Leave it to a chef of Afghani and Persian roots to come up with beet pastrami. Yes, you read that right.
While Jewish deli lovers in Davis are no doubt heralding the arrival of delicious lox, pastrami and bagels with the late May opening of Solomon’s Deli, the beet pastrami — beets steamed in a mixture of orange juice, vinegar and garlic and then smoked with the spices used in a traditional pastrami rub — should not be overlooked. Together with the melted Swiss cheese and sauerkraut on griddled rye bread, they make a uniquely satisfying substitute for a traditional Reuben. Not to mention that your arteries might thank you, too.
“Beets are earthy on the palate, plus the color, it made me think they could be a good vegetarian substitute for pastrami,” said Solomon’s executive chef, Aimal Formoli.
The beet pastrami is just one sign that the founders aren’t afraid to deviate from tradition, making their own mark while still honoring deli’s traditional roots.
The Solomon’s located in Davis Commons is a smaller outpost of the planned flagship restaurant in downtown Sacramento, scheduled to open in the fall.
The deli concept pays tribute to Tower Records founder Russ Solomon, who died in March. Solomon opened the first Tower Records in Sacramento and went on to open 200 more in 15 countries. Declaring “No Music, No Life,” these stores became gathering places for music lovers. Solomon’s spin on that slogan is “No Bagels, No Life,” and its owners see the deli as a gathering place as well. The Sacramento deli will feature live music, and both will have Tower Records memorabilia on the walls.
The idea for Solomon’s started brewing four years ago when Sacramento-area resident Sheila Wolfe decided it was high time for a Jewish deli in town. Every year, she helped put on the Jewish food festival at Congregation Beth Shalom in the suburb of Carmichael, and talked to plenty of people who pined for a local Jewish deli. The festival is also where Wolfe met Lydia Inghram and Jami Goldstene, now her fellow deli co-owners.
Living in Sacramento, “we couldn’t get good rye bread, we couldn’t get good bagels,” said Goldstene, who did public relations for the event. “So once a year, we’d do Jewish deli for a day.” The organizers often drove down to Los Angeles and brought back carloads of the stuff.
Rather than partner with a local deli like Saul’s in Berkeley, something they considered initially, the women decided to venture out on their own and joined forces with a fourth partner, Andrea Lepore, creative director at the Golden Group restaurant enterprise.
At a recent tasting in Davis, the pastrami, chopped liver, white fish salad, fish smoked in-house and bagels showed that this deli is the real deal. The team consulted with Dan Graf of Berkeley’s Baron’s Bagels on the recipe, and local bakery Grateful Bread is making the bagels, as well as rye bread, babka and other baked goods.
The Davis location has no oven, so the menu is an abbreviated version of what will be offered in Sacramento. Things to look forward to at the flagship location include brisket, blintzes and latkes, a full bar, catering for Jewish holidays and Chinese food on Christmas.
“We worked on our pastrami recipe for six months,” said Formoli, who went on a tasting tour with the owners to New York and Los Angeles. The same company that supplies pastrami for Langer’s Deli in L.A. is making Solomon’s pastrami, using Formoli’s recipe.
Formoli was the chef of the popular Formoli’s Bistro for 11 years in Sacramento and felt ready for a new challenge.
“I love this concept so much and seeing what deli represents to people,” he said.
He is classically trained, and like others in the newer wave of deli chefs, cares deeply about sourcing. All the meat is grass-fed and sourced locally.
And how will he respond to extra-picky customers who may complain that the chopped liver isn’t like what their bubbe used to make? Formoli isn’t worried. He said all of the owners (“the ladies,” as he calls them) have contributed their palates and input to his recipe testing, informing him how canonical dishes like chopped liver and white fish salad are supposed to taste.
“I have an older Persian mama, and our culture is not that different. I know where it’s coming from and what they’re looking for and have built up a thick skin. We’re proud of what we’re doing. But,” Formoli adds, “I’ll definitely take suggestions.”
Goldstene, who grew up a block away from Canter’s Deli in L.A., said she is pleased that this moment finally has arrived.
“We are all bringing our own memories to it,” she said. “We’re using the best ingredients and asking ourselves how we can re-create 60 to 70 years of deli tradition, and yet we’re doing our own interpretations with all the soul we can bring to it.”
The Davis location is next door to an outpost of the Halal Guys, and there already has been talk about interfaith food events.
Wise Sons Jewish Delicatessen has signed a book deal with Chronicle Books. “Eat Something” will be a collaboration between co-founder Evan Bloom and local author and food writer Rachel Levin. The book will feature photos of “Jews eating food, debating food, over-ordering food, dancing around food, remembering when there wasn’t enough food, etc.” If you have a photo that you think might qualify, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org. Look for the book before Passover in 2020.