Last night a capacity crowd gathered at the Jewish Community Center on Walnut Street to ruminate on a deli with a dilemma.

As reported here previously, Saul’s Deli is going through something of an identity crisis and its owners, Karen Edelman and Peter Levitt, decided to shine a spotlight on the issues they are tackling by holding a “referendum on the deli”.

Led by Los Angeles chef and radio host Evan Kleiman, a panel comprising Michael Pollan, Willow Rosenthal, founder of City Slicker Farms, Gil Friend, author of “The Truth about Green Business”, as well as Saul’s two owners, discussed the difficulties inherent in offering a sustainable, “locavore” menu to customers who often have entrenched ideas about deli food.

Levitt spoke of the burden of needing to offer a four-page menu — his preference would be to slim it down to two pages focused on dishes with seasonal ingredients. Asked whether the restaurant would still qualify as a Jewish deli, he hesitated before replying, “well it would be a Jewish eatery”.

The panelists, all of whom eat regularly at Saul’s, agreed that Levitt and Adelman must continue “educating” their customers, even if that meant dealing with grumblers. Asked how the wait staff copes with the need to provide long explanations at the table,  Pollan pointed out that “people are accustomed to taking abuse from waiters in Jewish delis”.

We heard about the pickle making process, why Saul’s never uses the word lox, why its salami case is currently empty and exactly what a kishka is — you may hesitate before biting into one again. Read Illana DeBare’s great review of the evening on her blog Midlife Bat Mitzvah.

In the end, the panel was preaching to the converted — the 250-plus crowd was evidently supportive of Saul’s; one audience member remarked that food was only 50% of a deli and that  Saul’s was  like a secular synagogue the way it brought people together. Music to Adelman’s ears, no doubt, who emphasized the role she felt Saul’s should play in the community.

So now will people stop kvetching about those normal-sized pastrami sandwiches?

Tracey Taylor

Tracey Taylor is co-founder of Berkeleyside and co-founder and editorial director of Cityside, the nonprofit parent to Berkeleyside and The Oaklandside. Before launching Berkeleyside, Tracey wrote for...

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8 Comments

  1. I don’t think “Jewish Deli” necessarily means food has to be imported from anywhere…then again, I have never run a Jewish deli, so I don’t know how or where they get their ingredients. Perhaps this lack of education is part of the problem – not knowing where the food comes from, etc. Regardless, it sounded to me like Saul’s was talking about radically changing the menu, which is my “beef” with it. If they can keep the traditional flavors alive (the “Jewish-style” pastrami, rye, etc), I’m all for keeping it local. I just don’t want to lose that traditional flavor one associates with a Jewish Deli.

  2. Kim: Bubbies does indeed rock. There’s another one, “Ba-Tampte” of which I know nothing other than that they’re tasty. There’s a third that uses plastic containers rather than jars that’s also quite tasty but I don’t have any in the fridge and don’t recall their name. Mmmm… half-sours….

    Anyway, I get the nostalgia (I think) but I think it’s actually a bit anti-traditional (in the big picture) to think that “Jewish Deli” implies “imports thousands of miles from a particular small subset of suppliers”. That seems to overlook the intrinsic logic of cuisine. (But what do I know: I’m גוי‎)

    ‎My own beef with the left coast is that for the most part you can’t get decent sub / hoagie roles or a decent Italian bread suitable for over-stuffed sandwiches (say, Primanti’s style: http://www.primantibrothers.com/index1.html). Acme has some bread that comes close but that’s about the best I’ve discovered so far.

  3. As a shiksa and just-sometimes patron of Saul’s, I don’t have a dog in the menu fight. But Evan Kleiman was in town and I didn’t know? This kills me! I’m her biggest fan!

  4. I’m all for sustainable, local eating…but Saul’s is/was the only actual Jewish deli in the Berkeley area as far as I know – if you know of others, please share! As an LA transplant and Jewish girl, I sometimes have cravings for good old hot pastrami on rye that simply cannot be satisfied in just any old sandwich shop. I have found the best Jewish deli-style pickle at the grocery store (Bubbie’s dill pickles. Mmmm.), but as for a traditional Jewish deli…well, this town is just lacking.