Wednesday, September 9, 2009

L'shanah Tovah, San Diego, From Ralphs La Jolla

For most of my life I lived in Los Angeles and New York, two cities where being Jewish meant that during the high holidays (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) schools were closed or attendance was negligible, nobody asked if the "chai" pendant around your neck was your dog (it's a Hebrew letter meaning "life"), and nobody expected a deli to carry cinnamon raisin or jalapeno cheese bagels. In other words, being Jewish was not an anomaly but pretty mainstream. As a Jewish American who has lived in San Diego for 20 years, I still miss that feeling of belonging, of taking for granted that the people around me understand my Yinglish slang, are familiar with the food I grew up with, and would never ever schedule important events on the holiest of Jewish holidays.

But, this is San Diego and even with a population of almost 90,000 Jews in the county, our cultural impact on the region has remained, well, limited. And, that includes, food. Einstein Bagels, which took over the marvelous Baltimore Bagels years ago, decided to eschew the most important step in bagel making: boiling the dough before baking, which gives it a shiny coat and a firm crust with a chewy interior. So, now they sell a round baked roll with a hole in it. It's certainly not a bagel. And, while I'm on a rant, is there a local deli that sells hand-sliced smoked salmon or Nova? Can you find a good Jewish corn rye? And, for those Jews who keep kosher, is there anywhere to shop for kosher food?

To that last question, the answer is now yes. Happily, I can say that our deficits made San Diego, or more specifically La Jolla, the first choice for Ralphs supermarket when it came to establishing a full-on kosher department. There may be more demand in L.A., but there are also more options for kosher Angelinos. So, two months ago, Ralphs remodeled its La Jolla store and vastly expanded its kosher section, calling it "The Kosher Experience." Zack Plotzker, the kosher department manager, told me that in San Diego there are an estimated 1,000 kosher-eating families, and that doesn't include vacationers searching for kosher food to eat. Even with the high expectations for the department, it's already exceeding sales projections.

And, amazingly, people are even driving down here from L.A. to shop. I met a mother and daughter yesterday from the Pico-Robertson section of L.A., who were at the deli counter for just that reason, and noodging Plotzker about having Ralphs establish a kosher department in their neighborhood.

The Kosher Experience sits where the produce used to be and what you'll find is a large deli counter, extended refrigerated and frozen sections, breads and sweets, and several aisles of packaged goods along with wines and spirits.

There's even a small display with Jewish-themed books, holiday tchotchkes, and gift items.

The deli counter is striking for its set up. The store sells various cheeses, salads, deli meats, and takeaway items. Nothing unusual there, but being kosher means keeping dairy and meat products separate and not mixing utensils. So, if you look closely toward the rear of the deli section, you'll notice a plexiglass wall dividing the handling and tools for dairy and meat products. Knives and other utensils and tools are marked with different colored labels to avoid a mix-up--dairy is blue, pareve (foods that are neither dairy nor meat, like produce) is green and meat is red. Plotzker said that, other than on Shabbat when it's closed, the deli counter always has on-site kosher supervision to make sure all the rules are obeyed, and includes oversight by two organizations, Vaad of San Diego and the Rabbinical Council of California.

The deli also prepares a variety of sandwiches, including hamburgers and hot dogs, egg salad, and sliced meats such as corned beef, turkey, and pastrami (both lean and naval, which is fattier and better for hot sandwiches, since the fat keeps the pastrami moist). There is a selection of kosher rotisserie chicken and even containers of house-prepared buffalo chicken wings, perfect for tailgating parties. And, there are all sorts of salads--macaroni, guacamole, and carrot, among them.

What you can't see behind the scenes is that a kosher butcher cuts meats Sundays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays. The meats, sold in a refrigerated case next to the deli counter, includes beef, lamb, and chicken (Empire brand, of course). There's also fresh fish and even kosher sushi, made fresh two hours a day by Yellow Bamboo.

You'll also get a selection of three soups, made by Tabatchnick. While I tend to prefer homemade soups, if you have to eat prepared soups, Tabatchnick has long been a favorite of mine (try the mushroom barley).

The wine and spirits selection is pretty good, making it much more convenient to find kosher wines to serve at holiday dinners. You can even find kosher tequila and brandies here.

Much of the daily stuff of the pantry can be found in a kosher version here--beans and potato chips, candy and cereal, even microwave popcorn and Turkish coffee. Of course, you'll see several varieties of matzo, soup mixes, Dr. Brown's soda (including my dad's favorite cel-ray flavor and my cream soda), Fox's U-Bet chocolate syrup, and Nathan's mustard.

The refrigerated sections are filled with childhood--and adult--favorites and necessary condiments. There are Batampke and Bubbies pickles, pickled tomatoes, and sauerkraut, herring, smoked salmon, horseradish, and cream cheese.

Nearby, the freezer holds perhaps a dozen varieties of Tabatchnik soups and frozen meals, including mac and cheese and chili. And, that's just one brand. You can stock up on all sorts of prepared meals, ice cream, and snacks.

The bakery sells brand-name and house-made goods like baguettes, sourdough bread, ciabatta, green-and-black olive bread, dinner rolls, and some of the largest, most delicious rugelach I've ever eaten.

According to Plotzker, the bakery sells 150 challahs on Fridays for Shabbat. Surprisingly, this time of year, they also have fresh hamentachen, a pastry traditionally made for spring holiday of Purim. There are a rainbow of cupcakes and large sheet cakes. And, combining two or three specialty needs, Ralphs sells kosher gluten-free and sugar-free pastries.

With the high holidays approaching (Rosh Hashanah begins at sunset Sept. 18 and Yom Kippur/Kol Nidre on Sept. 27), even non-kosher Jews like me will be looking for special items for family meals. Plotzker says that they'll be selling traditional round challahs, honey cakes, whole briskets, and even tongue, as well as yahrzeit candles.

Oh, and if over the next couple of weeks someone wishes you "L 'shanah Tovah, just say thank you and wish them the same. They're wishing you a sweet and good year.

L 'shanah Tovah!

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  1. Thanks for the great post! Have you ever checked out DZ Atkins along Route 8?

  2. I've known them for many years. They're alright, but don't match the delis I grew up with in L.A.

  3. I haven't been to Ralphs since the big remodel. Now I want to go check out the kosher section. I love rugelach and have been looking for a place in SD that sells good ones!

  4. But how are their bagels? Or did I miss that on the post. I remember years ago back East going into a Kosher deli and ordering a turkey and swiss--I didn't understand Kosher rules then. The counterman said "I can give you turkey and I can give you Swiss." He then smiled and added "What you do with them after that is up to you."

  5. While the kosher stores around here might not be as extensive as the remodeled Ralphs, there are plenty of kosher options in the College Area near SDSU since there is an eruv nearby. There's the Kosher Place restaurants (one serves dairy, the other meat) and deli; there's also plenty of kosher options at the local Ralphs and Vons grocery stores, too.

    As a non-Jewish vegetarian bordering on vegan, I've appreciated having these options in the neighborhood for some time. Also, I think you can get hand sliced smoked salmon at DZ Akins; you might want to call first, though. Of course, their bagels are cooked the old fashioned way and they have plenty of other great baked goods (I've loved their rye bread since I was a kid).

    And a happy new year to you, too!