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The Refuge [San Carlos]

The Refuge
963 Laurel Street, San Carlos, CA 94070
650 598-9813
If I can parrot Makansutra, this is Die-Die-Must-Try. They make their own pastrami and oh-lord-yes! is it good.
Yes, the great past-time of New Yorkers in San Francisco has been brought to an abrupt halt. There is now good pastrami to be had locally. Owner Matt Levin makes the pastrami and it is truly worthy. I won't bother to try to describe it. You know what good pastrami is. Go try it and see if I'm not right (I am right, don't even try it on). On a level with Katz's,Langer's, and whatever they serve in Paradise.
But wait, there's more! Chopped liver is to die for. Okay, it isn't Barney Greengrass, but then, what is? It is the best by far you'll get sans flight out of SFO.
There is a good wine list and, this is where the absolutely win my allegiance, a brilliant collection of Belgian ales on tap. Chimay? Sure, but oh so much more.
Pastrami rillettes - not a typo! Get the grand plate and try a variety not to be beat.
Burger meat is ground on site and it makes a difference.
And the fries? The fries are perfect. Crispy on the outside, pillowy on the inside. I know I cannot finish the fries with any other item on the menu, but I order them anyway. Because I'm a frites snob and I can't pass them up.
I have not tried the cheese steaks or desserts.If you try them let me know what you think.
Now that I've had a taste I expect to try everything on the menu. I think it'll take a few months. And I'll have to add a mile a day to my running routine to keep up. But I know it will be worth the extra effort.

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  1. Sorry, you lost me with the wine list and the Belgian Beers. If you had said Cel-Ray Soda, I might have taken the bait.

    2 Replies
    1. re: Xiao Yang

      I never loved Cel-Ray. I didn't even ask. Didn't despise it, but never loved it. They do make a cherry soda that is quite good. A cream soda though? Or an egg cream? Yeah, I wish that was on the menu. But it's not a deli. It's not that kind of place at all.
      Think more of a first date place. The kind of place you can suggest to someone you're interested in. They'll be impressed by what a cool place it is, how good the food is, how really attractive and comfortable the bar is and you'll be happy with the food. Even if there's no second date you'll both tell your friends about the restaurant.
      I guess what I'm saying is it's a place where the owners and staff have undertaken, with a considerable degree of time and effort, to make an excellent product which was previously lacking in our region, coupled with other excellent products from all over the Bay Area and the world, and the trouble to present it in an extremely clean and comfortable environment and a charming atmosphere.
      Chowhounds are the most adventurous diners. Maybe you won't like it. You may find Belgian ales cloying. I'm not always in the mood for a Chimay (but I like one more days than not). Such a venture deserves a chance, even if it doesn't try to mimic our beloved delis. Try it, and then tell me what you think.
      And I don't believe there is a corking fee if you bring your own Dr. Brown's.

      1. re: Xiao Yang

        I've seen Cel-Ray at BevMo in San Rafael.

      2. The Refuge is a remarkable invention, where draft Belgian beers come together with big sturdy fare by a chef/owner who is a really, really talented charcutier. I've yet to see a dish there that wasn't a solidly conceived and executed winner. The pastrami is thicker and juicier than the archetypal NY style, and when served on thick fresh rye with coleslaw and russian dressing, there is perhaps no better sandwich. I've been a couple dozen times and karma_bites sums it up perfectly. The Refuge is certainly a destination for any SF epicure.

        1. I absolutely agree. This place is wonderful- I had the best salame to date in any Bay Area joint, and the Pantelleria capers the mixed salumi plate came with were fantastic!

          1. It's not a faux/wannabee NY deli, so I don't understand why Cel-Ray soda would be required. Link:

            The Refuge
            963 Laurel St, San Carlos, CA 94070

            7 Replies
            1. re: Ruth Lafler

              The OP compared it to Katz's deli, which doesn't need a wine list or fancy beers. It would be unthinkable to serve a pastrami sandwich from Katz with anything but a Dr. Brown's, IMHO.

              1. re: Xiao Yang

                This place is so much better for serving Belgian draft beers than challenging and idiosyncratic surefire-loser savory sodas. It's not trying to be a New Yorky place—it's its whole own new thing, and it's wonderful.

                1. re: Xiao Yang

                  The OP said the *pastrami* was on the level of Katz's -- nowhere did the OP say the restaurant was trying to be like Katz's. Surely you don't think that only a NY-style deli should be allowed to sell pastrami? And if you do, why? I personally think that restaurants are better when they are trying to be themselves and not slavishly copying other restaurants.

                  1. re: Ruth Lafler

                    Dr. Brown's goes with the pastrami sandwich, not with the restaurant. And the OP was baiting New Yorkers, not Californians.

                    Katz's Pastrami Sandwich, Dr. Brown's Cel-Ray
                    Schwartz's Smoked Meat Sandwich, Cott's Black Cherry Soda
                    Red's Double Cheesburger, long-neck Bud

                    That's the Yin and the Yang of it.

                    1. re: Xiao Yang

                      I always preferred Dr. Brown's Cream to the Cel-Ray

                      1. re: Xiao Yang

                        Refuge's Pastrami, Belgian Beer

                        That's the Yin and the Yang of it there. And it's fantastic.

                        1. re: Shane Greenwood

                          Qyuck Update. The pastrami on rye here is superlative. My wife had the pulled chicken hoagie with fries - excellent as well. Had Leffe Blonde with my sandwich. Match made in ... heaven.

                          The Refuge
                          963 Laurel St, San Carlos, CA 94070

                2. I've stated my opinion of the pastrami at The Refuge before, but not being shy, and having another opportunity here, let me do so again: The Refuge serves the best pastrami on rye sandwich I have ever had, and that is a whole big mound of pastrami sandwiches.

                  1. Is the pastrami like Katz's, or is it like Langer's? The two styles are very different.

                    Katz's - ultra-tender, ultra-fatty, melts in your mouth, harmonious notes of spice, garlic, and smoke.

                    Langer's - a little firmer, waaaaay saltier. Tastes more like corned beef than pastrami to me, but I've seen Langer's fans deride Katz's pastrami as "bland and steamed", so maybe it's a matter of which style you grew up on (mine should be obvious).

                    Does The Refuge hand-slice its pastrami?

                    3 Replies
                    1. re: daveena

                      The Refuge hand-slices their pastrami: it is thick (1/8" slices?) and while not "firm" I wouldn't say it melts in your mouth. It's worth a trip to check it out.

                      1. re: daveena

                        Much more like Katz's, based on your description. Made from the "eye of the navel," I think they say. Apparently there are only like 3lbs of this particular cut per cow, and it's largely spoken for by Big Pastrami (I like that idea) so it's terribly expensive to obtain. There's nothing bland about the final product -- has anyone in this thread used "sublime" yet?

                        1. re: orezscu

                          OK, I finally made it. It *is* a great pastrami - perfect texture, similar to Katz's, cut into slices so thick they almost qualify as chunks. The cure is a bit sweeter than Katz's - I should have chosen a less sweet beer, because it was definitely amplifying the sweetness of the pastrami, but overall, a great sandwich.

                      2. I went to the Refuge last night, about 6pm on a Friday night. As said several times here, this is not a deli so get that out of your head. I'd call it a bistro, a bustling bistro on Friday night with singles, couples, groups, families with kids, all ages, really everyone is there. Most people seem to be drinking draft beer (many types of beer and ale on tap). Their wine is all European, none familiar to me, and the glass I had of Mas Neuf red was quite good and very French. I suspect the rest of their wine is well selected. The pastrami? It was as good as everyone here says; it is pastrami on another level. I've never had pastrami like it or even close to it, but I don't have much New York experience. It's less salty than most other pastrami I've had. The place is certainly appreciated by a lot of people and for good reason.

                        1. They may not have Cel Ray Soda but they have an excellent Wysnewski's Black Cherry Soda, home made I believe.

                          1. OK, “osho” bumped this thread, so I thought I’d post some photos from my lunch at The Refuge in September. I’d been to a bar mitzvah on the Peninsula that morning, my first one since my schoolmates and I were that age ourselves. It brought back memories of Mrs. Schoenbrun’s famous chopped liver, a staple of celebrations at Salinas’ Temple Beth El, and I’ve never had better anywhere. But no chopped liver on the spread at this temple, and in this mood, I found my way to The Refuge and had my brother join me for a first visit.

                            On one of the last days of summer, we took a seat outside. We ordered a pastrami san with chopped liver, a cheese steak with mushrooms, a diet pepsi and Blanche de Bruxelles, which all came to $46, including tax and tip. Not cheap, but totally worth it.”

                            Here’s my Pastrami with chopped liver, slaw, Russian dressing on rye bread served with greens in sherry vinaigrette, $16. As you can see, the housemade pastrami (navel cut) is hand carved in thick, unctuous slices. This is close to the Katz’s texture that William and I both love. As daveena points out, the cure does have a sweet side to it and it is less salty than Langers. The chopped liver was the skinny sister in this combination and didn’t add much. Next time, I’ll just go for the unadulterated version. Another couple lunching near us ordered a pastrami sandwich with a side of fries, and that is more than enough for two people. And, btw, the side salad was great, loved the vinaigrette.

                            William had the Cheeesteak with mushrooms, red pepper, provolone, and rib eye on Amoroso bread that comes with excellent fries, $12.

                            As penance, I had the vegetarian entrée at the bar mitzvah dinner that night catered at the Aviation Museum.

                            Hiller Aviation Museum
                            601 Skyway, San Carlos, CA