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New Delis 

If a place called Morty's isn't Jewish enough, what is? Our quest for a great delicatessen continues.

Wednesday, Nov 8 2006
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I have yet to find a deli in San Francisco as good as my fifth favorite deli in Los Angeles, (the centrally located Canter's, which is my fallback position if Langer's is closed, Brent's and Art's too far away, and parking too difficult at Nate 'n Al's), or my fourth-favorite deli in New York (the Stage, which isn't even a fallback choice if Barney Greengrass is too far uptown and Katz's too far downtown, because the Carnegie is not only a block away but open until 4 a.m., two hours later than the Stage).

But hope springs eternal, and when I heard that three expat New Yorkers had opened the glatt kosher S.F. New York Deli, I dragged my father Embarcadero-ward for our regular Friday lunch. I'd read that two of the three young owners were ordained rabbis (one of whom had moved to Oakland to work as a kosher overseer), so I wasn't surprised to see that the place closed 2 1/2 hours before sunset on Friday. Since daylight-saving time was still in effect, and sunset was supposed to be around 6:30, you can imagine our surprise when we arrived at 2:10 and were greeted with "We're closed" from the three intense guys behind the counter as we opened the door.

"Isn't this way earlier than a couple of hours before sunset?" I stammered.

"We had a lot of work to do, so we decided to close early."

"We came all the way from Oakland to try your pastrami!" I cried, hoping for a freebie knish, perhaps a "Better luck next time!" or a smile, or anything that would make this tiny bright white space, scarcely bigger than a walk-in closet, and its inhabitants seem more haimish (homelike). Nothing.

A couple of Fridays later, we tried again, and managed to be served a pastrami and a corned beef sandwich on rye, though when we arrived at 2:40, it'd apparently been closed for 10 minutes. (And now that we're back on standard time, can it really be closing at 1:30?)

The tiny deli had a menu not quite as tiny, but not what you'd call lush. In addition to nine basic deli sandwiches (bologna, salami, tuna, egg salad, turkey roasted or smoked, and turkey pastrami as well as the corned beef and pastrami that we tried), they offer three soups, two hot dogs, and two knishes. And cherry and apple strudel. "Do you make the strudel?" No, I was told, but, "We make everything else." I was impressed: "You make the corned beef and the pastrami?" Uh, no; I'm told it's sourced from Shorhabor and Aaron's Best.

Dining al fresco at the Embarcadero Center is extremely pleasant, especially on a beautiful day, which this was, but I was cranky. The pastrami, though I'd watched them put it in a heating contraption, was mostly icy, machine-sliced thin, and I found it, and the corned beef, and the coleslaw, potato salad, pickle, and rye bread, completely unremarkable.

My father disagreed with me: He thought, if he'd stumbled upon the place (unlikely, because the signage reads S.F. Gourmet Hot Dogs), that he would be pleased, both with the quality and the price.

I was still hungry — I'd left half my sandwich — so I dragged him up to Civic Center, where I'd heard of another new deli, called Morty's Delicatessen. Probably because of the famous Lenny Bruce routine about who killed Jesus ("I did it, my family. I found a note in my basement. It said, 'We killed him ... signed, Morty.'"), and because on the TV show Jerry Seinfeld's father's name was Morty, I think of Morty as a quintessential Jewish name. (If not the quintessential Jewish name, though my father would vote for Heshy.)

Imagine my surprise when we entered the tidy little storefront and read on the board behind the refrigerated case sandwich names like the "Little Italy" (Genoa salami, hot coppicola, pepperoni, provolone, peppers) and the "Carlito's Way" (ham, roasted pork tenderloin, Swiss cheese, pickles). The soups of the day were roasted tomato and eggplant, curried cauliflower, and black bean with pico de gallo. Besides the Niman Ranch corned beef and the Heineman and Stern pastrami, there were virtually no Jewish specialties apparent.

As we waited for our corned beef "Rueben" (sic) and a sandwich called the "Big Easy" (mortadella, prosciutto, Genoa salami, mozzarella, and a muffaletta-inspired Sicilian chopped olive salad), I noticed not only a wall-spanning mural of a fantasy New York Italian neighborhood, but two huge photographs of a basset hound who turned out to be the Morty the place was named after. The sandwiches were fabulous: the warm sauerkraut, melted Swiss, and Russian dressing complementing the corned beef and nearly overwhelming the not-quite-sturdy-enough rye bread, the sub sandwich heavy with its high-quality meats and cheese and sharp fresh relish. I knew I'd return, and I did, for an equally stellar "Little Italy" and a bowl of mushroom-barley-bacon soup that tasted mostly of tomato.

But I was still hungry for an authentic Jewish deli, so at the first opportunity I dragged Mark and Kris to Miller's East Coast West Delicatessen for lunch; a friend had told me she was in love with their brisket. I nearly cried when I saw blintzes and latkes (and stuffed derma!) among the appetizers, not to mention a stunning array of 10 smoked fish available as appetizers, platters, or sandwiches, but we couldn't eat everything. Though we tried.

We shared a hefty chopped liver appetizer, the still-chunky spread blended with chopped egg and onions and brightened with thin-sliced red onions; more of the chopped liver served as savory suave spackle on a towering sandwich of, again, machine-sliced thin and rather lean pastrami (DeSola, from Brooklyn) with coleslaw and Russian dressing called the Buddah (sic), for some reason. (And again with the misspelled Rueben instead of Reuben. Is it a wacky West Coast deli thing?) I enjoyed my bargain lunch of house-made cold beet borscht, more of a chop than a purée, with a clump of sour cream and a half-sandwich of tasty though dryish brisket on Seinfeld-hommage marble rye. These were chosen from an array of five soups including matzo ball and sweet and sour cabbage, and more than two dozen sandwiches — plus your choice of coleslaw, potato salad, and macaroni salad.

Portions are generous (curried chicken salad comes with coleslaw, potato salad, and an entire garden's worth of sliced vegetables), and service is friendly though at times inexplicable. For instance, the plastic forks we were given seemed totally inadequate to storm the fortress of the towering slice of the aptly named chocolate fantasy cake, which appears to be a thickly frosted chocolate cake placed on top of a cheesecake. It's the Doublemint Twins of desserts.

It's not quite the deli of my dreams — no breakfast dishes means no lox, eggs, and onions, for instance — but, after Saul's in Berkeley and the California Street Delicatessen and Café, Miller's East Coast West is now my third favorite Bay Area delicatessen.

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Meredith Brody

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