Still afloat after 25 years: Moishes Pippic and its top-secret matzah balls

As an avid reader of blogs and newsletters about the Bay Area food and restaurant scene, I come across a lot — a lot! — of news items about restaurants that couldn’t make it and are shutting down.

That was prominent in my mind when I paid a visit to Moishe’s Pippic on Dec. 1, the day on which the unabashedly untrendy Jewish delicatessen in San Francisco’s trendy Hayes Valley was celebrating its 25th anniversary.

Twenty-five years! That deserves a resounding blare of trumpets.

“We must be doing something right,” owner Joe Sattler, 65, told me as we sat at a table. “Otherwise we never would have made it this long.”

Joe Sattler, owner of Moishe’s Pippic photo/andy altman-ohr

Sattler, a native of Brazil, was handling loans for Crocker Bank in the late 1980s when he decided he wanted to be in the food business. His mother had owned a Jewish restaurant in Hungary and a Polish restaurant in Rio, and now he had the itch.

So he rolled the dice and bought a defunct deli that was already named Moishe’s Pippic (“pippic” meaning belly button in Yiddish). It was in a sketchy, largely undeveloped part of town. It was decorated mainly with Chicago sports posters. It was a “Chicago-style” Jewish deli. Chicago? Not New York?

And this was a formula for success?

Reflecting on how his restaurant has lasted, Sattler credited the quality of his food, the “real” deli experience that his eatery provides, the customer service and the warmth. On the day I visited, four of Sattler’s longtime friends were there to pitch in and help — gratis. Many of his customers have been coming back for years.

When I queried him about the emergence of some upstart Jewish delis in the Bay Area, Sattler paused and gave me the look of an old-time, Hall of Fame ballplayer being asked about a young whippersnapper.

Hayes Street sign shows its age photos/andy altman-ohr

“Whenever you open something new, everybody wants to try it, everybody wants to check it out,” Sattler said. “But the ratio of failures in the food business [locally] is tremendous, especially in the first two years. Even if they last five years, 10 years, then you’ve done a helluva job.”

Sattler wasn’t wishing failure upon the deli upstarts. He was just saying how tough it is to survive. He then regaled me with a story of dor l’dor (generation to generation). When Wise Sons Delicatessen was in the planning stages a couple of years ago, co-owner Evan Bloom paid a visit to the foot of the master, asking Sattler’s advice on a number of topics. Deli tradition was passed on.

Moishe’s Pippic probably is most known for its sandwiches — with names such as the Sears Tower (roast beef, turkey and kosher salami on a French roll) and the Evanston Special (chopped liver and turkey on rye). Others go for Chicago-style hot dogs and Polish sausages; the menu has seven choices, from the Soldier Field to the Wrigley Field (and even the Yankee Stadium).

But Jewish diners can’t seem to get enough of the matzah ball soup. Sattler has a secret: boiling his matzah balls in the packaged Manischewitz stock before serving them in his own homemade soup. He also adds a bit more egg than is typical, which results in a “floater” that falls perfectly between dense and fluffy. (To make his chicken salad, he chops up chicken pieces that were used to make the soup.)

Joe Sattler, owner of Moishe’s Pippic, takes care of some paperwork.

Then there’s his signature dish, chopped liver he makes fresh every day, grinding the chicken livers by hand in an old-fashioned meat grinder. That makes the liver a bit coarse rather than smooth like a pâté. He mixes in shmaltz, some caramelized onion, a touch of oil, hard-boiled egg and a pinch of granulated   

garlic powder, but no salt.

And Moishe’s always has matzah on hand. Fresh, crisp matzah. So there I was,

eating chopped liver on matzah on a rainy December morning. How awesome is that? Some people crumble the matzah in their chili, Sattler said. Hey, great idea! Others ask for sandwiches on matzah during Passover.

Customers who haven’t visited in a long time will find that things haven’t changed much in 25 years — adding to its charm in this day and age of chiseled cafés with sleek furniture and frou-frou ingredients.

Oh, one thing has changed. For 24 years, the deli was open from 8:30 a.m. until 4 p.m. But now it opens at 10 a.m. and closes at 6 p.m. — perfect for people who want to pick up a little something on their way home for dinner.

“I just did that at the end of July, and truthfully it’s been very good for business,” Sattler said. “People were asking for it, so I finally said, ‘Let’s give it a shot.’ It took me 24 years to change.”

Moishe’s Pippic

425-A Hayes St., San Francisco

10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday; closed Sunday

No Twitter, no Facebook, no website

(415) 431-2440

   This first-person piece is an addendum to Andy Altman-Ohr’s Hardly Strictly Bagels column.

         Click Here to read it.

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.