In early October, my wife and I took a day trip to Apple Hill, an area near Placerville of more than 30 apple farms. Every weekend in the fall, it’s pure apple pandemonium, as thousands of
families flood the small country roads for apples, cider and pie.
There are craft vendors and pony rides and U-pick orchards — and some farms even sell honey. So with about 15 varieties of apples to try, and honey, it’s a fun way to welcome the Jewish New Year.
But that’s not the point of my story. This is:
The night before our drive up, I was using Yelp to find a coffeehouse where Stacey and I could stop for a break. Just for fun, I decided to enter “Jewish Sacramento” in my search, and, lo and behold, look what popped up: Sam’s Kosher Style Restaurant and Delicatessen in Fair Oaks.
I fancy myself a deli aficionado, yet I had never heard of this place. I wasn’t even sure where Fair Oaks was. I read some of the 39 reviews on Yelp, and let’s just say my corned beef sensors weren’t salivating. So I didn’t mention anything to my wife.
The next day, however, after drinking coffee in Sacramento, we were driving east on Highway 50 when I saw an exit for Fair Oaks. It was lunchtime, so I said to Stacey, “Would you believe it if I told you there was a kosher-style deli right around here?”
We put the address into our GPS: whoa, a lengthy 18 minutes off the freeway. But since we’ve actually driven 90 minutes out of our way to go to the awesome Brent’s Deli in the San Fernando Valley, we decided to go for it.
Located in a strip mall that’s seen better days, the deli is indeed kosher-style. It smelled good compared to some delicatessens I’ve walked into. Jewish, Israel and Big Apple posters dotted the walls, and the décor was 1970s tattered, a plus in my book.
Later, I found out the deli’s history from owner Bruce Blackman, who was born and raised in Oakland. It’s 45 years old and used to be owned by Sam Ronson, one of the three brothers who also owned Brothers Manhattan Deli in Burlingame.
Shortly after Sam died, Bruce and his parents bought Sam’s. Bruce knew the Jewish deli business: He operated Mueller’s Delica-tessen at 468 Castro St. in San Francisco (now an A.G. Ferrari’s) for 25 years.
Bruce, 67, and his wife, Etty, 63, have run Sam’s for 17 years. Bruce works every day, cooking his own corned beef, making his own matzah balls and chopping his own liver (well, not literally!). He orders knishes from Back East, gets rye bread shipped from L.A.
“I basically bought myself a job,” he said. “I certainly haven’t gotten rich.” With his daughter, educated at the Shalom School in Sacramento, now attending U.C. Davis, Bruce isn’t about to retire. “I can’t afford to,” he said.
My wife and I enjoyed our Sam’s experience, from our booth to the big variety of mustards on all the tables to a menu that includes all the standards: blintzes, kreplach, lox, a hot tongue sandwich, etc.
My corned beef on a roll was tasty, but not quite “Jewish deli” enough for me. Too soft, it reminded me of an Arby’s sandwich. And my wife’s bagel, straight out of a bag, was on par with a Lender’s. Our server didn’t know what “rye ends” were when we asked for some.
But the environment was fun. At a nearby table, an elderly lady giggled as she tried a matzah ball for the first time. Next to us, a mother told her teen kids, “You know what rye bread is — it’s dark bread. Just so you know.”
Bruce said the bulk of his customers are non-Jews, although the Sacramento area does have a Jewish population of about 25,000. East Coast and upper Midwest transplants are regulars, Bruce said.
I probably wouldn’t make a special trip to Sam’s. But if I’m driving up Highway 50 to eat apples, I might as well whet my appetite with a pastrami on rye, a bowl of matzah ball soup, a side of chopped liver and an egg cream.
Andy Altman-Ohr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Sam’s Kosher Style Deli is located at 8121 Greenback Lane in Fair Oaks.