There are a handful of iconic dishes that define a classic Jewish deli—chopped liver, matzo ball soup, a crisp kosher dill that breaks with an audible snap—but none quite as important as pastrami. “Pastrami is the pillar,” says Evan Bloom, who along with Leo Beckerman is cofounder of Wise Sons Jewish Delicatessen in San Francisco. “No one cares if the bread is lousy or the potato salad comes from a jar. They just want the pastrami.”
Get the recipe: Homemade Pastrami
That’s why all of the pastrami sold at Wise Sons’s three locations—their sit-down space in the Mission District, their outpost in the city’s Contemporary Jewish Museum, and their regular spot at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market—is made in house (as are their excellent rye bread and potato salad, for the record). That may not sound like a big deal unless you know that some of the most famous delis in the country don’t make their own. But for Beckerman and Bloom, who have been cooking together since 2003 when as students they hosted barbecues at UC Berkeley’s Jewish student center, the idea for crafting the perfect pastrami came before they even decided to open a deli together. In fact, it was why they did.
After graduation, Beckerman and Bloom went their separate ways; Beckerman took a job in public health in Los Angeles and Bloom worked in construction management in the Bay Area. Still, the two friends continued to cook together whenever they could and decided to take on pastrami as a project. Bloom bought a brisket and brined it, and Beckerman loaded a smoker into his car and drove north for the weekend. The pastrami was such a hit that it planted the seed for them to open a deli together in San Francisco.
“There is a significant Jewish community in the Bay Area but not much of a Jewish culture,” notes Beckerman. “There are only a handful of delis here. We were unprepared for the enthusiasm for what we are doing.” To make their pastrami, Bloom and Beckerman start with a hunk of brisket. They soak it in a brine made with sugar, salt, and pickling spices for about a week. Then they season it with a heavy layer of black peppercorns and coriander seeds and gently smoke it over hickory.
According to Bloom, good pastrami should be fatty. It shouldn’t be stringy or chewy, but so tender that it falls apart in your mouth. It’s salty and sweet, and you should be able to taste the pepper, the coriander, and the smoke. “A lot of people taste our pastrami and don’t quite get it at first,” says Bloom. “They don’t realize that they’re tasting real smoke.”
When a customer orders a pastrami sandwich at Wise Sons, the meat, though fully cooked already, is sliced by hand and steamed to order. “We have an idealized notion of what a deli should be,” says Bloom. “And that includes a hot sandwich with meat sliced by hand and made where you can see it.”
For those who live in San Francisco, Wise Sons pastrami is easy to find—they even deliver. The good news for the rest of us is that Beckerman and Bloom were happy to share their recipe here. Will your pastrami taste exactly like theirs? Likely not. But even their pastrami doesn’t taste exactly the same every time they make it. “Ours is handmade,” they stress, “so there’s a lot of variation in the finished product.” The only thing that doesn’t change, however, is just how good it is.
Three steps to pastrami nirvana
“Wise” ways with pastrami
On the Wise Sons deli menu, pastrami appears more than a dozen times. The Roasted Cabbage Wedge Salad and the Pastrami-Kimchi Reuben are two dishes that showcase it. Here are a few more of their customers’ favorites (try not to drool):
- Pastrami & Eggs Softly set scrambled eggs mixed with caramelized onion and small chunks of pastrami. Served with rye toast, of course.
- Deli Burger A burger made with 30% ground pastrami with 70% ground beef, topped with beet-horseradish spread, mustard, lettuce, and red onion. Served on a challah bun.
- Pastrami Cheese Fries House-cut fries topped with chopped pastrami, Swiss cheese béchamel, caramelized onions, Russian dressing, and pickles.
- Semite Sandwich Crisp pastrami, Swiss cheese, mustard, and a fried egg on rye, served with a pickle.