"When we complained to my Grandpa in Chicago that there was little Jewish deli in the Bay Area, he started calling us every week, challenging us to open one," recalls Lauren Bowne, raised conservative Jewish in Marin. The couple ― they met while in law school and have day jobs as attorneys ― wasn't quite ready to make such a big professional leap.
Jon, a self-described ex-vegetarian turned "meataholic" surfer boy from Orange County (hint: not Jewish), thought that it would be fun to try making his own corned beef. He debuted his creation at a Halloween party last October. A friend was so impressed that he invited them to be one of eight vendors at the inaugural forageSF Underground Market. The couple needed a name for their new "business." "When you think of Jewish comfort food, you think of your grandma," says Lauren. "Pearl, my paternal grandmother, was the quintessential Jewish grandmother." Pearl's Kitchen was born.Jon and Lauren arrived at the Underground Market with 13 pounds of corned beef brisket, a few loaves of homemade rye bread, some specially doctored mustard, and four pans of noodle kugel. "What if we don't sell anything? Maybe we'll have leftovers to take to work for lunch?" Jon remembers thinking. They sold out in 45 minutes. "People dove across the room for the kugel!" recalls Lauren.
Sensing they were onto something, the Bownes started a Twitter account (neither had tweeted before), a Facebook page, and a blog. "We went from not having heard about the whole street-food scene to being a part of it and being warmly welcomed," says Jon. The couple has been pleasantly surprised by how many of the their fellow food entrepreneurs share business models and are supportive of one another. Along with well-known street-food hot spots such as Fabric8 and Precita Park, Pearl's has also pedaled its wares at the SFJCC's Purim carnival and at Alameda tiki bar Forbidden Island, alongside the Jewish folk/instrumental surf band Meshugga Beach Party.So what makes a Pearl's corned beef sandwich so special? Hint: The secret ingredient is locally brewed. "We like to use Anchor Porter because it adds a richness to the corned beef, and also because it pays homage to San Francisco," says Jon.
He buys wet-cured corned beef briskets from the 100-year-old Robert's Corned Meats in SOMA, then braises them in the dark beer for 2 to 3 hours. Spices are also added to the mix but neither Bowne would offer more detail. Clearly, they both treasure having at least a partly-secret recipe. When a sandwich is ordered, Jon hand-cuts the corned beef into thick slices, which helps keep the meat juicy.
Anchor Porter is also integral to Pearl's mustard slurry ― it's blended with Dijon and brown mustards, minced shallots, and brown sugar. It adds not only tang to the corned beef, but also a contrast in texture. Also, according to Lauren, "You gotta bake your own bread." She bakes rye loaves studded with caraway seeds for every outing. The bread is thick-cut and a little sweet, the perfect casing for salty meat. As for the noodle kugel, Jon and Lauren will only divulge that it's made from a family recipe. They bake it on the well-done side and in shallow pans, which makes the squares easy to pick up and carry.
Were there surprises during the infancy of their business? "With zero capital investment, we're actually making a little money. Our margins are good," Jon says. The Bownes have used their corned beef earnings to make car payments. They're getting used to being celebrities, both in the local street-food world and in the Jewish community. They were featured on a recent cover of J-Weekly, Northern California's Jewish bulletin, and they're the subjects of an upcoming Los Angeles NPR piece.
"The Bay Area has this low-key Jewish community, yet they come out of the woodwork when we're out doing Pearl's Kitchen," says Lauren.