Steeped in tradition, Jewish delis around the United States are beloved, often generations-old fixtures. Many of them share similar characteristics—a homey yet straightforward vibe, encyclopedic menus, the familiar routine of big, delicious portions served fast—but their historic natures tend to reflect region as well: pastrami samples at the ready at Katz’s in New York, local farmhouse cheeses at Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor, Italian hot dogs at Harold’s in Edison, New Jersey. In California, Jewish delis have taken on the characteristics of the region’s culinary culture as well, beginning with their emphasis on seasonal produce. Here are some hallmarks diners might recognize when dining at one of these West Coast eateries.
Seasonal, locally sourced chopped kale salad from Saul’s Deli
Seasonal, local ingredients
Food purveyors in California, where the weather is glorious and the seasons distinct, take pride in the state’s bounty of locally grown fruits and vegetables, and Jewish delis are no exception. Saul’s Restaurant & Delicatessen (1475 Shattuck Ave., map) in Berkeley, for instance, alters its menu offerings based upon the season: From May through September, there’s grilled heirloom tomato and cheese sandwiches, a tribute to the summer’s yield of the just-ripe fruit; it also serves a winter spaetzle with mushrooms, foraged after the season’s heavy rains. It’s not just produce that’s local, of course—meats are often grass-fed and locally sourced. Saul’s “roast beef royale” sandwich, for example, sources from nearby BN ranch in Bolinas (whose farm-to-table-friendly motto is “Eat like it matters”). Moreover, diners at San Francisco’sWise Sons Jewish Delicatessen (3150 24th St., map)—which takes part in the city’s famous Ferry Plaza farmers market on Saturdays—can rest assured that their bagels are hand-rolled and wood-fired at an area bakery (Beauty’s Bagel Shop, in nearby Oakland).
Perhaps reflecting the area’s huge ethnic diversity, many Jewish-deli menus in California include items that you may not expect to find at a classic Jewish deli, like the Korean bibimbap bowl and the “Mexican” section of the menu at Jerry’s Famous Deli (13181 Mindanao Way, Marina Del Rey, map) in Los Angeles, orWise Sons’ Chinese chicken salad. This creative approach of implementing a wider range of dishes can likewise be found at Saul’s in Berkeley, where the classic Viennese schnitzel sandwich is made with eggplant instead of pork (there’s also a tofu burger on the menu, surely an effort to cater to the many vegetarian eaters around here).
Despite the more unusual menu offerings, California’s Jewish delis by no means stray from their roots. In any given deli, identical bowls of thick, yellow matzoh ball soup and toasted bagel chips are likely to be found topping more than half the tables. The double-sided, minimum-three-page menus all open to reveal a laundry list of “signature dishes,” with lox and bagels and pastrami sandwiches always well represented. Chief among the latter, of course, is the Original #19 at Langer’s (704 S. Alvarado St., map) in Los Angeles: slow-steamed hot pastrami, cole slaw, Swiss cheese, and Russian dressing served on double-baked rye bread. Among pastrami lovers, Langer’s is famous for good reason—the juicy, pepper-crusted meat is cooked to deep-red perfection—but it’s the bread that’s often cited as the ingredient that sets its pastrami sandwich above its rivals’ (we’re looking at you, Katz’s).
You tend to encounter the same type of no-nonsense waitstaff at these establishments, where it seems like impatience and eye-rolls in response to requests for menu modifications are par for the course. At Canter’s Deli (419 N. Fairfax Ave., map) in Los Angeles—a known place to spot celebrities well past midnight (it’s in close proximity to many high-ranking film studios, where stars are on set till the wee hours of the morning)—the waitstaff are rumored to have become so annoyed by dancers’ and models’ excessive requests to “hold the oil and cheese” that the menu’s salad section now includes 15 different options, thereby lessening the chances a server will have to address the fat content on each plate. The diners at Jerry’s, on the other hand, seem unconcerned about the nutritional value of each dish, yet according to Yelp.com (where the restaurant has garnered a less-than-stellar two and a half stars), mediocre service remains the chief complaint. Corned beef with a side of snide, anyone?
Blueberry cheesecake from Jerry’s Famous Deli
A Jewish deli’s dessert case is the stuff of legend around here. Towering cakes in all-around favorite flavors, like carrot, chocolate fudge, and red velvet, are made to their best specifications: dense, almost too sweet, and layered with thick frosting. Then there’s the tiny pastries, like rugelach and cookies, and more robust treats, like crumbly pies, mounds of cheesecake, tiramisu, and an impressive selection of sundaes from the soda fountain. Jerry’s has a total of 26 dessert items, excluding the 12 that come specifically from its soda fountain—and that’s not to mention the rotating specials and seasonal baked goods that don’t appear on the year-round menu. I personally admit a partiality to Jerry’s carrot cake, the neon-orange shards of shredded carrot saturating the carb-loaded layers with moisture and sweetness. It’s heaven on Earth, in L.A.