Ingestigating San Francisco

Imagine we could take a look at Jewish cuisine in a modern-day location but from a 1930s Philip Marlowe/Sam Spade classic detective perspective. Maybe it would look something like this:

The name’s Boyle – Hy Boyle, private ingestigator. My beat’s San Francisco.They call me lots of things – kosher cop, deli detective, food fuzz – I don’t mind, it comes with the unorthodox territory, an urban treifscape littered with demitasse dreams, half-baked hamantaschen and battered latkes. The steaks are high [especially the Kobe kind], but you take the calories with the sour cream.

One morning, I got a call from a close acquaintance named Sheila Rubinson Ash, a Brooklyn-born society hostess, fashion consultant and bed-and-breakfast entrepreneur whose flamboyant lifestyle could conservatively be called over-the-top outrageous.

I answered, as usual, “Hymie Boyle, P.I.E.”

“Hi, Hy. It’s Sheila. Say, what’s the ‘E’ stand for?”

“Extraordinaire, kugelcake. What’s eating you?” Her consistency was smooth, but I knew something was simmering below the surface.

“I’m in a stew, Hy. Got important guests coming into town, and I’m as nervous as a mohel before his first circumcision. Dinner’s gotta be perfect.”

“Yeah, I get’cha. You want it kosher, start to finish. OK, I’m onto it.”

Hanging up, I thought about Sheila’s shamelessly Victorian “Noe’s Nest B&B” on Guerrero Street – the only Chabad-associated hostelry in San Francisco/Oakland, with a mezuzah on every doorframe and a bagel-lox breakfast for every hungry mouth.

What she wanted wasn’t easy to find, even in a city with its own Contemporary Jewish Museum. Downtown San Francisco’s kashrut scene is nearly nonexistent. A few semi-kosher cafes may have been deli-ightful in their day, but now their reviews on read like Hamas critiques on vacationing in Haifa.

The Concordia-Argonaut Club might work. It was founded by jeans-maker Levi Strauss and his pals back in 1865 as a private Jewish-German social club, but they only hold dinners on certain nights. Then there’s Beach Blanket Babylon, America’s longest-running stage show, created by the late Steve Silver, a nice Jewish boy with a beautiful meshugana mind. It’s got singing celebrity impersonators with spectacular costumes and huge headgear – including a hat 12 feet wide displaying the entire San Francisco skyline – but unfortunately, drinks only, no food.

I had to think outside the matzah box. OK, there’s 800 Mexican restaurants in town, but only one is both meatless and non-dairy. Gracias Madre is completely organic, serving dishes like handmade tortillas and tamales from produce grown at their biodynamic Be Love Farm. All their cheeses, milks and ice creams are made using nuts. Not certified, but kosher after a fashion, no?

Then I remembered state Sen. Mark Leno, a grad from the American College of Jerusalem who also spent two years in rabbinical studies in New York’s Hebrew Union College. Heard he was a frequent customer of Historic John’s Grill, so I checked it out. Holy hummus! Turns out this is the mecca for Private Eyes – the restaurant that mystery author Dashiell Hammett described in The Maltese Falcon as the place Sam Spade ordered his “lamb chops, baked potato and sliced tomato,” still on the menu. Owner John Konstin keeps a replica of the movie statuette above the bar. Atmosphere galore, original furnishings, live jazz nightly, great steaks and the best sole amandine anywhere. But not kosher.

I was pulling a blank on real kashrut dining al ’Frisco, so I turned to Chef Tanya Nunes, who does kosher catering for the entire peninsula. “Hey, Hymie,” she said, “you remember our last caper together?”

“Sure do, doll. We foiled those mugs and sent them to the cooler. So I hear your business is heating up?”

“Like a stove on fire. In fact, I had to call in Captain Robert and Marilyn Katzman from San Francisco Fire Engine Tours to transport eight Hasidim on a catered journey in their 1955 Mack fire truck. Jewish couple, operate from behind The Cannery at Fisherman’s Wharf. Both of them come down in their antique fireman’s uniforms, and…”

Eventually, Tanya informed me of something new, opened in 2010, a bit further south: The Kitchen Table on Castro Street in Mountain View, the stomach of Silicon Valley.

After getting misdirected by the only GPS in central Cal that didn’t know the way to San Jose, I stumbled into The Kitchen Table like a Bedouin barkeep discovering the last watering hole in the Sahara. Executive Chef and General Manager Chad Newton walked up and said, “Welcome. Glatt to meet you.” I felt like I was home at last!

From the chicken and matzah ball soup to the sweet potato fries, non-dairy Caesar salad, home-cured corned beef and home-smoked pastrami, every dish was beyond perfect. In fact, I’ve never eaten anything comparable, not even in New York! The side orders – cole slaw, potato salad, etc. – are all made in-house.

But this classic lunch menu was just the beginning. Their innovative California cuisine at dinnertime goes way beyond traditional. Just imagine: salmon roulade with sweet corn coulis and sautéed spinach, or thick, succulent Colorado lamb chops on couscous. Plus roasted halibut or chicken, short ribs with polenta, and yes, even Kobe steak. I called Sheila to tell her the good news.

“Are these really delicatessen dishes?” she asked.

“Well, this ain’t India,” I answered, “but let’s just call it New Deli.”

Joseph Lieberman is a freelance writer based in Eugene who travels extensively.

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