Some cutting-edge culinary offerings at chef Aaron London's new AL's Deli in the Mission District of San Francisco. (Photo/Molly DeCoudreaux)
Some cutting-edge culinary offerings at chef Aaron London's new AL's Deli in the Mission District of San Francisco. (Photo/Molly DeCoudreaux)

Creativity makes the Bay Area a Jewish food destination

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

In all my years of covering the Bay Area Jewish food scene, I’ve never seen a frenzy like the one happening over Boichik Bagels. I can’t go anywhere in the Jewish community without being asked when it’s opening or why it’s taking so long.

Proprietor Emily Winston, who is hoping for a fall opening in Berkeley, is well aware of the community’s anticipation. In fact, she’s had people she barely knows volunteering to help move the process along.

“It happens all the time,” she said. Recently, when a large table was delivered to the store and had to be moved inside, “a guy was walking by, a big, strong dude, and he helped us. He told me his wife was a huge fan and was stalking me on Instagram.” The wife has since given Winston her husband’s phone number, in case she needs to call upon him again.

Emily Winston at the site-to-be of her first Boichik Bagels location, which was formerly the first Noah's location (Photo/Alix Wall)
Emily Winston at the site-to-be of her first Boichik Bagels location, which was formerly the first Noah’s location (Photo/Alix Wall)

In 2015, the New York Times claimed it was near impossible to find a good bagel in California. But the article was focused entirely on the Bay Area, and its implication was this: If we couldn’t produce a decent bagel, then we might as well be written off the Jewish culinary map.

Studies have shown the Bay Area Jewish community to be one of the least affiliated in the country. But the desire for a decent bagel is universal. In fact, for many Jews, food is what connects them most deeply to their heritage. “There truly is such thing as a lox and bagel Jew,” Winston said. “It’s part of their cultural or religious practice.”

True, the Bay Area has never been known as a Jewish food destination. But that has started to change, with an unmistakable uptick over the past few years in Jewish eateries, including many offering Israeli cuisine.

In just the last year or two, mainstays like Saul’s Restaurant & Delicatessen in Berkeley and Wise Sons Deli in San Francisco have been joined by high-profile restaurants like San Francisco’s Che Fico, where Jewish chef David Nayfeld’s Italian menu includes interpretations of Roman-Jewish cuisine. Last year also saw the opening of Augie’s Montreal Deli in Berkeley, where latkes and matzah ball soup are on the menu alongside the star attraction, smoke meat, introduced and made famous in Montreal by Romanian Jewish immigrants. The country’s only dedicated babka bakery, Babka by Ayélet, offering multiple flavors of the much beloved-yeasted cake, opened on the Peninsula, and Goldie’s Vegan Deli, which offers vegan interpretations of traditional Jewish deli (think lox made from carrots), made its recent debut at a number of local pop-up events. Solomon’s Delicatessen opened to great fanfare in Sacramento in July, while San Francisco saw the openings of AL’s Deli and Daily Driver around the same time.

The entrance to Solomon's Deli in Sacramento (Photo/Kelly Sousa)
The entrance to Solomon’s Deli in Sacramento (Photo/Kelly Sousa)

Israeli cuisine has shown impressive staying power in its own right: Israeli American chef Guy Eshel has two downtown San Francisco locations of Sababa, a gourmet falafel joint with house-made pita; Flying Falafel, established in San Francisco by Israeli American Assaf Pashut, later opened in Berkeley; and Israeli chef Mica Talmor’s Ba-Bite, which took Israeli cuisine to new heights in Oakland for three years until it closed last summer, reopens in the fall with a new name, Pomella. Oren’s Hummus, a standard-bearer of authentic Israeli-style hummus that first opened in Palo Alto and added two more South Bay outlets, expanded to San Francisco last year and is doing well near the Contemporary Jewish Museum. And on the Peninsula, Village Hummus in San Mateo, Falafel Stop in Sunnyvale and Izzy’s Brooklyn Bagels with two Palo Alto locations (both kosher) have the bagel/falafel/fresh pita market covered. Oakland’s Holy Land is still holding its ground, too.

Israeli pop-ups are going strong, with Balagan in Napa by Israeli chef Itamar Abramovitch, and multicourse historical Israeli dinners by Aliza Grayevsky Somekh, chef and owner of Bishulim SF. Shuk Shuka is a partnership between an Israeli of Yemenite descent, Inon Tzadok, and two Palestinian Americans, Odai Ammar and chef Mona Leena Michael, whose food skews more Palestinian than Israeli. They hope to open a restaurant by early next year.

Israeli cuisine’s emphasis on vegetables, rather than meat and starch, has struck a chord with the American diner and is showing up in “traditional” Jewish restaurants as well.

At Solomon's Deli and elsewhere, the trend is vegetables — more vegetables. (Photo/Kelly Sousa)
At Solomon’s Deli and elsewhere, the trend is vegetables — more vegetables. (Photo/Kelly Sousa)

“When I started making hummus, people would complain and say, “You’re an Ashkenazi deli, why are you doing this? Now it’s half my sales,” said Peter Levitt, chef-owner of Saul’s, which has been around for decades in Berkeley. “Anything I do that’s inspired by [Israeli American chef] Michael Solomonov is more in tune with how people want to eat every day. They want more salads as opposed to heavy meat dishes. Our pastrami is still the most popular dish, but the sabich (an Iraqi-Israeli eggplant and hard-boiled egg sandwich) has quadrupled in sales.”

Even kosher establishments, which historically haven’t done well in the Bay Area, are getting a little traction. The long-running Sabra Grill on Grant Avenue in San Francisco has been joined by Flying Falafel (only its Berkeley location is certified) and the Israeli bakery Frena, with two S.F. locations. Limonana, a kosher shwarma, falafel and hummus place, should open on Sixth Street in San Francisco in the next few weeks, according to owner Ariel Sharabi, and of course Boichik Bagels will join the pack soon.

Arguably, the restaurant that put San Francisco Jewish food on the map was Wise Sons, which opened its first brick-and-mortar establishment seven years ago. Glowing reviews in Bon Appétit, the New York Times and other publications made the rest of the country sit up and notice.

Soon Wise Sons was opening secondary locations throughout the Bay, plus one far-flung branch in Tokyo.

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)

Co-owner and chef Evan Bloom sees local Jewish food offerings continuing to evolve. He says it’s “less about a specific ethnic group, and more about a genre of food that can sit in the pantheon of other types of food, whether it be Chinese, Japanese, Indian or whatever. The more Jewish restaurants that open or the more Jewish food there is, the more I think we’re closer to that goal.”

The most exciting recent news on the deli front was the opening of Solomon’s Delicatessen in Sacramento in July. With the state capital’s dining scene gaining prominence, perhaps it was only a matter of time before the city got its own Jewish deli. An outpost that opened in Davis in 2018 closed recently, but the downtown Sacramento location is considered the flagship — and is worth the drive.

The restaurant is a business partnership among Jami Goldstene, a PR executive who used to be involved with Sacramento’s Jewish Food Faire, Andrea Lepore and Sonny Mayugba. As the only Jew of the three, Goldstene is “the heart and soul of the whole thing,” according to Lepore.

The deli is located on the site of the old Tower Records, a national chain that started in Sacramento, and it is named after its Jewish founder, Russ Solomon. Just as Tower Records was once a gathering spot for music lovers, Solomon’s is creating a similar sense of community. Goldstene has been thrilled to be part of a new Jewish gathering spot downtown, in an area with a rich Jewish history.

Co-owner Jami Goldstene behind the counter at Solomon's Deli in Sacramento (Photo/Kelly Sousa)
Co-owner Jami Goldstene behind the counter at Solomon’s Deli in Sacramento (Photo/Kelly Sousa)

“We learned recently that a block away was the first synagogue on the whole West Coast,” said Goldstene about Congregation B’nai Israel, which dates back to 1852. “There’s a plaque for it on Capitol Mall. Because of the Gold Rush, there were lots of Jews in this area. [In the early 20th century] there was Weinstock’s, a big Jewish-owned department store, and I. Magnin was also here.”

The deli is a short stroll away from the new Golden 1 Center, home of the Sacramento Kings, making it a perfect spot for a pre-game meal.

“Many people coming in are Jews that I’ve never run into,” said Goldstene. “They’re coming from the entire region. Their eyes light up and they make a beeline to me. They start telling me their stories, that they’re from Chicago or Detroit or New York and how much they miss this food.” She hears it from non-Jews, too, who grew up in Jewish areas and are excited to find a Jewish deli.

And with good reason. Solomon’s pastrami (my must-try at any Jewish deli) was tender and flavorful, and I particularly liked the happy hour offering of Reuben eggrolls in a Thousand Island dipping sauce, and fried pickles with z’hug aioli. There is a full bar, and clearly the staff had a lot of fun designing the cocktails menu with Jewish elements. Not only is there a boozed-up version of an egg cream with bourbon, but a Man Oh Manischewitz (gin, house-made sweet and sour, Blackberry Manischewitz); a Bloody Miriam rather than a Bloody Mary with harissa mixed into it; a pickletini (vodka shaken with pickle juice); and a Mazel Tov Mule, which has Blackberry Manischewitz mixed into the lime, ginger beer and vodka.

Solomon’s also carries Dr. Brown’s sodas, a detail that East Coast deli fans will appreciate.

But today’s dietary trends certainly are taken into account. A smoked mushroom vegan Reuben has been very popular, said Goldstene, and there’s a cauliflower kale quinoa salad with pickled onions and lemon-tahini dressing on the menu, too, signifying that offering a cuisine known for its artery-clogging fatty meats is much more appealing — not to mention profitable — if the menu includes some vegan options.

“We’re definitely a destination, and we’re hitting a nerve,” Goldstene said. “There is nothing else like it near here.”

The same can be said of AL’s Deli, another highly anticipated newcomer that opened in July. Chef-owner Aaron London, 36, boasts a Michelin star for his other San Francisco restaurant, AL’s Place, named best new restaurant of the year by Bon Appétit in 2015.

AL's Deli opened in S.F. in July (Photo/Molly DeCoudreaux)
AL’s Deli opened in S.F. in July (Photo/Molly DeCoudreaux)

London grew up in Sonoma County, the son of a Jewish father and Catholic mother. His family ate latkes and lit Hanukkah candles, but he said his only real connection to Judaism has been through food. Much of his cooking experience comes from working in restaurants in Montreal and New York, where he fell in love with smoke meat and Jewish deli.

“I lived about a block away from Schwartz’s Deli in Montreal, and I ate there on my way to work most days and sometimes on the way back,” he said. “I’ve eaten an obscene amount of smoke meat in my life, so perfecting it was something I started working on while at AL’s Place. We cure it for 11 days and smoke it and cook it for 12 hours very slowly and get a great product.”

In New York, he went to more Jewish delis, where he was smitten with “the delicious, salty, fatty brisket, luscious silky salmon and crispy potatoes.” He also discovered Israeli cooking there, and it took root, both in his mind and on his palate.

“I came back to the Bay Area hungry, and searching for these two foods I couldn’t easily find. So I had an epiphany: If I can’t find it, maybe I can make it myself.”

But he didn’t want to just reconfigure traditional East Coast Jewish deli. After all, he made his name and earned his Michelin star for his innovations with vegetables. Israeli cuisine was more in line with his style, but opening a falafel joint wasn’t quite right for him, either.

“Then I thought, what if I mixed the two together, and cooked this new food that I’ve created that’s been heavily influenced by East Coast deli and Israeli street food? It’s very me, and very San Francisco. That gave me a feeling of excitement,” he said.

London decided to go to Israel to research his ideas and got even more inspired.

Aaron London (Photo/Molly DeCoudreaux)
Aaron London (Photo/Molly DeCoudreaux)

Bowled over by the tartness of amba, the pickled mango sauce found on such Israeli street foods as falafel and shwarma, and z’hug, the Yemenite spice paste, he decided to create his own versions. London makes his amba with locally grown peaches, which his staff is canning now for use throughout the year.

Other innovative menu items are stuffed latkes (one with smoked salmon and cream cheese) and falafel crossed with a mini corn dog, served with his peach amba. Chicken shwarma and smoke meat brisket both are served on a plate or in pita with a garnish of onions doused in sumac, a tart, popular Middle Eastern spice.

London’s trip to Israel influenced the overall look of the deli, too. The colors are sunny and bright; he is trying to evoke the communal tables of the restaurant scene in Jaffa, he said, and a Hebrew-like font is used both in the sign out front and on the paper liners that the food is served on.

“This is the food I’ve been wanting to do for three years,” he said, “and this is when it finally happened. Israeli food is the hot thing now, but it’s a coincidence and good timing. I found the right place and the way to express it, and here we are.”

Appreciation has come from many admirers, including Bloom.

“It’s been cool to see AL’s Deli, which is not really deli, creating its own thing,” he said. “It’s pulling Jewish flavors from around the world. I’m not sure that could have existed five or 10 years ago and been successful, but the groundwork has been laid.”

When it comes to bagels, though, people still debate whether the Bay Area has broken the code. Maybe it’s the nature of the beast and there will always be differences of opinion.

There are options: Wise Sons, Baron Baking, Beauty’s Bagels (it opened a second Oakland location last year) and numerous others. Grand Bakery entered the market with a new partner from the old Authentic Bagel Company. But some East Coast transplants remain less than satisfied.

The latest arrival on the scene is Daily Driver, which opened in San Francisco’s Dogpatch neighborhood in June. With its in-house coffee roastery and creamery where butter is churned and cream cheese made, Daily Driver’s vibe is definitely more California than Jewish, but reviews for the wood-fired bagels are overwhelmingly positive.

At the new Daily Driver café in San Francisco's Dogpatch neighborhood, bagels are boiled and then wood-fired. (Photo/Facebook-Daily Driver)
At the new Daily Driver café in San Francisco’s Dogpatch neighborhood, bagels are boiled and then wood-fired. (Photo/Facebook-Daily Driver)

The fact that Daily Driver was inspired by the owners’ dairy farm — cheese was at the forefront and the bagels were almost an afterthought — still leaves room for a real East Coast-style bagelry to open. Boichik plans to fill that gap.

When the store finally opens (Winston is looking at late fall), it will inhabit the space formerly occupied by the original Noah’s Bagels on College Avenue in Berkeley. Winston’s goal is to provide not only a bagel modeled on the beloved H&H bagel from her childhood, but also traditional schmears and a fish selection reminiscent of New York City’s “appetizing” stores like Zabar’s and Russ & Daughters.

“Like if H&H and Russ & Daughters had a love child and moved to California,” is how Winston describes it. The fish will be shipped from the East Coast, including less common varieties like sable and kippered salmon. “I want to try to capture the essence of those stores I grew up with, with the big pieces of fish in the glass case,” she said.

“It’s partly because [appetizing shops] were such a formative experience in my past, and I’ve been really sad for them not to exist here at all since moving here,” said the New Jersey native. “In a lot of ways, they’re not faring very well back at home, so it feels like I have this opportunity to try to save them. I know it sounds grandiose, but I want to bring it here and keep it preserved and alive and going.”

Then she adds, half-jokingly, “I’m doing God’s work.”

While it wasn’t part of the plan initially, Winston plans for Boichik Bagels to be kosher.

“When I started this [as a pop-up], it was a hobby. I wanted my bagel, I had no plans to sell them whatsoever,” Winston said. “Then things changed. And then when I thought about being kosher, it seemed easy enough, since a bagel is inherently kosher.”

While she admits that the process has put more demands on her than she initially thought, she still feels good about her decision.

“Opening Boichik has become the biggest expression ever of my Jewish identity,” she said. “This is meaningful for a whole bunch of people.”

The New York Times article that set off the great bagel debate in 2015 drew the conclusion that “California bagel bakers are too hooked on innovation and culinary self-expression for the bagel’s good.” The Bay Area clearly does not agree. Indeed, things just keep getting better.

Where to get your Jewish fix

AL’s Deli
598 Guerrero St., S.F.

Augie’s Montreal Deli
875 Potter St., Berkeley
(510) 984-0283

Balagan (pop-up)
(415) 676-9779

Boichik Bagels
3170 College Ave., Berkeley (not open yet)
(530) 400-3221

Bishulim SF (pop-up)
(415) 881-0843

Che Fico
838 Divisadero St., S.F.
(415) 416-6959

Daily Driver
2535 Third St., S.F.
(415) 852-3535

Falafel Stop
1325 Sunnyvale-Saratoga Road, Sunnyvale
(408) 735-7182

Grand Bakery (wholesale and pop-up)
(510) 465-1110

Holy Land Restaurant
677 Rand Ave., Oakland
(510) 272-0535

Miller’s East Coast Deli
1725 Polk St., S.F.
(415) 563-3542

Oren’s Hummus

71 Third St., S.F.
(415) 915-6736

19419 Stevens Creek Blvd., Cupertino
(408) 982-5237

126 Castro St., Mountain View
(650) 938-6736

261 University Ave., Palo Alto
(650) 752-6492

Pomella (not open yet)
3770 Piedmont Ave., Oakland

Sabra Grill
419 Grant Ave., S.F.
(415) 982-3656

Saul’s Restaurant and Delicatessen
1475 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley
(510) 848-DELI

Shuk Shuka (pop-up)
(415) 745-7788

Solomon’s Delicatessen
730 K St., Sacramento

Village Hummus
1001 Park Place, San Mateo
(650) 212-7711

Wise Sons
(415) 787-DELI
3150-24th St., S.F.
736 Mission St., S.F. (inside the Contemporary Jewish Museum)
1520 Fillmore St., S.F.
537 Octavia St., S.F.
2227 Larkspur Landing Circle, Larkspur

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."