AL’s Deli Is A Little Bit of This, A Little Bit of That
Chef-Owner Aaron London describes his new AL’s Deli in San Francisco as East Coast Jewish deli meets Israeli street food.
It is a little bit of this, a little bit of that, and a whole lot of what London likes to eat on his downtime, well, when he has any, that is.
After all, when you also run a Michelin-starred restaurant, AL’s Place, just a few blocks away, which was named Bon Appetit magazine’s top new restaurant in American in 2015, there are few moments to spare.
So it’s lucky for the rest of us that his new fast-casual concept fits the bill when time is short, cash is precious, and you’re craving big flavors in a carefree spot done up in Miami Art Deco hues.
If last week’s opening was any indication, he has another hit on his hands. When I was invited in as a guest of the restaurant in only its fifth day of operation, the place was mobbed on a Saturday night, with a few folks lined up to get in the door.
Like AL’s Place, AL’s Deli also takes its name from London’s initials.
The concise menu tells the story of London: an emphasis on fresh, local produce that surrounded him when he grew up in West Sonoma County; potato latkes from his days in New York frequenting delis while externing at Restaurant Daniel; and smoked brisket in homage to that at legendary Schwartz’s Deli in Montreal, where the piled-high smoked meat sandwiches sustained him when he worked as the opening line chef at Au Pied de Cochon.
Order at the counter, then find a seat, where your food will be brought out to you. The food is served in colorful enamelware, so you almost feel as if you’re camping or picnicking. Even the wine by the glass comes in an enamelware tumbler, while the pita sandwiches get propped up on candy-pink w-shaped holders.
London didn’t anticipate fully the throngs that jammed the place on Saturday, so by 6 p.m. the potato latkes ($7) already had run out.
But two other items were still available on the “Crispy, Crunchy Things” side of the menu: house-made fries ($6) that arrive golden and crispy, and miraculously seasoned from the inside out with just the right amount of salt. A ranch-like creamy dressing with thyme and tahini comes in a ramekin in place of standard ketchup.
We also tried a side of hummus ($6), which comes with soft, warm pita, and spears of cucumbers that are ever-so-lightly pickled so their flavor is more fresh than wincingly sour. The hummus is smooth and luscious with a hit of lemon juice and plenty of garlic.
Also available were the fun falafel corn dog bites ($7). Yes, little nubbins of hot dog wrapped in a seasoned ground chickpea mixture before being fried. The outside is soft and very herbaceous tasting. Alongside is a tangy dipping sauce made with pickled mango.
You can enjoy the brisket as a 1-pound platter ($27) to share; same with the shawarma spiced rotisserie chicken ($24). Or you can try either in a pita sandwich ($13 for the chicken; $14 for the brisket); or add a $1 more to either to have it in a bowl as a salad instead.
The brisket pita comes stuffed to the gills with hard-boiled egg, spicy cabbage salad, pickled beets, pickled cucumbers, garlic sauce, tahini, sumac onions, mustard, and even french fries. There’s a good amount of brisket in all of that, too, that’s moist, tender and indeed smokey. It’s a four-napkin sandwich experience to savor.
I opted for the shawarma in a salad. Shreds of tender chicken, coated in warm cinnamon and cumin, were tangled in among leaves of kale and Little Gem, and a flourish of parsley and onions. A swipe of hummus decorates one side of the bowl. You have to like pickled things to enjoy this salad because there are many sharp, tangy pickled things in it, including plenty of beets and cucumbers.
The frozen labneh, said to rival that at Souvla in San Francisco, alas was not ready for prime-time yet.
But that just makes for a built-in excuse to come again. As if we needed one.