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Not Really a Deli 

But discovering a great deli sandwich during a great summer festival is quite nice

Wednesday, Jul 13 2005
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Being a fan of George Gershwin (and American popular song in general), Broadway, Yiddish theater, Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, and Michael Tilson Thomas, I couldn't resist the San Francisco Symphony's summer festival, Of Thee I Sing: Yiddish Theater, Broadway, and the American Voice, which featured all of the above, spread out over four programs in slightly more than a week's time. What a feast!

I managed to cobble together tickets to everything, even though the jewel of the series, Thomas' labor of love devoted to the work of his grandparents, "The Thomashefskys: Music and Memories of a Life in the Yiddish Theater," was sold out long before I was aware of it. A week or so prior, the symphony added an open rehearsal of the program, on the morning of its evening performance. Score!

The eternal student in me demanded that I show up early for the first event, semistaged productions of Gershwin's politically themed musicals Of Thee I Sing and Let 'Em Eat Cake, so that I could attend the pre-concert lecture at 7 p.m., even though I know from experience that trudging up to my seat in the gods after listening to the lecture from a prime orchestra seat (generally third or fourth row on the aisle; why not, it's free) is rather dispiriting. It feels like I'm suddenly looking through the wrong end of a telescope. Still, the view was decent from my first-tier seat, and I thoroughly enjoyed the cleverly staged minimusicals, beautifully mounted and wittily costumed, with (above all) a wonderfully performed score. I shared a seat rest with a rather cherubic grandpa who turned out to be named Cohen, and, like landsmen everywhere, we began to talk during the intermission about food, more specifically Jewish food, after he made the inevitable Jews-don't-drink joke: "Did you notice how easy it was to get a drink before the show tonight?" (I need to put together a list of famous Jewish alcoholics to have on hand when faced with this base canard. Or maybe just carry around a copy of Lillian Roth's I'll Cry Tomorrow.)

We both bemoaned the lack of good delicatessen, listing the disappointing local purveyors that masquerade as Jewish delis, when he surprised me by saying, "I like Max's. They do a good pastrami." "Maybe I'll go there after the show," I said, whereupon he cautioned me: "I like the Max's in Palo Alto better than the one down the street."

I wasn't going to drive down the Peninsula just on Mr. Cohen's say-so (though after a few minutes' conversation I trusted him implicitly). As it happened, I didn't show up at Max's that night: I was still too full from the cheese plate I'd eaten during the half-hour in between the lecture and the performance. It's my favorite item offered on the abbreviated and not particularly interesting menu at the Davies Hall snack bar: chunks of four cheeses, including brie and a very mild goat cheese, slices of undistinguished baguette, a couple of prunes, a couple of dried apricots, and some grapes, for $11. (I always wonder why, in this food-obsessed city, the catering at Davies is done by a Los Angeles-based outfit.)

A week later, I was walking down Grove on my way to the morning rehearsal of "The Thomashefskys," and as I passed by the windows of Citizen Cake, I saw lots of people, looking content, scarfing down pastries and coffee. I was tempted to join them, but the skinflint in me won out: Every open rehearsal I've been to at the symphony has featured free coffee and doughnuts.

But not this one, as it turned out. I had left the house uncaffeinated and unfed, and was facing the unappetizing prospect of remaining in this state until 1 in the afternoon. But when the rehearsal started, a real dress rehearsal that duplicated that evening's performance in full, I forgot my stomach, and everything else: I was so completely taken by the magical world in front of me. A real multimedia presentation, the production used slide projections, recordings, film clips, and multiple cast members to re-create the glamorous Yiddish theater milieu of the Thomashefskys.

Even though the final glimpse of Boris, who ended his career tummling between courses at a Romanian restaurant on the Lower East Side, awakened memories of the fabulous skirt steak, greeben (cracklings), and liquid schmaltz in a pitcher (to be poured on chopped liver, mashed potatoes, or any damn thing you want) available to this day at Sammy's Roumanian on Chrystie and Delancey in NYC, I still didn't find my way to Max's.

That was saved for the next night, after I'd enjoyed the Copland-Bernstein program. As I walked up Van Ness, I knew what I was going to order: kreplach soup and a brisket sandwich. Just I was about to enter, I remembered why I'd never eaten at Max's. Emblazoned on the door, right beneath the listing of the place's hours, was the following screed: CRITICS NOT WELCOME.

I'd first read those words a couple of years ago, when I wandered into Max's hoping I might grab some takeout after a movie at the adjacent Opera Plaza multiplex. (I remember thinking, "If you were proud of your food, wouldn't you say, 'CRITICS WELCOME'?") The menu at Max's is long, very long, but, despite its question-begging, hubristic slogan, "Everything You've Always Wanted to Eat," I didn't end up ordering anything that night.

But tonight, nothing would stop me, not even the discovery that there was no kreplach soup on the menu. I ordered a cup of matzo ball soup (after learning that the soup of the day was chicken sausage gumbo). I was a trifle dismayed that the kitchen was out of brisket (everything you've always wanted to eat, unless we run out of it first?), but I regrouped: hot pastrami, please. The server sweetly asked if I wanted the cup-of-soup-with-a-half-sandwich deal, a rare instance of a server downselling rather than up-, but I stuck with the full sandwich.

The cup of soup turned out to be a generous-sized bowl, with a whole matzo ball, carrots, celery, onions, slender egg noodles, and a gratifying amount of chicken meat in a good chicken broth. (There were shreds of matzo ball floating about, too.) The matzo ball itself was neither light and fluffy nor dense and cannonbally, but a pleasant texture somewhere in between. It came with two house-baked rolls. As I enjoyed my soup, I studied the menu, which explained a lot. As I should have gathered from the name, Max's Opera Cafe is not a deli: It offers a number of deli sandwiches, but they're not even featured. They show up after pages of eclectic appetizers, salads (to which you can add shredded barbecue pork, grilled chicken breast, shrimp, grilled salmon, or a Dungeness crab cake), steaks, and seafood dishes; and the deli selections are followed by pages of club sandwiches, cheeseburgers, open-faced focaccia sandwiches, hot sandwiches, a variety of entrees (among them pork chops and a very tempting chicken pot pie), half a dozen pastas (with both vegetable and meat lasagna), low-carb dishes, and barbecue (including spareribs and pulled pork). Whew.

My pastrami sandwich was not overwhelming in appearance, unlike the daunting numbers served at the famed Carnegie and Stage delis in New York (Max's menu, anticipating such a quibble, offers: "If you want to feel like you're on 7th Ave. and 59th St., add $2 for 1/4 [pound] more" of corned beef or pastrami on its standard half-pound sandwiches). I was also not overwhelmed by the pastrami itself: I like juicy, thickish, hand-cut pastrami that reveals something of the grain of the meat. Hand-cutting deli meats is something of a lost art, still practiced at Langer's in L.A. and at the Carnegie, but the machine slicers at the Stage and L.A.'s Canter's can still turn out a good sandwich: It depends on the steaming of the meat. The thin machine-cut slices of pastrami at Max's lacked the moist fatty ta'am that is pastrami's raison d'être; the meat was a little dry and chewy. Still, it came on excellent fresh corn-rye bread, along with a massive dill pickle, big scoops of potato salad, and excellent tangy coleslaw. And I could hear various employees of Max's singing show tunes around the piano in the adjacent bar space, including a heartfelt rendition of Irving Berlin's "Change Partners."

Michael Feinstein didn't sing that one in his festival-closing concert the next night, devoted to Jewish songwriters, nor did he sing "Bake That Matzo Pie," "Queen Esther of Hester Street," or "We Don't Need Your Rabbits, Rabbi, We've Got Rabbits of Our Own," though he mentioned them, as well as Berlin's "Cohen Owes Me $97," which, after some reflection, the composer decided was anti-Semitic, and started paying people not to perform it. Nor did I show up at Max's for my brisket sandwich.

I do that a few days later. (I show up when the place opens, at 11:30, and what I really want -- see "Everything You've Always Wanted to Eat" -- is lox, eggs, and onions, scrambled, but Max's doesn't do breakfast.) The sandwich arrives. It's delicious. The meat is moist enough that its juices are dripping through the bottom layer of bread. This is one marvelous brisket sandwich. I am quite cheered up by it, and I would gladly order it again. In fact, I intend to. (I also intend to try the chicken pot pie. Maybe even some pulled pork. And definitely the Russian cabbage soup with diced brisket.)

The two women sitting next to me are having difficulty deciding what to eat. When one mentions the chopped liver sandwich, the other says, "You eat liver?," her voice scaling up; you can almost hear her gag. Her friend then ponders whether she'd prefer a shrimp Louis or a salmon salad ("with capers, kalamata olives, green olives, tomato, red onion, parsley, basil, and lemon vinaigrette," she reads out loud). They consider firecracker shrimp in garlic sauce or a Philly cheesesteak.

They're still at it when I leave to check out the bathroom. In the hall outside the bathrooms, Dennis Berkowitz, the owner of the Bay Area's many Maxes (named in honor of his father), has posted articles and letters to the restaurant that have raised his ire. He's added acerbic comments before framing them. One completely nutty two-page missive is from a customer who's gone berserk because her local Max's no longer offers its delicious chocolate rugelach, and apparently she once got a Reuben to go that was lacking Russian dressing. Near the top, Berkowitz has written, "Who said we're a Classic Jewish Deli. Not me."

I could have told her that.

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Meredith Brody

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