Say what you will about our bagels, but San Francisco has turned into a proper deli town, as evidenced by the proliferation of delicious, crave-worthy pastrami. Brined for days, smoked for hours, and full of salty, meaty flavor, pastrami may well be the deli meat of the gods—when it's done right. Here are the eight best in (and around) town, ranked:
8. Trace, SoMa
Sneaking onto the top of our list with a whole new kind of pastrami fusion is surprise contender Trace (at the W Hotel). Their thick-cut lamb(!) pastrami is made using fresh lamb belly, which is brined for two days, coated in spice mix before air drying for another three, then slow-cooked for twelve hours. The gorgeous resulting meat is served on freshly-made flatbread, and topped with "deviled egg emulsion" (hard boiled eggs pureed with mustard) and harissa-laced aioli. So... we'll see you at Trace, then?
7. Darwin Cafe, SOMA
If you can tear yourself away from their magical kale salad for a meal, Darwin's hot pastrami sandwich is 200 percent worth the afternoon food coma. The sandwich features a hearty pile of thin-sliced RC Provisions meat (under the Golden Gate Meat Company label); the sandwich specifics change every two weeks, but the current version features creamy coleslaw (made with green cabbage, shredded carrot, red wine vinaigrette, mayonnaise, and toasted celery seeds), sweet onion, Swiss cheese, and a delicious, genre-bending add of barbecue sauce. Because in this magical land of pastrami, why choose just one complementary dressing?
6. Mikkeller Bar, Tenderloin
You know what goes great with pastrami? Beer. And you know who has some of the best beer and pastrami in town? Mikkeller Bar! They source Robert's Corned Beef (made in SF), made from brisket, which is rubbed with a house pastrami spice (that includes black pepper, juniper, coriander, mustard powder, and secret ingredients that were left out of an already mouthwatering list). Those babies are then left to sit, before being smoked for 11 hours over hickory and applewood. It's served up Reuben-style, on toasted rye with sauerkraut, Thousand Island, and the just-fancy-enough addition of gruyere.
5. Wise Sons, Mission
The hardest thing about ordering pastrami at Wise Sons is deciding what kind of pastrami-laden delicacy you fancy. Sliced-to-order on a sandwich? Scrambled with eggs? Ground into a burger? Diced atop French fries with Swiss cheese bechamel, Russian dressing, and pickles in a heartstoppingly delicious love child of animal-style fries and poutine? Regardless, the meat in question begins as a whole brisket, brined, and crusted in spices and black pepper, which are then smoked over hickory for seven hours. Oh hell, why pick one pastrami option? Order them all! What a way to go.
4. Rye Project, SOMA
There's an aura of mystery shrouded around the thin-sliced pastrami at Rye Project. The "Romanian" pastrami hails from somewhere "in the Midwest" (there have been Chicago-based rumors), is from the navel cut, and arrives as pickled corned beef. It's then finished in SoMa (and "doctored," we're told), resulting in a spicy, smokey, melt-in-your-mouth finish. Served in massive portions on pillowy-tender rye bread (from Los Angeles), it needs little accompaniment besides spicy Cleveland mustard and maybe a dunk in RP's tysyacha sauce, a mix of mustard, Thousand Island, horseradish, and dill pickle. Add a slice of cheese, if you must.
3. 20th Century Cafe, Hayes Valley
The Reuben at 20th Century Cafe may be the prettiest pastrami sandwich you'll ever eat. What's more, it's undoubtedly one of the best in town. Almost everything but the meat itself (simply described as "Pete's Pastrami") is made in-house, from the pumpkin seed rye bread; to the hand-grated, tangy sauerkraut; to the salty-sweet Russian dressing. You'll quickly forgive them for outsourcing that meat upon learning that Pete is Peter Temkin (the man behind Foreign Cinema's charcuterie), and that his method includes brining brisket for two weeks, rubbing it down with pepper and coriander, and smoking it over hard and fruitwoods. We love the less-traditional addition of Comte cheese, and absolutely find space in your heart (and stomach) for the house-pickled vegetables on the side (owner Michelle Polzine warns that she may yell at you if she catches you not eating them).
2. The Dark Horse Inn, Crocker-Amazon
How do you take a sandwich as tasty as a Reuben and make it better? You substitute the kraut for kimchi, of course. Sample this delicious stroke of brilliance at our favorite neighborhood bar, The Dark Horse Inn out by Balboa Park BART. Kimchi-usage aside, this is some serious housemade pastrami. Local, grass-fed Angus brisket is brined for 10 days (at least!), then smoked slow-and-low over applewood chips for 14 hours. It's served up on buttery, griddle-toasted rye bread, along with creamy gochujang dressing and melted Swiss cheese. And kimchi, of course.
1. The Refuge, San Carlos
Trust us when we say that the best pastrami in the Bay Area, maybe ever, is in San Carlos at The Refuge (or Menlo Park, where they have a second location). This stuff is straight-up revelatory, and born of obsession, so you know it's good. Based on legendary pastrami locales like NYC's Katz's and Langer's, their pastrami is cut thick, coated in a flavor-packed crust, bursting with the taste of salt, smoke, and spice, and needs nothing but slices of rye bread to bring all of these elements flavor elements to a dizzying, brain-defying head. You can read all about the dedication to technique, watch a hunger-inducing video of their pastrami being sliced, but really, you should get yourself to San Carlos, order all of the pastrami and experience the bliss for yourself. Any of their three classic sandwich options (reuben; slaw, Swiss, Russian dressing; or plain with mustard) are excellent. Start with the basics before getting all crazy with things like a pastrami chopped salad, pastrami-topped burger, or pastrami cheese fries.