Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Refuge - Pastrami Heaven

I featured The Refuge in a previous blog entry, but this visit had a very special twist. I had the pleasure of meeting the owner and god of pastrami himself, Mr. Matt Levine. Pictured above is the Reuben.

I came to the San Carlos Gastropub around 1 PM to have lunch and this time I was going for broke. I wanted try to everything that had pastrami on the menu. I started off with the pastrami chopped salad and the pastrami rillettes, which is under the Charcuterie.

The pastrami rillettes are on the right side, it was like a pastrami pâté with small chunks of pastrami mixed in. Matt delivered it to my table and told me he used the ends of the pastrami to make the rillettes. "Yeah it's about the only thing you can do with the ends." he said to me as he looked over to the lunch frenzy that was packing in at the Refuge on that Saturday. "It's going to be a busy day!" he said to me scurrying off to tend to the madness. This dish was amazing (amazing is an understatement). The mini cornichons and the sharp dill mustard combined with either the cracker and or the rye bread was a complex, sharp flavor that was gourmet, yet somehow reminisced back to the original pastrami on rye flavor that I love so much. My roommate and I were thoroughly impressed with the pastrami rillettes and I think it will be an every time order when I make it down to San Carlos.

That's not mustard on my pastrami, that's chopped liver spread. I've had the toasted #19 and the regular, this time it was proper to try the most cholesterol filled sandwich i could get. "Heart attack special" Matt said as he dropped it off on his way to chatting to the nice group next to us, guys with sunglasses enjoying Stanford beating USC on the TV screen over the bar. The pastrami was excellent as always and the chopped liver had a rich flavor - almost like goose liver. I must admit, by the end of the pastrami chopped salad, the pastrami rillettes, and the pastrami and chopped liver sandwich I was completely stuffed. "You earned your pastrami king title today" my roomie, Josh, remarked.

As I finished my meal, Matt finally caught a break in the action and we had a nice chat. The first thing I asked him - How do you make your pastrami so awesome?! He told me it was all about technique and the amount of care and culinary knowledge that went into the preparation of the pastrami. He makes his own brine, smokes his own meat, and hand slices it to serve. He claims a 54% yield, which means 46% of the meat is not served (well maybe some for the rillettes!) which is part of the reason the pastrami costs as much as it does. I was surprised to learn the he has no single source for his meat, "It always comes from California, but sometimes suppliers run out. So I have back ups." Each time I've been to The Refuge the pastrami has been consistently some of the best pastrami (never could tell it was different from last time) I've had bar none - even Langer's. That's tough to get an LA native like me to say - as Langer's is the shrine of pastrami in the South Land. The 38 year old Chef lived in many places during his life including Delaware for school, France to master his culinary skills, Ohio, and Los Angeles to eat deli sandwiches. "I would make up reasons to be around Langer's. It's not like I even lived close by, but somehow I managed to go there 2-3 times a week if I could." He told me. Among many interesting items on the menu one particular item caught my eye - The World's Fair Burger - which dates back to the to invention of hamburgers at a worlds fair in Ohio is the late 1800s. "When you taste a burger when your around those parts - Ohio - you know it's the way it's supposed to be." Matt was a top chef in Paris and was expected to open a more formal restaurant. "I was supposed to open a 5 star restaurant, but this is What I wanted." He said as he pointed around the room with people sipping beers down happily enjoying their afternoon on a sunny warm California Saturday. "I didn't want something that was rigid." He has truly succeeded in doing what many have sought to do in the business, create a local, moderately place that served to Stanford and middle class of the Peninsula proper. This was a place where people went to get a cheesesteak or a pastrami, have a beer, and watch the game...what could be more enjoyable? I asked him why not San Francisco to which he responded "San Carlos let me do exactly what I wanted to do. I have my family right up the hill with 2 daughters and I'm happy here." That sounds like a great life to me! We chit-chatted some more about making pastrami and the "Save the Deli" book then we took the picture at the bar you see above. It was truly a pleasure meet Matt and I can't thank him enough for taking time out of his day for the interview.

Big news! I'm going to have some cards made. It's already been designed (seen above) by my friend Jake Lung and they're being printed next week. I look forward to passing them out when I go to delis to meet owners and patrons who love pastrami. My next stop is Seattle - my plane leaves in the morning. I could not be more excited!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

P.S. I Love You

Pastrami in Palm Springs, CA? You betcha! Palm Springs was home to many Hollywood stars like Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, and Lucille Ball. I lived in the Coachella Valley from 1992 until 2002, and I visited frequently around the time Beverly Hills 90210 was in town . When I first moved to the desert it was smaller, Sonny Bono was the mayor, and there were many consignment stores and antique shops with stucco facades dotting Highway 111 from Palm Springs to Palm Desert.

My favorite deli in Palm Springs when I was growing up was Nate's. Sadly, like so many other old desert institutions, it closed. I can only find vague references to it online, like the change of ownership in 1999 - which I'm guessing led to its closure. I was upset when I drove by the old ruins of the Palm Desert Motor Lodge - it used to have cool cars old cars displayed out front with a glowing red sign. The desert scene with the River, Coachella Fest and many casinos is more a mix O.C./Las Vegas than Old Hollywood resort.

Sherman's is the oldest deli in town - founded in 1953. I remember going to this place many times before, but never for a pastrami sandwich. One thing that is very cool about Sherman's is the large patio, where you can enjoy your pastrami in the nice, warm weather of Palm Springs, the only place I can think of where you can eat pastrami outdoors in the bay is the Refuge, so in this regard Sherman's is a very cool location!

When I came to Sherman's, just at sunset, it was buzzing with an outside crowd, while fewer patrons sat outside. As I walked in, the man up front shouted to the people ahead "Ladies, step right up, we have a wonderful place right on the patio, just for you!". His schmoozing along with the deli smell of cured meats made me feel right at home. I ended up chatting with a couple of the managers for a minute - Jimmy was very knowledgeable about his meat and talked about how he once could only get pastrami made from the brisket cut instead of the navel cut, but now he got good pastrami directly from NYC. "You'll like our pastrami - trust me!"

I wish I could have stayed longer to eat my sandwich there and talk some more about my blog with them, but I wanted to try the new spot in town - Manhattan in the Desert. Manhattan is hard to find unless you know where it is on Hwy 111 just before Cathedral City. The entrance is very dark and when entering I felt more like I was at a Marie Callendar's than a deli. The bakery display was impressive, but I didn't get to talk to any cool managers, just some high school students who told me three brothers from New York opened up the place a couple of years back.

Manhattan in the Desert

I got both pastrami sandwiches to go, so I could take them to a neutral location to determine which one was more pastramitastic in Palm Springs. Both sandwiches were excellent specimens on rye with mustard served with a side dish of choice, but in the end there was a clear winner.

Above is the Sherman's pastrami. It smelled delicious, but it had a strange color to it.

Now here is the pastrami from Manhattan in the Desert. It was a better, more familiar color...tasted fresh and delightful...clearly both better by taste and by looks. It really pains me to write this, because I liked the vibe so much more at Sherman's. If you were to eat a lunch in downtown Palm Springs I would highly recommend Sherman's as it's at the excellent location of Palm Canyon and Thaquitz, but take a pastrami to go from Manhattan for a real treat.

Before I got on the plane to PS, I made it to Miller's at the request of my friend who needed chicken soup to battle his cold. He ordered a pastrami sandwich before me and I ordered after him - a 2-way combo brisket and pastrami on rye with Russian dressing and tomatoes, to which my friend replied "You can do that?" After the server left he confessed he thought about changing his order after hearing my extravagant request. The sandwich, pictured above, was so large it looked like it could attack! The Miller's pastrami has an excellent brine and their rye bread is soft with a nice, chewy crust - it's a standout sandwich in SF. If you're craving pastrami/deli in the Bay and you haven't tried Miller's yet, you're really missing out!

I have some more posts coming up in the next few weeks. I hope to meet the owner of the Refuge in San Carlos, CA this coming Saturday, then the next following week I'm traveling to Seattle. I've looked into pastrami in the Emerald City and it look's like I've got plenty to explore. Please feel free to e-mail me at and check out my yelp page

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Happy Halloween! Saul's, David's, George's on 24th, Canter's Halloween

Happy Halloween from a pirate with a pickle! I've been giddy with excitement over the past few weeks. It was pleasure to meet David Sax, the author of "Save the Deli" and I had pleasure connecting with some local Bay Area deli lovers.

The Berkeley book signing was held at Saul's which is in the Gourmet Ghetto of Berkeley, Shattuck and Rose. The sandwich above is a Niman Ranch pastrami with an Acme rye bread, plus Swiss cheese and Russian dressing. After hearing the owners speak about the meat and where it comes from and what they're trying to create (a sustainable California deli), I have an appreciation for Saul's. The pastrami from Niman Ranch is an excellent drier pastrami with a salty, tasty brine. It's some of the best I've ever tasted. If I'm going to complain the sandwich, I wish it was a little more meat, more bang for my buck and I despise the Acme rye bread. To me, the Acme rye bread tastes a bit sour and doesn't really have an excellent crispy crust that I get with some other ryes.

There was a pastrami/corned beef taste test at the event. The competitors were the Niman Ranch pastrami vs Empire National pastrami (supplier of Katz's in NYC). On the Corned beef side, there was again the Niman Ranch corned beef and a Marin Sun Farms grass fed corned beef. My choices were the Niman Ranch pastrami and the Marin corned beef. The Empire National pastrami was very good, juicer than the Niman Ranch pastrami, almost corned beef like. I could see how it would be marketable and sell well. The Niman pastrami is more of a dry rub with a salty brine that I enjoyed because of the more complex flavoring and spices, it was very poignant and I could see it maybe being too strong for some. Still I liked it better. Both corned beef were too salty to be honest. I think if you want a corned beef you could do better at Brennan's - an Irish spot. I brought along a friend, a writer for the Cal State East Bay Pioneer newspaper. He wrote a commentary entitled "Pastrami is Worth Saving" which can be found in the current issue of the paper on page 2

David's is located at Geary and Taylor in the City. The deli has a long back story - it was once the most prominent deli in the City with about 15 locations. It's down to it's last location which is in the one of the worst neighborhoods in SF - The Tenderloin. Tourists walk by it all the time and the area is frequented by shoppers enjoying the Downtown shopping scene while sipping coffee and people watching at Union Square. At night, it's a different story...I know where I am, try as you may to tell me I'm in Nob Hill - I'm not. I'm in the Tenderloin and everyone local knows to watch your pocket and stay on your Ps and Qs when visiting.

I drove to downtown and I found parking on a meter just a block away like a savvy SF vet. I figured....well about 50 minutes should do for me to get my pastrami and take a couple of pictures and get out. So I left 50 minutes on the meter and got stepping. The first thing I noticed about David's was the bakery window. They had black and white cookies, cakes, and other assorted pastries.I walked in and the place was full, not crowded...but busy enough. I sat down and started to read the menu. David Apfelbaum, the owner of the deli, has inserted his own message into the menu with clever anecdotes about Jewish cuisine and his mother's attempt at making him pasta.Looking over the menu, the prices were ridiculous. absolutely sky high for soup it was about 5 bucks and a pastrami was about 14$. I ordered the kreplach soup and the Pastrami on rye with Swiss. They were out of the potato pancakes...ouch. While I was waiting for my sandwich and reading the menu some more I noticed that across the way a family was finishing eating. The waitress asked "Will there be anything else?" "YES!" the lady replied. "Her sandwich!" she pointed at a young hungry girl who had just watched her entire family gorge themselves while she had not received her food yet. What a shame!

The sandwich came and it did not disappoint. It was a large pastrami comparable to other places I know. It didn't come too many ways though - just traditional rye meat and mustard...which is great when you want it like that! The pastrami was thinly cut and tasty, perhaps on point with Mosihe's pastrami which comes from Vienna Beef in Chi-town. David's has some special points, but it has so many negative I think people are afraid to support it and go often. Let me count the negatives - took forever... and a day!, high prices, difficult parking. Positives - a nice large pastrami sandwich, a kreplach soup, and a killer pastry! I ended up taking a Napoleon home, it was delicious...many flaky layers filled with powdered sugar. I highly recommend you come to David's and get a blintz and some rugelahs, because the bakery is the best thing about this place. Take the train though, by the time I was finished my meter had run out - somehow by grace of the DPT gods I was not ticketed on the corner of Leavenworth and Post on a Saturday afternoon - explain that!

The picture above is a pastrami from George's BBQ on 24th. I walked in George's around 2 PM. "I'm here for the pastrami!" I said enthusiastically. I saw the pastrami sitting there ready to be sliced and I was excited. She asked me how I wanted the pastrami - I said with rye...."Oh we don't have rye - soft roll, dutch crunch, or wheat." Uh oh, Wheat? I ordered it on a soft roll with mustard - which can be good. The chicken coop over on Taraval hand slices the meat and puts it on a soft roll and it's to die for. However this meat was not to die for. It was iridescent - fish scale like. If you want a real deal pastrami, don't waste your time with George's. If you want some bbq chicken however, it looked exceptional...go there and try something else. It's a Greek owner place that pretty much copied the Pete's BBQ down the block.

I asked them where they got their pastrami and she didn't say a word. It wasn't something she wanted to divulge....hmm makes me think.

I just got back from Los Angeles. It was an awesome less than 24 hour jaunt - the festivities down Santa Monica Blvd in West Hollyweird were reminiscent of how The Castro was back in 2004, when no one got hurt and you could still go to The Castro without it being a police state. Sadly, San Francisco, which was once known for having one of the most elaborate Halloween festivities, has lost it's fire. It's simply more fun in LA now. After we were done with the parade my dad asked me if I would like to go to My Father's office - known for a large selection of beers and a killer 15$ burger or Canter's on Fairfax. To many it would've been a tough decision, but to me it was instant decision - Canter's for pastrami on Halloween...what could be better?

That's the Brooklyn - Pastrami with Coleslaw on rye. My dad got the same thing with a Dr. Browns cream soda. We finished our sandwiches in about five minutes flat - no knishes, no soup we meant business. Canter's is really where my love of pastrami started. This place really does it well and the fact that it's open 24 hours make it the only other spot in the USA besides NYC where you can get a pastrami sandwich at 2 in the morning.

When we finished we were off to the bakery. My dad planned to buy a whole loaf of bread because his honey isn't eating bread anymore - so she won't buy it in the store anymore either. When he told me he was going to get a whole loaf I thought to myself "Is it really that good, I think I've had better now" however when I bit into the crispy crust of the rye at Canter's I was reminded how great their bakery really is.

Standard issue out the door - we always get 1/2 dozen macaroons - 3 regular, 3 chocolate. They're excellent. Above pictured are poppy rugelahs. I bought a half dozen. I ate 3 and gave the rest to my roommates. They were like a poppy fig newton!

Oh that bridge! Caltrans was supposed to perform maintenance on the Bay Bridge over the Labor Day weekend. They found a crack in the bridge and a part had to be airlifted from Arizona to Oakland within days. The same part of the bridge that was "fixed" had a large part fall on 3 cars at 5:45 on weekday. The Bay Bridge has been closed ever since and I just heard on the news it will closed for Monday's commute. People in the East Bay are suffering, but people in SF and the peninsula have been voicing an interesting opinion. Some people have suggested the City is better without the bridge, there is less traffic, you can park and the trains run later which deters drunk driving. I even heard someone say "Wouldn't it be great if they just blew up the San Mateo bridge too, just cut us off." We think we would be alright over here in the SF peninsula, but the fact is the Bay bridge, when functioning, augments regional stability. Oakland is the largest port on the West Coast, all the Hondas that people drive in California come through that port. Over 200,000 people cross the bridge daily - now they are forced to take BART which broke a single day record of ridership during the now Bay Bridge crisis.