion in it instead of complaining about it, then that could only be a good thing — and then maybe deli [in the Bay Area] would really take off.”
Sax, a Toronto native and lifelong lover of Jewish deli food, will get a chance to put his theory where is his mouth is when he makes a three-day stop in the Bay Area to promote his new book.
His schedule includes a talk and book signing at Saul’s Restaurant and Deli in Berkeley on Saturday, Oct. 24, and a similar event at Book Passage at the Ferry Building in San Francisco on Monday, Oct. 26, sandwiched around a private party at Miller’s East Coast Deli in San Francisco. He’ll also return in a few months for a Jan. 28 talk at the JCC of San Francisco.
At each event, Sax plans to talk about delicatessens in general, but he’ll also spend time discussing his chapter in “Save the Deli” titled “I Left My Kishkes in San Francisco.” The relatively short, nine-page chapter, which begins “Until very recently, San Francisco was a dying deli town,” gives a light history of delis in the area, and assesses the current state of the local scene.
In a sign that things here are probably not all that promising, two of the five delis he mentions in the chapter — the S.F. New York Deli in Embarcadero Center and the California Street Delicatessen at the JCC of San Francisco — have since shut down since he visited in 2007.
“It’s a small deli scene, and definitely a struggling scene,” Sax said by phone from Brooklyn, N.Y., where he has lived for the past year. “It’s interesting, because the Bay Area is such a foodie society and at the forefront of the food movement, where so many things are happening. But the deli scene has been left behind.”
Sax, a freelance journalist who has written for the New Republic, Rolling Stone and Gourmet among other periodicals, admitted his research for the Bay Area chapter wasn’t exhaustive.
He writes, for example, that “beloved Shenson’s Deli” closed in 2000 after 67 years in business, but offers no more. And he writes that Brother’s Manhattan Deli was “once a venerable institution [that is] now owned by Vietnamese immigrants” without mentioning where it was (first in Burlingame, then Millbrae) and that it shut down in early 2008. Other former delis, such as Frishman’s in Berkeley, and current ones, such as San Rafael’s House of Bagels and the multi-location Max’s, aren’t even mentioned.
Sax said he did some “quick and haphazard” research before starting a four-month deli road trip across North America in early 2007. When he got to the Bay Area, he hooked up with music industry whiz David Katznelson, the co-founder of the San Francisco Appreciation Society.
“He’s a great ambassador of the city, and he took me around to a few delis,” Sax said of Katznelson. “I also called the owners of the delis.”
Sax said he spent “two or maybe three days” in San Francisco, during which time he ate at Miller’s East Coast Deli (formerly called East Coast West) on Polk Street, David’s on Geary Street and Moishe’s Pippic on Hayes Street.
He writes about how Robby Morgenstein, “a Long Island–born Deadhead” was inspired to open Miller’s, and he writes about a long sitdown he had with David Apfelbaum, founder of David’s Deli, which had 16 locations in 1965, but only one today.
“It was one of the most successful delicatessens in the country, known coast to coast,” he wrote.
“Now,” Sax said, “it’s like the last vestiges of a great empire. You could tell it had greatness, and you can even taste it in some of the things: the chopped liver, the baked goods they make there and the blintzes, which are some of the best I’ve had anywhere.”
In the book, Sax writes that some prominent deli owners from around the country have made inquiries into buying David’s, but the Theater District property is too expensive.
“People are watching and waiting,” he said. “It has the potential to be a great, iconic deli, but right now it is saying a lot about a diminishing deli town.”
Moishe’s Pippic, which didn’t make it into the chapter, “does some of the best chopped liver I’ve had, and one thing that’s really cool is that [owner Joe Sattler] serves it on matzah,” Sax noted.
He also said Sattler does a “really interesting” matzah ball soup, cooking his matzah balls first in Manischewitz soup mix, then taking the balls out and depositing them into his own chicken soup.
In the book, Sax points to Saul’s and Miller’s as places that could lead a Bay Area deli renaissance, calling them part of a “tenuous new generation of Jewish delicatessens [in the Bay Area that recently] began emerging, approaching deli with a locavore’s take on food.”
In an interview, Sax said he hopes Bay Area food culture can hoist Jewish deli food onto its shoulders; he said his dream is for a shop to open in the Ferry Building Marketplace, a place “that could do a great slow-cured pastrami, or bake its own ryes.”
He has several theories on why deli hasn’t thrived here.
“If anything, the health movement really hurt the deli scene in San Francisco,” Sax said.
But then again, he added, Chowhound.com types are eating at barbecue joints, upscale pizzerias and various greasy spoons. “There are a lot of eaters out there, and a lot of places do fatty sandwiches — so why not get that sandwich at a deli?”
He also noted that because San Francisco doesn’t have its own “deli identity,” new deli owners are always trying to replicate a New York or L.A. deli experience — and often failing.
In the end, though, he presented the kvetch theory.
“You’ll hear from people who used to live in L.A. or Chicago or Detroit or New York that deli is never going to be as good as they had it back home — because that was back home,” he said. “Nothing ever tastes the same as it was — nothing is ever going to beat your mother’s matzah ball soup, even if your mom’s soup wasn’t at all good.
“It’s the Jewish way,” he added. “The tragedy about [Bay Area] delis is that everyone wants to complain about them, but they haven’t gone out to eat at them. Maybe less kvetching and more fressing is what San Francisco needs.”
David Sax will have a talk and book signing
at 4 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 24, at Saul’s Restaurant and Deli, 1475 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley; and a talk and Q&A at 6 p.m. Monday, Oct. 26, at Book Passage in the Ferry Building in San Francisco. Information: www.savethedeli.com.
“Save the Deli” by David Sax (319 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $24