793 J Street, San Diego
"Come in, sir,” says this voice.
It’s a guy looking through a partition. We’re inside an ancient, 100-year-old building right by the ballpark.
I just wandered in here looking for food. We’re in this passage off J Street. Big Place. Not many patrons. ’Course it’s between nine and ten on a Tuesday night. He sees me looking round.
“Well, we only opened mid-June,” he says. “And we’ve got more to open upstairs. So, till then, late July, August, we’re in the soft-opening phase.”
I come into the main chamber. Whoa. Quite a room. Filled with murals and ancient gold-framed paintings on the wall. Portraits. I recognize Thomas Jefferson, and the others look like figures you should know. And on the back wall they have a mural of a more-or-less naked guy about to plunge his sword into an old guy lying down, with horrified people looking on.
This is a serious place. For people who are serious about their food and drink.
“Martyrdom of St. Matthew,” says the guy across the steel countertop.
Somehow it sets the tone here. This is a serious place. For people who are serious about their food and drink. “This is supposed to be like old-school East European delis,” says another gent behind the bar, Anthony. Anthony Schmidt, proprietor, turns out. “Those delis were all about socializing with childhood friends and sharing food and drinks that were rooted in your environment. That’s why we have ultra-traditional sandwiches and deli specials, and sodas, like Dr. Brown’s Cel Ray Celery Soda. So, what can I get you?”
This is interesting. I check the paper menu. The sandwiches look like the main deal. The “Rare Form 44” has pastrami, braised sauerkraut, Swiss, “special sauce,” all on grilled rye. It goes for $12. The B(E)LT — pork belly with egg, tomato, and butter lettuce on sourdough costs $11. The “Saluminati” has salami, mortadella, giardiniera (pickled veggies), olive tapenade and shaved lettuce on a French roll ($10). Or the Sicilian Fish sandwich comes with grilled swordfish, roasted tomatoes, chimichurri sauce, caper aioli, and butter lettuce on a French roll for $10.
Oh, and I’m tempted by the “Butcher’s Special” they have down at the bottom. It has pork rillettes, pâté de champagne, chicken liver parfait, pickled veggies, salami, and marinated olives with whole grain mustard on a sourdough baguette. Sounds like a feast, except it’s $17. And you’d have to order something really interesting to drink to live up to that.
“What we’re doing here is re-presenting well-known sandwiches, but done with the best ingredients and attention to flavor, so you taste them again for the first time,” says Anthony. “Like, we have a grilled-cheese sandwich! How simple can you get? But we do it with smoked cheddar, American cheese, caramelized onions on a challah loaf, for $7. It makes you slow down and catch the taste and its combination with that bread.”
Anthony: “...like old East European delis.”
Maybe this approach is no surprise when you realize he comes from the no-B.S. philosophy of Arsulan Tafazoli, the guy who kinda started it all with the “make it, grow it, brew it here” approach of his first place, the Neighborhood, just up the road. Rare Form is just the latest invention of Consortium Holdings, the group that did Craft & Commerce, Polite Provisions, and others that cater to the prosperous eco crowd.
Uh-oh. I suddenly realize kitchen closing can’t be far off.
I take one more look at the menu. Oh. They have waffle sandwiches, too. Eyes lock on to the “Housemade knockwurst, caramelized onions, and roasted peppers waffle.” Costs $9. And because I still have to work tonight, I order one of their sodas.
But they’re interesting, too. Unheard-of brands such as “Captain Eli’s Root Beer” and “Blenheim Red Hot Ginger Ale.” I end up going for a Sprecher Cream Soda. Love that cream soda. Funny chunky bottle. Makes you think of a sweet champagne. Costs $3. Comes from an actual beer brewery in Wisconsin. Delish.
But so is the waffle. Hot, fat, crispy with two great canoes of knockwurst — not to be confused with bratwurst or brockwurst or bockwurst — sitting on top of this mess of red roasted peppers and caramelized onions. The “knockwurst” or “knackwurst” name comes from the sound it makes when it explodes under heat, or in your mouth, and releases all its great flavors.
Knockwurst is supposed to be pork and beef and spiced with garlic and other seasoning. It is a luscious combination, especially with the crunchy airiness of the waffle. Damn...it would go so great with one of the beers they have on tap, such as Port Brewing’s Old Viscosity ($7) or Green Flash’s Candela barley wine ($7). But the cream soda does a good job as stand-in. I swing around and make a silent toast to Jefferson, St. Matthew, and all the other hoary gents looking down on us from the other wall. The place may be new, but it feels like it’s been here since Mr. J. wrote the Constitution.
“What I’m really interested in is cocktails, from real ingredients, which are of the area,” Anthony says. “Like, in the Midwest, it’s all grains, wheat, malt. Eastern Europe, it’s all about preserving fruit while it’s fresh at harvest time. That’s why schnapps. Full fruit brandies. We’re about flavor, so we’re not interested in, like, vodka. We want to get back to real spirits.”
And what’s really interesting: he’s combining with a buddy who’s distilling Carlsbad strawberries into a strawberry eau de vie right here in East Village. Wow. Strawberry East Village schnapps with a cold draft beer ($11 in their Boilermaker deal). How local can you get?
“This is the true deli tradition,” he says, “when it comes to drink, food, people made their own. That’s what we’re doing.”
- Prices: “Rare Form 44” sandwich (pastrami, braised sauerkraut, Swiss, “special sauce,” on grilled rye), $12; B(E)LT (pork belly, egg, tomato, butter lettuce, sourdough), $11; Saluminati: salami, mortadella, giardiniera (pickled veggies), olive tapenade and shaved lettuce, French roll ($10); Sicilian Fish sandwich (grilled swordfish, roasted tomatoes, chimichurri sauce, caper aioli), $10; Butcher’s Special (meats, pâtés, pickled veggies, baguette), $17; grilled-cheese sandwich, $7; knockwurst waffle sandwich, $9
- Kitchen Hours: 11:00 a.m.–11:00 p.m. Sunday to Thursday; 11:00 a.m.–12:00 p.m. Friday, Saturday
- Buses: 3, 11, 901, 929
- Nearest bus stops: 10th and Island (11, 901, 929 southbound); 11th and J (11, 901, 929 northbound); 8th and Market (3)
- Trolleys: Blue Line, Orange Line
- Nearest trolley stop: Park and Market