The San Francisco Bay Area has given birth to an uncountable amount of food trends. And, now, it’s home to a carnivorous resurgence.
As an Ashkenazi Jew, eating good deli food is a spiritual experience for me. For years, the Bay Area’s relative lack of good delis was a sore spot. I love our region’s bizarre, intense food culture. But sometimes, a Jew just needs a decent pastrami sandwich.
Thankfully, the Bay Area can finally deliver that. In fact, our region is currently in the midst of a pastrami renaissance. It’s almost as thrilling as when Emily Winston, a self-described queer Berkeley Jew, beat those loud-mouthed New Yorkers as their own bagel game.
Here are three places in the Bay Area that are leading our pastrami renaissance.
Pyro’s pastrami at Delirama
When the president of your synagogue personally gives you a container of pastrami, you know it’s going to be good.
That’s how I originally discovered Pyro’s Pastrami. Pyro’s originally started as an Oakland pop-up. For a day at a time—and at ludicrous prices—Pyros would serve up house-cured pastrami to those in the know.
Their pastrami is good. It’s got a deep, unctuous, smoky fattiness to it that you rarely see in anything here on the West Coast. Think brisket meets pork belly (except without the pork because, well, Judaism.)
Now, the people behind Pyro’s finally have a physical, permanent location from which to peddle their pastrami. Delirama is now open on Solano Ave in Berkeley, and it’s serving pastrami sandwiches, among much else.
I stopped by for a pastrami sandwich this weekend, and it’s just as good as I remember from Pyro’s pop-up days. Be prepared to wait—Delirama is popular, and my sandwich took about 45 minutes to arrive.
Wise Sons deli is one of the OG Jewish food outposts in the Bay Area. Their Mission District flagship store lists the year of their founding using the Hebrew calendar, not the Gregorian one that is dominant in the West.
That’s probably confusing to passersby. But within the Jewish community, it’s a hella good sign that this place is legit.
And legit it is. Wise Sons’ menu is a bit of a “greatest hits” of Ashkenazi Jewish food. Latkes in April, oh my!
But one of their best items is their simple, delicious pastrami sandwich. The basic sandwich is just meat and a bit of yellow mustard on some rye bread. Heroically resisting the urge to use sourdough, Wise Sons keeps their pastrami sandwich authentic and delicious.
Their food is so good that they’re the official restaurant of the Contemporary Jewish Museum.
Mrs Goldfarb’s at Mendocino Farms
When I first heard about Mrs. Goldfarb’s plant-based Reuben, I nearly plotzed. A vegetarian Reuben? It felt wrong. Maybe even sacrilegious.
After trying it, though, I have to say I’m a convert. Creating plant-based pastrami makes so much sense. Pastrami is already heavily spiced, which makes us easier to cover up the mouthfeel and umami shortfalls of plant-based meat.
Throw some Mrs. Goldfarb’s plant-based pastrami on good bread, add some sauce and cheese, and put in a bit of relis–as Mendocino Farms does here in the Bay Area–and you have a healthier, lower-carbon “pastrami” sandwich that also happens to taste delicious.
The ultimate test is that my father-in-law, a New Yorker, tolerates this sandwich.
Given a choice, I’d still probably choose Pyro’s sandwich. But creating a tasty vegetarian Reuben is still quite an accomplishment.
The deli future is bright
“The world can live without peppers, but it cannot live without salt,” the 4th century Jerusalem Talmud says. Probably, ancient Jewish scholars weren’t thinking about sandwiches when they wrote that. Still, I can think of no better use for salt than to cure some delicious deli meat.
If the Bay Area’s pastrami renaissance is any indication, our deli options should keep expanding. I’m excited to try Oakland Kosher, and to pay a visit to the classic Saul’s Deli. If the Bay Area’s food entrepreneurs keep churning out new and innovative deli sandwiches, I’ll certainly keep showing up to eat them.
Thomas Smith is a food and travel writer and photographer based in Lafayette, California.
Thomas Smith is a food and travel photographer and writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. His photographic work routinely appears in publications including Food and Wine, Conde Nast Traveler, and the New York Times and his writing appears in IEEE Spectrum, SFGate, the Bold Italic and more. Smith holds a degree in Cognitive Science (Neuroscience) and Anthropology from the Johns Hopkins University.
Listen, a goy like you doesn’t know real pastrami. Try Katz’s in nyc before commenting on that unctuous delicacy.
What makes you think I’m not Jewish? Either you didn’t read **literally** the first line of the article, or your Yiddish insults need a lot of work 🙂
I believe it’s highly likely I was stolen as a child from a nice New York jewish family and sold to a couple of Catholics in Reno. I’ve travelled the world looking for good pastrami, and here are some notes:
– Katz’s: keepin it real, but oh-ver-reh-ted. $30 for the pastrami sando and it’s dry, too much meat, bread is underwhelming and the thing falls apart immediately. Don’t try and fix it with the reuben because it’s a complete mess. No worse feeling than sitting at their table forking meat off a destroyed plate as the locals watch with disdain. No thanks.
– Wise Sons: excellent ingredients, great people. My only gripe was the opposite of Katz’s: not enough meat! They’ve since launched the “No. 19” which is a tribute to Langers in LA, and has more meat. Overall, this is the best you’re going to get in SF.
– One you missed: Hot Johnnies in the Castro. Keeping the price down with much less meat than other pastrami sandos, but these guys REALLY obsess over the pastrami and it’s not like others you’ll find. It’s thicker, salty, smokey, and truly worth the hassle of picking up on 18th…
Finally, if you’re really into pastrami just stuff your pride in a Giants hat and go down to LA. Can’t go wrong with Nate’n Al’s or just drive the jewish mile on Pico and you’ll have 5+ places to choose from, most of them superior to anything you’ll get up here.
Thanks for the article!
Thanks, great recommendations! I’ll be sure to try Hot Johnnies. And agree that we wouldn’t have this problem in Los Angeles 🙂