We have all heard the story. A former lawyer — or investment banker, computer programmer or teacher — makes a gutsy career change, leaving the conventional job market behind to start producing small-batch artisanal sorbet. Or ricotta, chutney or sourdough bread. But what happens when enough of these craft food mongers start making similar products — say, iconic Jewish foods? As food lovers in San Francisco have learned, that’s when things get interesting.
Take Wise Sons Jewish Delicatessen, a recently opened eatery located in San Francisco’s Mission district. Founded as a pop-up restaurant in early 2010 by Evan Bloom (a former architect) and Leo Beckerman (a former nonprofit employee), Wise Sons serves house-cured pastrami on homemade rye bread, and babka densely swirled with bittersweet chocolate and cinnamon ganache to a nonstop queue. Or consider the Old World Food Truck, whose founder, chef Kenny Hockert, left the traditional restaurant kitchen to peddle from-scratch Eastern European dishes like mushroom pierogi and brisket borscht at pop-up events in the Mission and plans soon to serve them via a food truck.
There is also Bubala’s Rugelach, launched by editor-turned-professional “rugelista,” Ellyn Hament, who bakes homemade versions of the company’s namesake pastry in both traditional and inventive flavors (think mocha made with artisanal coffee and cocoa powder). And after decades of bearing the reputation as a place void of “real bagels,” the Bay Area finally can host its own version of the Montreal vs. New York bagel debate with the help of two start-up companies. Beauty’s Bagel Shop in Oakland recently began selling sweet, wood-fired, Montreal-style bagels while Schmendricks in San Francisco boils up chewy New York-style bagels.
Each of these food establishments is less than two years old, some significantly so, but each has built up a dedicated following of customers, both Jewish and not. Schmendricks’ first bagel and schmear pop-up in late February, for example, sold out within an hour.
These food artisans are driven by a desire to merge traditional, though not necessarily kosher, Jewish food with today’s locavore ethic and do-it-yourself aesthetic. To connect, in other words, to the soulful flavors that delighted our Ashkenazi ancestors, while elevating them for today’s palate. “I was raised in the Bronx by first-generation Polish Jewish immigrants, and this food lets me authentically connect to those roots,” Hockert said. “Meanwhile, there’s a real desire for innovation across the food world right now.” His chicken schnitzel sandwich, which comes drizzled with caraway honey and smeared with liver pate, is case in point, striking the perfect balance between Old World and New.
There are twists on the theme. A handful of mainstream eateries have joined the pack, from Grand Coffee in the Mission, which pours Brooklyn-style egg creams along with espresso, to Jablow’s Meats, whose pop-up lunch menus include cured pastrami and corned beef, and the upscale restaurant Baker & Banker, whose special Hanukkah menu featured smoked trout topped latkes. Meanwhile, businesses like LIBA Falafel — which traverses the city in a lime green truck and piles its falafel with creative, seasonally driven toppings like rosemary chopped peanuts and red cabbage with toasted black sesame — add Middle Eastern flavor to the conversation.