AL’s Deli is the offspring of AL’s Place – yes, that AL’s Place, the one voted Best New Restaurant in America in 2015 by Bon Appetit. Chef Aaron London’s first foray into the Mission brought us veg-centric, fine-dining-quality food, playfully and inventively. AL’s Deli is said to be Chef London’s take on the food he wants to eat when he’s not working. Touted as a loose blend of Israeli street food and Montreal Jewish deli, it’s a mash-up of his favorite flavors – easy food, in contrast to the sometimes elaborate concoctions at AL’s Place.
The décor (the Deli took over the space by recently shuttered Yuzuki) is all light and airiness, pastel pinks and blues, with potted plants overhead, and has almost a Miami Beach vibe. You can sit at the counters, facing floor-to-ceiling windows that open, as well as at communal tables. In keeping with the popular restaurant theme of the last few years – order at the counter, take a number, take your drink, get served your food – AL’s is the newest in the fast casual arena.
Our first visit was about a week after they’d opened. I don’t normally like to try a place before it has gotten its sea legs, but I figured we’d give it a shot.
First, a salad of tomatoes, smoked watermelon, cucumbers and scallions.
At AL’s Place, Chef London plays a lot with fruit – his stone-fruit curry is legendary, and here at the Deli he serves a mean amba (typically a mango pickle, traditional in Middle Eastern or Indian cooking) made here with – again – stone fruit. So I was expecting a lot from that smoked watermelon. There was nothing smoky about it that we could taste, but worse, it was over-chilled. The tomatoes were bland, because in late July in San Francisco, tomatoes are still bland. That’s not a chef’s fault, but that’s why you don’t feature them until they’re well in season. Or use cherry tomatoes.
Next, falafel corn-dog bites.
HOLY CROW. I thought the corn dog bites were burnt at first glance, but they were a delight — crispy, tender, a bit sweet from the cornbread dough, blended with falafel spices, and went really well with the amba mayo, which I could have sworn was mustard. The BF – an aficionado of corn dogs – did not love them as much as I did.
BF ordered the brisket pita.
All the pitas come topped with toum, tahini, pickles, sumac onions (both our sandwiches had all this), and in addition to all that there was also a hardboiled egg, mustard and cabbage salad. Fries were also kinda mushed up in there. The bite I had of the smoky brisket was really tasty, but the rest was a mish-mash, very muddled. BF was completely unimpressed. Also, the pitas were served in these odd, hard-taco-shell-caddy things, with only a teeny little metal side dish, so you’re either left balancing the pita on the wavy thing as it begins to fall apart, or crammed into the side dish, losing remnants of your pita pocket to the counter and floor. This definitely needs to be re-thunk.
I had the shawarma spiced chicken pita.
All the ingredients I mentioned above, plus hummus, cuke & tomato salad, and zhug, a garlicky sauce. Tasty enough, but again, overkill on the flavors/textures. And, not to beat a dead horse, don’t use mushy, tasteless tomatoes; just leave them out.
But – they’d just opened! So we gave them another try, this time on a Friday night when the restaurant was strangely only half-full. Had word gotten out already? Nonetheless, on our first visit, we’d espied and drooled over a whole rotisserie chicken, a carving knife dramatically stabbed through its breast.
The shawarma spiced chicken (same as in the pita) comes with marinated cabbage.
It was a a big fat MEH, despite sauces galore: a green tahini, a ranch-ish tahini, a garlicky mayo, a pear mustard, the amba mayo, and a “hot” sauce that tasted like a mint chimichurri with a hint of jalapeno. I really liked the chicken, and I’d consider bringing one home for dinner. BF was less enamored.
We’d ordered both the chicken and a pound of smoky brisket, with an eye toward leftovers.
They’ve got a thing with knives here. The brisket was dry this time, and a bit too salty.
BF also ordered a side of the thyme/sesame/ranch-ish fries.
Which, although they may not look it, came out soggy, and also very salty.
I loved sitting in the space on a warm evening – windows flung open, sipping some of their delicious and very reasonably priced wine – and would have liked to try the stuffed potato latkes or the blistered eggplant & cauliflower pita. But at this point, I fear everything is just a bit too embellished. I really hope Chef London thinks about paring down the ingredients on some of his items, and goes for some of the cleaner flavors and textures he is known for at AL’s Place. Just a little tune-up, and I think he’d have another winner.
598 Guerrero St.
San Francisco, CA 94110