When Aaron London opened AL’s Place in early 2015, its rearrangement of the standard order of operations — vegetables to the front, meats to the side — felt consequential in spite of its simplicity.
It was also a good excuse to mix highbrow and lowbrow, as with burrata covered in potato chips. Four years, some love from Bon Appetit, and a Michelin star later, the ever-dynamic Valencia has chewed through enough projects both smart and dubious that AL’s feels almost like the restaurant version of an elder statesman, anchoring the strip at its southern end. (Or maybe I feel that way because it was the very first restaurant I ever reviewed for SF Weekly.) In any event, with his fast-casual AL’s Deli, London has entered the territory that seems to seduce all chefs sooner or later.
The name, as with AL’s Place, has to be a little joke. Wrack your brain: Double capitalization of “AL” notwithstanding, can you come up with something more generic? I bet there’s an Al’s Deli in your hometown, and I had to double-check that the hangout from Happy Days was in fact called Al’s Diner, yup-yup-yup-yup.
Beyond the understatement, it’s also kind of a gag because, well, AL’s Deli is not a deli in the way that, say, Canter’s or Katz’s or Kaufman’s or the much-missed Moshe’s Pippic are delis. There are no numbered tickets, only order numbers in chrome stands to signal to the runner where you’re sitting, and if it lasts a hundred years there probably won’t ever be signed, framed headshots on the wall — to say nothing of signage saying, “Send a Salami to Your Boy in the Army.” Rather, AL’s is a pink-and-blue, Montreal-Jewish fast-casual lunch spot with Israeli street food mash-ups plus rosé and soft-serve and a Memphis Group-adjacent flamingo motif. In addition to a stint at Napa’s long-gone Ubuntu, London was the opening chef at Montreal’s Au Pied de Cochon, so this eatery feels like a summation of his personal and professional life. Consequently, it is very of-the-moment, with any retro appeal confined to the presence of brisket (if that even counts). But Borscht Belt tummler touches pop up here and there: The notice in the bathroom that reads, “Employees must wash hands” adds, “If an employee is not available, please wash your own.”
AL’s Deli also replaces Yuzuki Japanese Eatery, with its serious air of curtained-off mystery, and while the windows that are three times the height of an adult human are now open to the world, their greenhouse effect is considerable on warm days. But it already feels like a part of the intersection of 18th and Guerrero streets, complementing Tartine across the way.
Although not as all-blue or as overtly vegetable-forward as AL’s Place — that brisket again — AL’s Deli is a logical extension of it. The original has a menu category called “Snackles,” while this one has “Crispy, Crunchy Things.” Among those things are a potato latke pocket with cream cheese, smoked salmon, and red onion capers. As bagels go, it isn’t so much deconstructed — a word we’re thankfully seeing less of — as completely redone. It’s crunchy, it’s salty, and if there’s a shade too much cream cheese, at least it errs on the side of generosity.
There’s an avocado, grapefruit, and preserved lemon variant that might not feel as clever but which functions more smoothly, highlighting avocado’s ability to anchor something like this in both taste and texture. Next time someone bores you with the tedious argument over whether or not a hot dog is a sandwich, order them one of these. The “ranch-ish” dressing with the house-made fries isn’t substitutable, but for a dollar more you can get a green tahini to dip them in if you prefer the zing of garlic. Given the deep-fried dares that emerge from various state fairs this time of year, falafel corndog bites with stone-fruit amba mayo seem downright restrained, but they’re admirably enrobed in a light yet flavorful batter, almost grease-free as such things go.
Of the four pita pockets, the brisket is the one you might squint at because it has fries stuffed in the mix. Brisket is supposed to be salty, but this is very salty — and, on two visits, excessively fatty — throwing off the balance, even with a hard-boiled egg in there. A more restorative alternative is the blistered eggplant and cauliflower, powered by schug (a Yemenite condiment that’s a bit like a spicy, steroidal pesto). It’s also got a cucumber-and-tomato salad that re-emerges with watermelon, mint, and a chili-and-long-pepper oil as another must-order side salad, one of those simultaneously warming-yet-cooling things that feels like high summer.
Back to the pita sandwiches, which can be de-pita’ed and saladized — something that often feels like the fun is getting sucked out with a hose. That is not the case here. The shawarma spiced chicken is. It also has the added advantage of being edible without risk of collapsing in your hand, as overstuffed pitas do.
So as a side project to AL’s Place eight blocks down and one block over, this is overall a well-orchestrated effort at roping together enough culinary influences to breathe some excitement into lunch, the meal always at the greatest risk of sputtering out. When Paul Simon played “You Can Call Me Al” during his closing set at Outside Lands last week, it was the last segment of his principal set before a dazzling five-song encore that culminated in “The Sound of Silence.” His name isn’t Al, just as this isn’t a deli, but there’s more than enough here to silence anyone disputatious enough to insist otherwise.
AL’s Deli 598 Guerrero St., no phone, alsdelisf.com