Bubbe Cuisine Goes Innovative in Bay Area

Artisans Merge Traditional Jewish Foods With Eat Local Ethos

Mideastern for the Masses: Gail Lillian’s Liba Falafel cruises San Francisco in her distinctive lime green food truck.
courtesy of liba falafel
Mideastern for the Masses: Gail Lillian’s Liba Falafel cruises San Francisco in her distinctive lime green food truck.

By Leah Koenig

Published March 28, 2012, issue of March 30, 2012.
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San Francisco’s (and by extension the larger Bay Area’s) fixation with Jewish food, as well as recession-friendly food trucks and pop-up restaurants, echoes that of other cities, like New York. But San Francisco’s mix of Jewish history (the Jewish population dates to the founding of the city) and foodie innovation make it a particularly fitting location for the current “bubbe cuisine” revival.

“The general language here, for both Jewish life and food culture, is the language of start-ups and grassroots collaboration,” said Noa Kushner, a rabbi who heads an independent spiritual community in the Mission called The Kitchen. Rabbi Rebecca Joseph, whose company, 12 Tribes, caters kosher organic fare for individuals and events from the kitchen at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, agreed. “It’s no surprise that so much of this is happening in the Mission, which is currently the Garden of Eden for hipster food culture,” she said.

So, what took so long? Despite its credentials, the Bay Area has consistently struggled to maintain any sort of credible Jewish food scene. As David Sax writes in the book “Save the Deli,” “Until recently, the delicatessens [there] seemed on the opposite side of the city’s culinary evolution. Rather than pushing boundaries, they were letting traditions decline” — serving rote, industrialized replicas of Ashkenazi classics that sucked the soul out of the cuisine.


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Or, as Karen Adelman put it, “This trend is long overdue.” She should know. Along with Chez Panisse alumnus Peter Levitt, Adelman co-owns Saul’s Restaurant and Delicatessen, a Berkeley-based restaurant that helped pioneer the movement around sustainable, ingredient-driven deli. When Adelman and Levitt began changing Saul’s menu to reflect their farm-to-table food values 15 years ago, they had no network of vendors to rely on. “We recognized that if we wanted to serve authentic, quality deli food, we would have to do it on our own.”

So they embarked on a neo-retro deli experiment. They sourced from the few existing like-minded Jewish purveyors — places like the Shmaltz Brewing Company (which makes He’Brew beer), and reached out to persuade non-Jewish companies to develop local versions of rye bread, cured meats and pickles.

The response from customers was not unanimously supportive. “Some of our old-time customers simply feel comforted by having that Ba-Tampte pickle jar or a bottle of Manischewitz borscht nearby,” Levitt said. But, bit by bit, their food began to change customers’ minds, and push forward the conversation about what “real deli” should taste like.

“Fifteen years ago, we were considered renegades for how we thought about and sourced ingredients,” Adelman said. “These days, it’s just a given.” She and Levitt have taken the strategic position of welcoming, and in some cases collaborating with, what they view as a growing network of compatible purveyors. “Saul’s has been incredibly supportive of us from the beginning,” said Blake Joffe, co-owner of Beauty’s Bagel Shop, which supplies both Saul’s and Wise Sons with its Montreal-style bagels.

The state of Jewish food in the Bay Area looks strong, and there is still ample room for growth. “We would love to see someone making traditional beef salami,” Levitt said. A big question is, how will today’s new companies — a few have already gone from start-up to AWOL — fare in the long term? “The focus for pop-up restaurants tends to be about curating an amazing menu and the passion of the experience,” said Emunah Hauser, a publicist who works with Saul’s and leads food tours of San Francisco. Exciting in other words, but not necessarily a sustainable business model.

And yet, when faced with a glistening pastrami sandwich or a frothy chocolate egg cream, sometimes it’s best to simply enjoy the moment. “We have watched this food bust out of the museum,” Adelman said. “And we can’t wait to see where it goes next.”

Leah Koenig writes a monthly column for the Forward on food and culinary trends. Contact her at ingredients@forward.com


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