Saul’s Deli and Restaurant
That gummy pot-roast texture that makes little clicking sounds in your molars
There are many advantages to being a Jew. I have the right to tell Jewish jokes or to preface my opinions with “Speaking as a Jew ...” I have access to ennobling currents of history and tragedy for which I have sacrificed nothing. And although I am an apostate (I once wrote an apologia for mayonnaise), I can speak with authority on topics of concern to the Jewish community, such as pastrami.
This is particularly true in San Francisco, where Jews and their food are something of a novelty. When I first moved here, there was a restaurant called Moxie that served high-concept, fusiony versions of latkes and brisket; it closed after about two weeks, although the dead neon sign still hangs on the building like a memorial. There’s a few restaurants that claim to be New York–style delis, most prominently David’s, on Geary, which serves mediocre sandwiches to tourists with a limited understanding of cultural geography.
For real Judaica, though, you’ve got to go to Berkeley, specifically to Saul’s, on Shattuck. Speaking as a Jew, I will say that Saul’s is straightforwardly, casually authentic—not a riff on a Jewish deli but the genuine article. Present and accounted for are liver and onions, latkes and blintzes, Reubens of both corned beef and pastrami. There’s egg cream, a beverage that contains neither egg nor cream and that has, for good reason, failed to catch on with the broader public. At brunch there are long waits and a wide assortment of smoked fish. (We love smoked fish.) Most of this food is totally delicious, but for me there’s an extra satisfaction, a chicken-soup-for-the-Jewish-soul feeling, as if I am not just eating a bunch of salt and fat and starch but sipping from the wellspring of my ancestral culture.
It’s best not to think too hard about this feeling. It’s a thin line between My enjoyment of this pastrami sandwich is metaphysically privileged by the centuries of history that flow through my veins, which is basically how I feel, and I must estimate the worth of nations differently, on the basis of the different races from which they spring, which is from Mein Kampf. Better just to say: Wow, that’s a good sandwich.
The sandwich is intimately bound up with Jewish history. (It’s a little-known fact that the Earl of Sandwich was a Jew, as were Joe DiMaggio and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) I’m sure there’s a story that explains what it is with Jews and sandwiches. Probably something to do with persecution: you can eat a sandwich with one hand while fleeing an angry mob with the other, maybe. I don’t have to research this, because I am Jewish.
At the apex of Saul’s sandwich options is the Bronx Treat, one of my favorite sandwiches in the world. It consists of pastrami and brisket au jus—enough for a small pastrami sandwich and a full-sized brisket sandwich stacked on top of one another—with Russian dressing on rye. The meat, like every other piece of meat I have eaten since I moved to San Francisco, is from Niman Ranch, and it’s fantastic.
Brisket is one of the great Jewish accomplishments: an especially fatty part of the cow, cooked so as to maximize the liquidy tenderness of the fat. When it’s top-quality fat, e.g., fat from a cow that has been hand-fed gourmet grass by Bill Niman himself, and it’s cooked at extended-remix length by a certified Jewish person like me or Jesus, it falls apart into shreds of delicious, meaty goodness. Pastrami is different. It’s binary: it tastes like either heaven or rubber bands. Saul’s flaky, salty pastrami is squarely in the former camp. The key to the Bronx Treat, though, is the way the brisket and pastrami complement one another. A pastrami sandwich, though thrilling, doesn’t have brisket’s richness; a plate of brisket, though complex and satisfying, can stand to be jazzed up a bit. Saul’s gets the balance right, so the pastrami doesn’t overwhelm the brisket, but it does talk back to it a little.
The Reuben, though thinner, is also astonishing: maybe it’s just Niman’s corned beef, which is not just tender, but also a little less salty than most. (True fact: Irish New Yorkers learned about corned beef from their Jewish neighbors in the tenements of New York—in Ireland, apparently, they eat Irish bacon with their cabbage. We also invented nachos and the lightbulb.)
Beyond sandwiches, we Jews are renowned for our chicken soup. Saul’s does three variations—with noodles, with matzo balls, and “Chicken in a Pot.” There’s not much that separates one bowl of matzo ball soup from another: it’s just clear chicken broth with a huge ball of incredibly dense dough hanging out in it like an uncle in a chicken-flavored Turkish bath. C in a P, which has big pieces of roast chicken on the bone floating in the soup, is a winner: there’re noodles and matzo balls in there too, so it’s the best of all worlds.
The brisket is also available as a platter—thin slices of meat in watery gravy with overcooked vegetables, with that gummy pot-roast texture that makes little clicking sounds in your molars and a muskiness that I associate with old people. The latkes—the Jewish version of French fries, fluffy cakes of fried potato and onion, and even better than they sound—are big, and you get three for seven bucks, and there won’t be any left. Speaking as a Jew, though, the matzo brei is maybe a little dry.