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Wise Sons: Bubbie Fare at the Mission's Pre-Eminent Jewish Deli 

Tuesday, Dec 16 2014
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I was in my 20s before I had a great latke. Before that, I'd eaten my share of them, but because I grew up in a non-Jewish family, the latkes were mostly provided by well-meaning teachers on classroom griddles or friends in college unsure of how to follow their grandmothers' recipes: greasy, under-seasoned, often burnt on the outside and raw in the middle. It took a move to L.A. and visits to its famed Jewish delis to realize that, made correctly, a latke is a wonderful thing.

They make fabulous latkes at Wise Sons Jewish Deli, the Mission restaurant that is now, after two years of lines and crowds and Mark Zuckerberg sightings, finally serving dinner. These latkes, about the size of silver-dollar pancakes, are crisp on the outside and creamy within, and neither burned nor undercooked. They're studded with onions that melt into the potatoes, and accompanied by ramekins of housemade applesauce and sour cream. If you're looking for a break from the peppermint, gingerbread, and eggnog overload that comes with this time of year, I suggest you work your way through a latke plate at dinner. But bring someone else so you can sample the other pleasures in store.

For most of its existence, Wise Sons has been known for its sandwiches. Big, meaty, totally delicious piles of pastrami, corned beef, smoked trout salad, and more on well-made rye bread. The duo behind Wise Sons, Evan Bloom and Leo Beckerman, started it as a pop-up at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, then moved to the 24th Street brick-and-mortar about two and a half years ago. San Francisco doesn't have many places for good pastrami and corned beef, and the deli doesn't take reservations, so lines formed almost immediately. Word spread about the brunch — pastrami and eggs! challah French toast! — along with the burger, made with pastrami ground into the beef, and the pastrami cheese fries, like a Jewish spin on In-N-Out's Animal-style fries. The chocolate babka, liberally studded with bittersweet chocolate (superior to its cinnamon counterpart, though not by much), became the stuff of local legend.

Though the duo always planned to serve dinner, it was put off in favor of other things, including opening a second Wise Sons location at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in SOMA. But a few months back, evening meals finally started in the Mission. There are a few changes from lunch and brunch: table service instead of counter service, a new roster of microbrews from the Presidio's Fort Point Brewery, and a small menu of entrees tacked onto an abridged version of the lunch menu.

Those three hearty latkes form one such entree, and are worth the trip alone. But there are also meatier options, like a plate of thinly sliced braised brisket, so soft you can cut it with a fork, with a thick layer of marbled fat that melts in the mouth. Creamy, schmaltz-mashed potatoes come topped with fried chicken skin crumbles which make an already-indulgent side that much more so. A grilled cabbage wedge is accompanied by a pool of blue cheese and fried pastrami shavings — it's even more decadent than the potatoes, but what the hell, it's the holidays.

In general, the vegetables were the weakest part of the meal: Maple-horseradish turnips that came with the brisket were pretty boring on their own, and a seasonal spaghetti squash dish seemed to have more cheese than vegetable. But there are plenty of temples to produce in this town, and fewer that serve this brand of stick-to-your ribs cooking with such finesse.

The dining room is a nice place to spend an hour or two, with its wall of old-fashioned family and bar mitzvah photos and handsome wood cafe tables. It was nearly empty at prime dinner hour on Friday, and seems to be still finding its niche. All of the dishes came out at once — salads, appetizers, and entrees — but despite the hiccup, service was brisk and attentive. I'm sure that when the neighborhood realizes they can get the sandwiches into the evening hours, things will change...

...Because the sandwiches are still the main reason to go to Wise Sons, still the reason that it has its devoted cult following. Both the housemade pastrami and corned beef are thick-cut, laced with fat and tasting of meat more than brine; the tangy rye bread has a welcome bit of chew. Some complain that the sandwiches aren't as fully loaded as the ones at the Canter's and Katz's of the world, but they also don't send you into a near-coma after. I regularly dream about the Reuben, a grilled masterpiece of corned beef or pastrami with Russian dressing and sauerkraut that's just a warm, messy delight (you can also order a vegetarian or vegan one made with smoked mushrooms). No. 19, a tribute to the great Langer's Deli in L.A., is a cold version of the Reuben, but no less satisfying. Smoked trout salad has all the smoky tang of a whitefish salad with added dimension from the trout. I'd take it over tuna any day.

Wise Sons also has a tasty rendition of matzo ball soup, one of the best in town: golden, chickeny broth, studded with chunks of meat and carrots, and a light, soft matzo ball in the center. The menu warns that the soup is "probably not as good as your Bubbie's," but for those of us who grew up without Jewish grandmothers, this is as good as it gets.

About The Author

Anna Roth

Anna Roth

Bio:
Anna Roth is SF Weekly's former Food & Drink Editor and author of West Coast Road Eats: The Best Road Food From San Diego to the Canadian Border.

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