Wise Sons, the San Francisco-based Jewish deli, has a new outpost... in Tokyo. (Photo/Andy Altman-Ohr)
Wise Sons, the San Francisco-based Jewish deli, has a new outpost... in Tokyo. (Photo/Andy Altman-Ohr)

The land of the rising bagel: Wise Sons brings deli cuisine to Tokyo

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Food coverage is supported by a generous donation from Susan and Moses Libitzky.

If you find yourself in Tokyo for the Olympics next summer, you might want to check out Wise Sons, the Jewish delicatessen from San Francisco. It’s been open in Japan for 18 months, and I made damn sure to stop by when my wife and I were visiting recently.

It’s not as if I was jonesing for matzah ball soup, corned beef or an everything bagel with cream cheese and lox. (Well, I sort of was, because I always am.)

It was more the novelty factor. Real Jewish deli in Japan. And the familiarity factor. It’s Wise Sons! The place I first sampled nine years ago when it was a once-a-week pop-up on Valencia Street. It became an early beating heart of the revival of a national Jewish deli scene that had been pronounced all but dead.

Fortunately, the Wise Sons Tokyo experience didn’t disappoint.

Bagels and rugelach in Japan? You betcha. (Photo/Andy Altman-Ohr)
Bagels and rugelach in Japan? You betcha. (Photo/Andy Altman-Ohr)

First, a couple of things to know. No. 1, nowhere is it called a “Jewish deli,” not on signs, not on the menu, not on the souvenir T-shirts. Rather, it’s marketed as a San Francisco eatery, as Tokyo hipsters/eaters have a certain fascination with the city (though they do love Portland more).

No. 2, the place isn’t easy to find. It’s only a couple of blocks from three subway stations, but if you take the wrong exit, good luck. It’s on the basement level of the 37-story Marunouchi Building, in an underground maze of stores and restaurants, part of a squeaky clean, semi-swanky, gourmet food arcade. The signs read “Wise Sons San Francisco Delicatessen,” and a door emblem announces “Quality foods since 5771” (in English, no explanation).

One thing that hits you right away is a poster advertising bento boxes, with pictures of such items as an egg salad bagel and a pastrami sandwich with cheese and lettuce (lettuce?). And there they are, in a display cooler a few feet away: packaged to-go bento boxes. Each contains an open-faced bagel sandwich, a small green salad and a little tub of coleslaw, potato salad or pasta salad for $6.50 to $7.50.

Ah, yes... bento boxes, that classic staple of deli cuisine (Photo/Andy Altman-Ohr)
Ah, yes… bento boxes, that classic staple of deli cuisine (Photo/Andy Altman-Ohr)

Packaged items abound. There are veggie, schnitzel and pastrami sandwiches, and corned beef and chicken-salad sandwiches for $8 that include either french fries (odd choice) or two dollops of a potato salad that’s chunkier than the super-smooth version the Japanese are used to. Packaged but homemade rye bread, “challah bread,” rugelach, coconut macaroons and individually wrapped bagels are available, as well.

Don’t fret! Not everything is premade and packaged. But the strategy is wise, I think. Putting these highly unfamiliar items on clear display helps show potential customers what Jewish, er, San Francisco deli food actually looks like.

Customers line up along a display case loaded with honey cake, rugelach, macaroons, and slices of chestnut, lemon and chocolate babka. Nearby are dozens of bagels on trays: plain, sesame, poppyseed, pumpernickel and everything — all of them softer than Wise Sons’ S.F. offerings in order to suit the Japanese palate.

What is this? What do I do with this stuff? (Photo/Andy Altman-Ohr)
What is this? What do I do with this stuff? (Photo/Andy Altman-Ohr)

During the lunch hour when we were there, the line to order never got more than two or three people deep, and only about two-thirds of the 42 seats were filled, mainly with solo women in business suits rather than with the packs of “salarymen” one sees everywhere. Most were eating open-face bagel sandwiches with a side of, yes, french fries. Nobody seemed too confused, although one Japanese woman ate her pickle with a fork.

The decor is sleek, modern, simple and very Jewish deli-like. There’s a souvenir area with T-shirts, coffee beans, tumbler sets, pins and water bottles (written at the bottom of the price list: “Eat something, you look skinny”).

There are framed photographs from some of Wise Sons’ five locations in San Francisco and Marin, including one that shows diners at the 24th Street flagship with black-and-white family photos on the wall. Similarly, Wise Sons Tokyo also features old family photos and a framed California state flag. Bottles of Kedem grape juice, six-packs of S.F.-brewed Anchor Steam, Bazooka gum from Israel, klezmer album covers, and a box or two of matzah complement the deli-good feel of the space. Cool jazz plays in the background.

One wall is dominated by a mural of the S.F. skyline — flanked by Victorian houses and the Golden Gate Bridge — with iconic Mount Fuji in the background instead of Twin Peaks or Mt. Tam. San Francisco muralist Amos Goldbaum, whose work can be seen in Wise Sons’ local venues, created it, and if you look closely, you can see a bagel-chomping, Godzilla-like creature near the dome of City Hall.

The deli goes to great lengths to educate its patrons. For example, in a couple of spots, there are small placards with photos and descriptions of bagels and rugelach. The dual English-Japanese menu has a large Japanese-only section that explains matzah ball soup, bagels, babka, challah, and how minced pastrami and corned beef create a hamburger patty that’s packed with umami (a savory taste that’s revered in Japan).

Choices on the all-day menu include big, American-size salads, a patty melt, the “Big Macher” burger and bagels with lots of toppings and fillings: crispy pastrami, avocado schmear, chicken salad, egg and cheese, etc.

The dual English-Japanese menu at Wise Sons in Tokyo (Photo/Andy Altman-Ohr)
The dual English-Japanese menu at Wise Sons in Tokyo (Photo/Andy Altman-Ohr)

There’s even a pizza bagel topped with your choice of schmear, tomato sauce, mozzarella and basil — though many S.F. menu options, such as chopped liver, latkes, bialys and pastrami cheese fries, are nowhere to be found.

Since I had only the one visit, I went the traditional route: matzah ball soup; bagel, lox and cream cheese; a “classic” corned beef sandwich; and a “Hot No. 19” with pastrami, coleslaw, cheese and Russian dressing. You can upgrade any sandwich or burger to “S.F. size” for 500 yen, about $4.75.

The bagel was like a U.S. chain bagel: soft, a bit too big, and not nearly as good as Wise Sons makes on Fillmore Street. I’d even suggest getting it toasted, which goes against everything I stand for, though Tokyo Weekender wrote that it “was easily the best bagel we’ve had in Tokyo, hands down.” And the matzah ball soup (served in a paper cup, by the way) could have used a little more salt, though overall it was quite tasty and the kneidlach were of an excellent consistency.

What really shined was the pastrami and corned beef, as good as what Wise Sons serves in the Bay Area — and that’s saying something! The smoked salmon was amazing, too.

Wise Sons in Tokyo (Photo Andy Altman-Ohr)
Wise Sons in Tokyo (Photo Andy Altman-Ohr)

I sort of didn’t expect it in Tokyo, where Wise Sons hooked up with a local restaurant management company that operates several Italian restaurants, including a branch of S.F. favorite A16. (Non sequitur: There are also 14 Blue Bottle Coffee locations in Tokyo).

“It’s been wild,” Wise Sons co-owner Evan Bloom said of the past 18 months. “Who on Earth would have thought that we’d have a Jewish deli from San Francisco in Tokyo? We’re serving both locals and expats while expanding on the idea of making Jewish deli mainstream across the globe.

“Generally speaking, we’re learning about operating in Japan as we go. Nobody has done this before, at least that we know of. So every step from Day 1 has been a departure from how we do business in San Francisco, and it’s been a lot of fun.”

Bloom and his crew had to deal with some unique challenges. For example, when it came time to launch the brining and curing processes, Bloom (illegally) snuck a good amount of pastrami and corned beef into Japan in his suitcase to give his local staff something to go by. It worked. The 70-year-old factory outside of Tokyo that makes Wise Sons’ meats is doing a fantastic job.

Another problem was the absence of matzah meal in Japan. So the Tokyo crew makes its own matzah, grinds it up and turns it into matzah balls. Finding the right kind of flour took a lot of work, as did locating a Japanese mustard that’s close in consistency and flavor to what Wise Sons serves in the Bay Area.

On display at Wise Sons in Tokyo, the photo of the photos at the original location in San Francsico. (Photo/Andy Altman-Ohr)
On display at Wise Sons in Tokyo, the photo of the photos at the original location in San Francsico. (Photo/Andy Altman-Ohr)

But that’s only the half of it. The typical Japanese customer has no idea what matzah balls are. “They’ve been tough to explain,” Bloom said, “but the matzah ball soup does seem to be catching on.”

Then there’s customer education that goes beyond the food. “It’s also the service. The American style, fast-casual experience [beyond fast food] is still new in Japan … We’re also up against a Japanese customer that doesn’t always eat a large breakfast, and the idea that coffee is still more of an afternoon pick-me-up than morning fuel.”

Maybe things were a bit clunky at the outset, but Wise Sons Tokyo has rounded into fine form. Everything I tried would make for what one would call a medium- to high-level Jewish deli experience, and the space really feels like a Jewish deli (though, sadly, it doesn’t smell like one).

Though the deli scores only 3.8 from 67 Google reviews, many comments are along the lines of “You can’t find this stuff in Tokyo” and “Best pastrami sandwich I’ve had in Japan.”

The Japanese are great at replicating dishes, and there is a high level of craftsmanship and perfection in their food culture, and all of that shines through at Tokyo’s first Jewish deli.

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.