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Dining Review: The Refuge

San Carlos eatery draws in pastrami lovers from around the bay

MY TERRITORY as a restaurant critic extends from Redwood City to Fremont and down to Gilroy. It’s a huge area, and I rarely feel the need to stray outside it, but for the Refuge I gladly crossed the border. Three times.

The Refuge is in San Carlos. I’ve never had a reason to go to San Carlos, but now I do. I happened to have an appointment in Burlingame the other day, and the first thing I thought was, “Perfect, I’m going to swing by the Refuge when I’m done.” The Refuge is an uncommon eatery that makes uncommonly tasty food. It’s more a pub than a restaurant, and its claim to fame is ridiculously delicious house-made pastrami. Pastrami is to deli meats as Zeus is to Greek deities. I don’t know what they eat on Mt. Olympus, but if the Refuge delivered I’m sure there would be a couple dozen Reubens headed that way.

I’ve been on a Silicon Valley pastrami bender lately, which isn’t easy to do, since few restaurants or delis have the know-how or will to make pastrami, an elaborate process of brining and smoking spice-crusted brisket. But I have found a few outposts of pastrami craftsmanship.

The folks at the Refuge say they make theirs from a small section of brisket known as the “heart of navel.” It’s the leanest pastrami I’ve had—and yet wonderfully tender. The sandwiches are packed with thickly carved slices of meat that spill out from the great rye bread. I found myself switching from enjoying a bite of the sandwich to just eating a slab of pastrami all by itself to appreciate its singular charms.

The sandwiches don’t come cheap nor should they. This is a premium product that has become increasingly hard to find. The pastrami with mustard goes for $13. The flagship Reuben is $16. It’s worth it. Unless you’ve spent time hanging out in the right delis in New York or L.A., you’ve never had anything like this. They are truly great sandwiches.

They look like they are too much to eat, and you’ll tell yourself you’ll only eat half and save the rest for later, but if you’re like me, you won’t. My only complaint, and it’s small one, is that the sauerkraut is rather weak.

But pastrami isn’t all that the Refuge does well. There’s the beer. Belgian ale to be specific. Eighteen brands on tap. The Refuge says it has more Belgian ale on draft than any place in the Bay Area, but the Trappist in Oakland checks in with 20 rotating taps, although all aren’t always Belgian brews. But anyway, the important point is that there is a lot of great brew here, and the short but descriptive tasting notes make perusing the many ales a pleasure. I’m willing to bet that you’ve never had the pleasure of a St. Feuillien Saison served alongside a hulking Reuben sandwich. This is the place to do remedy that situation.

The Refuge also makes some great burgers. The beef is ground fresh daily, and you really can taste the difference and remember that hamburger is really chopped steak. The half-pound cheddar burger ($14) is cooked a pretty pink unless you request otherwise. I wasn’t sure the squishy, untoasted bun would hold up, but it did so right to the end.

If you wanted to commit suicide by arteriosclerosis, the pastrami burger ($17) would be great way to go out. The half-pound patty shares the bun with sliced pastrami, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut and mustard. It’s almost like eating a Reuben sandwich and a hamburger.

Had enough beef yet? No? There are cheesesteaks, too. I confess I was beefed out at the time and ordered my O.G. Philly Joe ($12, provolone and meat only) with pulled roasted chicken. Very satisfying.

The pastrami, sandwiches, burgers and cheesesteaks are the heart of the menu, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell you about the great appetizers, too. These items are more cosmopolitan and reflect a kitchen (chef/owner Matt Levin and chef de cuisine Michael Greuel) that seems to relish concocting gilded, outlandishly delicious combinations such as the seared duck breast with cherry demi-glace and melted onion purée ($12), or the seared sea scallops with mushrooms, bacon, grainy mustard and “beer blanc” sauce ($15) or the perfectly cooked haricots verts with sautéed wild mushrooms and fingerling potatoes in a luxurious amandine sauce. The garlic fries with chile mayo ($6) are also pretty great. If that weren’t enough, there’s a choice selection of charcuterie (pâtés, prosciutto, salumi) and great cheese (mainly French and Spanish).

This is the kind of food a couple of line cooks might make if they let their food fantasies run wild and the boss was away. Levin and Greuel have that same exuberance except now they’re running the show. They met while cooking at Viognier in San Mateo. It’s also where they conceived the idea for the Refuge.

The desserts deliver, too. The chocolate pot de crème ($6) is as thick as tar but infinitely more delicious. The butterscotch version ($6) is not as dense but just as good. We need more butterscotch desserts. The only dessert that missed the mark was the roasted butternut scotch crepe au rhum ($6).

Taken as a whole, the eclectic menu reads like someone’s favorite things. Classic American food expertly prepared. Pastrami. Some wildly delicious starters plus a lot of delicious Belgian ale and a bunch of good salumi and cheese to with it. You figure it out. Just make sure you go.

The Refuge
Address: 963 Laurel St., San Carlos.
Phone: 650.598.9813.
Hours: 11:30am–2:30pm and 5:30–9pm Tue–Thu, 11:30am–2:30pm 5:30–10pm Fri and noon–10pm Sat.
Cuisine: Eclectic.
Price Range: $6–$17.