Plenty of restaurants claim to be the best at something, whether it’s the best mocktail at the buzziest bar or a Baja kitchen purporting to make the finest fish tacos in San Francisco. The reality of subjectivity makes such declarations impossible to prove, leaving restaurant owners to duke it out as their own cheerleaders.
The hot pastrami sandwich has been a culinary battleground for decades. In 2002, writer Nora Ephron made a literal hot take that Langer’s Delicatessen in Los Angeles serves the best hot pastrami in the world. Eight years later, she became the judge of a Biggie vs. 2Pac East versus West Coast-style face-off between her old LA standby and 120-year-old Katz’s Delicatessen in Lower Manhattan.
So it’s about time that a Bay Area restaurant threw its hat in the ring. We might have a worthy contender in The Refuge, an East Coast-style tavern in San Carlos and San Mateo owned by husband-and-wife team Matt Levin and Melanie Roth that specializes in hand-carved navel pastrami.
For several years now, The Refuge has claimed to serve the best pastrami in the Bay Area. Executive chef Michael Greuel and his team tenderize “the heart of the navel” cut—found just below the brisket—and steams the meat for hours to achieve the tenderness you might find in old-world delicatessens nestled in the same European villages from which the Peninsula gastropub sources its impressive Belgian and German beer list.
Named for Levin and Roth’s favorite wine bistro in Paris, the couple opened The Refuge in San Carlos in 2008. During the pandemic, they opened another location at the Hillsdale Shopping Center in San Mateo. Levin is a Michelin-trained chef in his own right who earned his chops in Paris.
Levin and Roth stand by their pastrami so ardently that they allegedly banked the collateral of their home on the success of The Refuge and its signature cured beef. The couple’s hard work paid off in 2013, when the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives paid a visit to the gastropub in an episode entitled “Meat Lover’s Paradise.”
This month, The Refuge plans to reveal a secret variation on its famed hot pastrami. Along with more than 75 other eateries in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, the tavern will participate in Peninsula Restaurant Week from May 19 to 27.
Similar to SF Restaurant Week, the event spotlights the local eateries, fisheries and 50 working farms that make up the culinary culture of the Peninsula. Participating restaurants, which also include Jettywave Distillery, La Viga Seafood, LV Mar, San Agus, Scroll Bar and Wildseed, will offer exclusive menus and specials.
For Peninsula Restaurant Week, the crew at The Refuge plan to reveal a dish on its “secret menu” that Roth said only ride-or-die regulars know to order—a decadent pastrami steak with creamy mashed potatoes and vegetables smothered in house-made gravy.
“For this event, we are taking it out of the shadows and into the light,” Roth said.
Sarah Holtz can be reached at [email protected]