California Jewish food sounds incongruous, but its really quite tasty

As my friends can testify, food is — in addition to one of my favorite conversation topics and hobbies — my main connection to my Jewish heritage. Raised in Berkeley by New York transplants, I grew up believing that potato knishes and chocolate egg creams were treasured delicacies from the homeland, rare finds on menus in the Bay Area.

When I moved to New York for grad school in 2009, I was a kid in a candy store. Never mind that pastrami sandwiches at Katz’s Delicatessen cost a few limbs, or the fact that I felt sick after eating a black-and-white cookie the size of my head; I was free from the oppressive health-consciousness that pervaded the restaurants of my youth. Bring on the sodium and animal fat! This was my culture! There was no such thing as too much!

Well, except that there was. Before long, I started to crave fresh vegetables and fantasize about the ubiquity of the  avocado in my home state. In early summer, when I bit into my first nectarine of the season and encountered a watery, bland, non-taste (the kind that indicated the fruit had been frozen and then traveled 1,000 miles), I almost threw a tantrum. Then it hit me: I was still, at heart, a Bay Area food snob.

Which is why, upon moving back to San Francisco, I’ve been thinking about how to eat like a California Jew. Aren’t I allowed to appreciate the impetus for the Slow Food movement while still lusting after the babka at Canter’s in L.A.? Can’t I celebrate blintzes and kugel as cornerstones of my culture while also recognizing that my Russian and Polish ancestors probably would have loved a fresh mango salsa, if given the chance?

It was with this in mind that I went to the JCC of San Francisco last week, on my lunch break, to visit the new café. The light, open space has indoor and outdoor seating and what would seem to be prime real estate, positioned just to the right of the JCC’s front entrance.

Regardless, it’s had significant turnover in the last decade — from an Asian fusion spot to a cafeteria — and the latest tenant, Sweet Jo’s, closed in January. Now, for the first time in more than a decade, folks at the JCC are trying to do it themselves.

Under the direction of consultant Frank Klein and chef Chad Newton, the café’s new concept is the offspring of Jewish deli cravings and a Northern Californian sensibility.

There’s hearty matzah ball soup, but there’s also a “peace platter,” with hummus, falafel, baba ghanoush, olives and quinoa. There’s a Reuben on rye, piled high with dressing, but there’s also a meatless version.

Kids can get excited about hot dogs and macaroni and cheese, but they can also go for the organic, local Straus Family Creamery soft-serve frozen yogurt. There’s also a coffee bar with baked goods made on the premises.

“We want to offer local, fresh, sustainable options whenever possible,” said Chris Sundblad, the JCC’s director of building operations and the acting general manager of the café. “We have comfort food as well as healthy food, we’re family friendly, and we have a wide variety of kosher grab-and-go items for the first time. We’re still evolving, but we’re really excited about this opportunity to build community.”

With the JCC’s Arts and Ideas season starting in September, marketing manager Jeannine Luna hopes attendees will take advantage of the café’s beer and wine license to come have a drink and a bite to eat before a show.

On this warm afternoon, I sat in the sun-filled atrium and sampled the flavorful roast salmon with a caper-herb vinaigrette and veggies on the side. Nearby, two kids devoured a plate of thick-cut french fries while their mother sat down to a Greek salad; a middle-aged man tucked into a corned beef sandwich while reading the paper; curious customers wandered up to sample the day’s frozen yogurt.

It’s not Katz’s. But hey — it turns out it is possible to connect with my Jewish identity through food in a way that involves fresh produce. This is San Francisco, after all. I wouldn’t have it any other way.


Emma Silvers lives in San Francisco. She can be reached at [email protected]


Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.