Pop-up pastrami: Street-food craze inspires a new deli in San Francisco

A perfect deli storm is forming — and Leo Beckerman and Evan Bloom believe they are smack in the middle of it.

With their launch in January of Wise Sons Jewish Delicatessen in San Francisco, the two U.C. Berkeley grads seem to be capitalizing, first, on a local menagerie of food trucks and pop-up food vendors and, second, on the early stages of a second-wave deli movement.

So far, it all looks to be coming together, with between 120 and 200 patrons coming by for brunch every Saturday. Many are willing to stand in long lines, and clearly the rush is on: Two weeks ago, the deli sold out of sandwiches (150 pounds of pastrami and corned beef) in less than an hour and a half.

“People have been very passionate about what we’re doing,” said Bloom, who, along with Beckerman, quit his full-time job to start this venture. “It’s something that doesn’t exist as we see it, and we definitely think there’s a market for it — and people are excited.”

Right now, the non-kosher deli is operating as a “pop-up” restaurant on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. It’s across the street from a weekly gathering of four or five food trucks called “Off the Grid at McCoppin Hub,” but it’s inside Jackie’s Vinoteca and Café at 105 Valencia St.

“We’re associated with Off the Grid,” Beckerman said, “but we’re not a cart or a table or anything like that. We’re more of a guerrilla-style restaurant.”

Beckerman, 27, and Bloom, 25, aim to have a permanent restaurant soon. They currently are scouting for locations, targeting the Mission District, and hope to set up shop by the summer.

“Location, atmosphere and accessibility are all very, very important, and we’re not willing to compromise,” Bloom said. “That’s one of the reasons it’s taking so long to find a space.”

Noodle kugel with caramelized corn flakes and a cinnamon reduction sauce photo/kimberly hasselbrink/theyearinfood.com

Beckerman and Bloom are trying to follow in the footsteps of the Mile End Deli, which opened as a small operation in Brooklyn in 2010 and has since received copious amounts of positive press — from the New York Times to the Wall Street Journal to Saveur magazine.

Mile End’s signature item is its slow-cooked, Montreal-style smoked meat sandwich. “You pick it up and it squishes to the shape of your hand, so you don’t put it down until you’re done,” Saveur magazine wrote. “[The pulled brisket] smells like burning embers and tastes the way you always hope pastrami will taste: smoky, salty, beefy, sweet.”

It’s a sandwich that San Francisco foodies would hunt down in a New York minute, so the Wise Sons strategy is to have similar offerings — items with Eastern European roots but made with house-smoked and house-cured meats, creative recipes, and local, artisanal ingredients. They hope to be part of an evolution away from the classic, overstuffed deli sandwich.

Bloom went to Mile End last October and spent a few hours with owner Noah Bernamoff. “I observed his operation, asked a few questions. I would consider them as our peers, doing a similar thing. We’re both fighting the same battle: to bring Jewish deli back to its roots,” he said.

Similarly, Beckerman did some reconnaissance work last year at Kenny and Zuke’s Deli in Portland, Ore., which had its roots as a food cart. The New York Times tabbed it as one of the few delis nationwide that’s “moving toward delicious handmade food with good ingredients served with respect for past and present.”

“We’ve even been in touch with Saul’s Deli in Berkeley,” Beckerman noted. “They are excited for all of this. They’re hoping to revitalize the cuisine, too.”

Leo Beckerman chats with patrons. photo/chris stevens

Beckerman and Bloom have been offering an array of items each Saturday, and they usually sell out of almost everything. They started Jan. 22 with a menu that included cheese blintzes with fresh fruit compote, corned beef hash, and lox, eggs and onions with dill crème fraîche and rye bread — everything made and baked by them. Matzah ball soup made its debut Feb. 18. Chocolate babka and black-and-white cookies also have been featured.

They have had a Shlubby Joe sandwich (made with brisket braised in a local microbrew, spicy coleslaw, Russian dressing and pickled radishes on a sea-salt challah bun) and house-made bialys (with chive cream cheese, smoked salmon, capers and sweet-and-sour cucumbers). They also recently gave people the option of putting shmaltz on their rye toast.

“Some people didn’t know what it was,” Bloom said of the chicken fat. “But people who are Jewish of course had heard of it, so they really wanted to try it.”

Beckerman, who grew up in North Hollywood, and Bloom, from Ventura, were raised on the Jewish delis of Southern California — the unheralded but authentic Brent’s Deli in Northridge is their go-to spot — and on occasional meals from bubbes and East Coast delis.

They began cooking together when, as students at U.C. Berkeley, they kept meeting up in the kitchen at Hillel. Inspired by one another, they started a barbecue at Hillel that grew into what Beckerman called “a ridiculous culinary affair, sometimes serving to over 250 people a week.”

“Watching them work, you could tell it was a labor of love,” said Adam Weisberg, who was then the executive director at Berkeley Hillel. “They were great chefs and created a fun and high-energy environment. And it was great food.”

Beckerman graduated in 2005 with a degree in community health and education, and went to work for a Washington, D.C., nonprofit. Bloom graduated in 2007 with an architecture degree, and started working in the Bay Area in construction management.

Both kept cooking on their own, and together when Beckerman visited. One time they roasted a whole lamb, and one weekend they made their own pastrami.

“I started to realize that this was something that was really interesting to us, that we had good ideas,” said Bloom, a food scene insider who has volunteered at the nonprofit kitchen La Cocina and has helped organize the S.F. Street Food Festival since 2009. “It started to pick up steam, we wrote a business plan and eventually said we were going to go ahead and try it.”

In conjunction with quitting their jobs, they spent several months in a test kitchen, experimenting with different meats and recipes. Now they plan each Saturday’s six- or seven-item menu at the beginning of the week, buy what they need and cook it all up at a commercial kitchen in which they rent space.

It’s not the most ideal or economically efficient setup, they said, but for a restaurant in its infancy, it has its advantages.

“We get to test ideas and see what works,” Beckerman said.

“People can try our food and give us feedback,” Bloom added. “We get to practice, to get things together for when we do move into a space.”

In the meantime, the two men also are working to establish ties to the Jewish community. Last month, they spoke in the Jewish Chef’s Series at Temple Israel in Alameda, and on March 20, they are slated to participate in the JCC of San Francisco’s Purim Unmasked festival. They also might start a cooking class for local alumni of Birthright Israel.

“We’ll also cater a bris or other simchas,” Beckerman added.

As for the name of the establishment, it’s a nod to the wise son, one of the four sons in the Passover haggadah. But it’s also a bit of tongue-in-cheek commentary about the smarts, or lack thereof, of trying to start a restaurant.

“We believe we are the wiser sons,” Bloom said, “even if our grandmothers wanted us to be doctors or lawyers.”

Wise Sons Jewish Delicatessen operates 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays inside Jackie’s Vinoteca and Café, 105 Valencia St., S.F. Information: www.wisesonsdeli.com, or @WiseSonsDeli on Twitter. Also on Facebook.

cover photo: chris stevens

Leo Beckerman (left) and Evan Bloom run Wise Sons Jewish Delicatessen every Saturday inside Jackie’s Vinoteca and Café in San Francisco’s Mission District.

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr is J.'s former managing editor and former Hardly Strictly Bagels food columnist. He lives and writes in Mexico.