1746 Solano Ave. (near Ensenada Avenue), Berkeley

When Cash Caris was growing up in the Bay Area, grocery-store pastrami in plastic pouches was all he knew of the iconic deli meat. His grandmother, who raised him, would sometimes buy other cold cuts, but pastrami remained his favorite. It’s a fondness that has stayed with him, as Caris is now the co-owner of Delirama, a newly opened Berkeley restaurant with an intense focus on pastrami in all its forms.

Caris’s interest in pastrami was sparked by one of his first industry jobs, at a catering kitchen in Santa Clara, where he helped prepare dishes for a kosher cafe. There, Caris started to learn what goes into making the seasoned smoked beef.

Over the years, while training in different cuisines, Caris continued educating himself about the seasoning, brining, steaming and smoking of pastrami. Early in the pandemic, when catering jobs were hard to come by, Caris decided it was time to open an East Bay pop-up business with partner Anahita Cann. “What food do I love the most, what can I not live without and what can I make really well?” he asked himself. Pastrami was the obvious choice.

Delirama owners Anahita Cann (left) and Cash Caris (right). Credit: Alix Wall

That’s how Pyro’s Pastrami, a lauded pop-up known for its satisfying sandwiches, began in Oct. 2020. Less than two years later, it’s evolved into a North Berkeley restaurant, “a place where you can sit down and cry if you want to,” Cann said, “and laugh with your friends. It’s not pretentious. It’s like a home away from home.”

In addition to making its meat (and its vegan replacement, more on that in a moment) in-house, Delirama also bakes its own rye bread, bagels and bialys.

“If I’m going to make my own pastrami, I thought I might as well make my own rye, too,” Caris said, noting that its house-made breads are expected to hold a sandwich together without falling apart.

During his pop-up days, Caris made other deli staples, including latkes. While he never set out to do so, he said that Jewish customer requests commonly drove those decisions.

“If we were doing pastrami, they wanted bagels; if we’re doing bagels, they wanted bialys,” Caris said. “Then they started asking, ‘Are you going to do matzah ball soup?’” Caris and Cann did that too, including a vegan version. He’s dialed back on many of those offerings after opening Delirama, as latkes, for example, are too much work to keep on the daily menu right now. He has to fulfill other menu promises, including pastrami on pizza and pastrami tacos.

The interests of non-meat eaters also help dictate Delirama’s menu, and its vegan pastrami alone is worth the trip. Made from celery root, it’s not to be believed — smoky and complex. My husband and I debated whether we might even prefer it over the regular pastrami (which is also delicious).

The celery root undergoes a similar treatment to the meat, though it is not brined for the full 26 days. Nothing artificial is added; the red color comes from beet juice, since “you eat with your eyes first,” Caris said.

“People have become more hyperfocused on the meat,” he said. “I’m a bit bummed out because I wanted it to be a 50% vegetarian restaurant. If you’re a vegan, I want you to be able to enjoy it in a way that seems mind-boggling, in that it tastes way better and way more like pastrami than they expect.”

A classic Reuben sandwich (pastrami or corned beef with Swiss cheese and sauerkraut) can be had in vegetarian or vegan versions (Gruyère cheese or vegan cheese).

Caris said they’ve brined more than 5,000 pounds of pastrami meat since opening. It’s evident that the long-ago kitchen catering job has had a lasting impact.

“I can’t live without this food,” he said. “I made a strong bond and connection with the people who brought this food into my life. Being integrated into their culture and being treated like family and their showing me how to make family recipes was really important to me.”

Caris and Conn (neither of whom identify as Jewish) appreciate that Jewish delis evoke nostalgia, with customers sharing memories of their grandparents as they consider certain dishes. But as much as Caris welcomes such feedback, he also appreciates that he is free to operate outside the boundaries of a traditional deli.

“I have the room to be super creative,” he said. “Whether I put pastrami on pizza or bialys, people love it.”

Long lines have proved he’s right. Open at 7 a.m. weekdays and 9 a.m. weekends, with both a breakfast and lunch menu, the restaurant is usually sold out of everything by 2 p.m.

Caris and Cann signed a 15-year lease for Delirama’s 1746 Solano Ave. space, and hope to integrate into the North Berkeley community; they also just signed a residential lease and will be living a few minutes away from the restaurant.

“We want to help in any way we can,” he said. “We’re talking to homeless shelters about donations; we’re big into rescue dogs; we want to be more than just a neighborhood deli. We hope to be a safe space for anyone, as long as everyone is respectful to each other. We want people to coexist and eat pastrami together.”

A version of this story first appeared on J., the Jewish News of Northern California. Reprinted with permission.  

Featured image: Delirama’s “thin sliced” Reuben on house-made rye. Credit: Delirama/Instagram

Alix Wall is an Oakland-based freelance writer. She is contributing editor of J., The Jewish News of Northern California, for which she has a food column and writes other features. In addition to Berkeleyside’s...