Home » Salads » San Francisco-style Potato Salad (aka Herman’s Potato Salad)

San Francisco-style Potato Salad (aka Herman’s Potato Salad)

Herman’s Delicatessen on Geary Street in San Francisco featured what I, and many of the locals, considered to be the world’s best potato salad.   It was a basic recipe of potatoes, carrots, mayo (Best Foods of course), parsley and vinegar.  It had a silky consistency to it, very thin slices of potato, and was very white in color, as it did not contain any mustard or eggs.  No celery, no onions, no pickles, no pickle juice either.  Of course I don’t have the actual recipe and have tried to locate it for years, as apparently many others have mentioned when I started a Google search recently.  Herman’s deli closed in the 1970’s and summer just wasn’t quite the same. 

After Herman’s closure we found Lucky grocery stores started selling “San Francisco-Style” Potato Salad in their delis.   If this wasn’t Herman’s original recipe it sure made a grand attempt.  Once I moved to Washington State I was relegated to getting my potato salad fix every few years when I returned home to the Bay Area and headed straight for a Lucky’s store.  But I still longed for a solid recipe I could follow and am not one to give up easily.  In 2004 I contacted the Food Editor at the SF Chronicle and asked for help in finding the recipe – she kindly wrote a plea to the masses, but no luck there either.   Then a few weeks ago I decided to contact Lucky’s and see if I could at least get the ingredients that are listed on the Nutritional Fact tag.  They say timing is everything, and my timing was obviously wackado, as Lucky’s had decided to discontinue the product as of this March, after carrying it for about 37 years – what bad luck! 

I regrouped and started calling the various Lucky stores located in Northern California in hopes someone would either look up the manufacturer of the product so I could call them, or give me the list of ingredients.   I won’t go into details here, but I spent the better part of half a day trying to speak with someone even remotely interested in helping me out, but that unfortunate experience is for another blog.  Note to Lucky’s stores (which are owned by Save Mart), in the spirit of Julia Roberts getting poor customer service on Rodeo Drive in Pretty Woman:  big mistake – Big – HUGE!  Just sayin’ – now I feel better.

So back to square one, but more determined than ever to figure this out.  I had the basics of the recipe from years of taste testing it myself but couldn’t figure out that secret ingredient.  But maybe it isn’t a missing ingredient after all, but rather a particular step in the preparation of the salad?  Maybe?

Back to reading blogs to see if that will reveal anything – Chowhound has the most and best comments, either describing their remembrance of this salad and/or how to prepare it, or what they felt was that elusive ingredient.  Some of the comments are quite hilarious. And here is where I think I have finally figured it out.  Yay!

It’s all in the vinegar!  While I have always added vinegar to my potato salad, as my Mother taught me – I apparently don’t use enough.  Her technique was to lay your fingers across the top of the bottle opening (using Heinz White Distilled Vinegar), and then lightly shake the vinegar over the potatoes.  This gave the salad a bit of vinegar, but not the “bite” or “punch” that I feel my recipe lacks.  Not to be outdone I searched for the right vinegar technique, and lo and behold, there actually is one.

Follow the recipe below and I think you will find this to be a very good rendition of what is referred to as Herman’s Potato Salad.

Ingredients:

2 pounds white new potatoes

1/4 cup white distilled vinegar – Heinz brand if you have it

Fresh curly parsley – finely chopped

3/4 of a carrot – grated

3/4 cup sour cream

1/4 cup Best Foods Mayonnaise

1/8 tsp. celery seed

1/8 tsp. onion powder

1/4 tsp. salt

Method:

1. Peel potatoes, slice into thin pieces, and place potatoes into a large pot of cold water.  Bring to a boil and then turn down the heat and simmer for 20 minutes until cooked, but not mushy.

2. Drain potatoes and spread out on platter – let them cool for about 5 minutes.  While still warm, add salt, onion powder, and here is the “secret” – drizzle the 1/4 cup of white vinegar over the potatoes – they need to be warm when you do this.   Leave them out for another 10 minutes while the vinegar soaks in and then place in bowl and refrigerate.

3.  While the potatoes are chilling in the refrigerator you make the dressing.

4.  Combine the sour cream, mayonnaise, celery seed (I crush this as I am adding to the dressing), grated carrot and the parsley.   I use Italian parsley for almost all my cooking, with the exception of potato salad, where I use the old-fashioned Curly Parsley.

5.  Once the potatoes are cold, add the dressing, gently mix it with potatoes and then chill overnight before serving so all flavors blend.

I hope Herman would think I nailed it – and be happy his recipe lives on.  For those of you familiar with Herman’s’ Potato Salad I would be interested in knowing if you think I have captured the essence of this wonderful potato salad.   And if you have the original recipe, or one you feel is closer to Herman’s or Lucky’s, please leave a comment with your suggestions – it will be greatly appreciated by me and others!

Serves:  8

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57 Comments

  1. Tim K says:

    Thanks Claire,

    I recently found Will’s SF Potato Salad at Sprouts in AZ. Maybe you have a Sprouts in your area.

    • Al linder in roseville ca says:

      Sprouts only carry their own brand now (looked April 2013). Did not want to try. Not sure what to do now. Only one here eating the salad.

      • Claire D says:

        Al – follow my recipe; make the salad – you will think Herman is in your kitchen and made it for you! You can do this!

      • Jillian says:

        Sprouts disconitued the S.F Potato Salad. not sure if it was all stores but Sacramento, CA doesnt have it. i will def be trying this that was my FAV!!!!

      • Barbara Bauer says:

        I think I mentioned last year that you can get San Francisco style potato salad at Costco and Mollie Stone’s. Wish I had tried Herman’s…we had Knudsen’s (see comment about that with link).

  2. Claire D says:

    Thanks Tim. We don’t have Sprouts but have heard Will’s SF Potato Salad has same flavors as Herman’s – I may just have to do a little shopping online!

    • Kathryn Taras says:

      Sprouts attempts but does not achieve a good SF potato salad. Their vinegar is all wrong. Costco used to carry a great brand but what they carry now is mediocre. Trying your recipe this weekend!

  3. paul rogers says:

    Hi Claire, your recipe is a very close approximation of Herman’s recipe, however, he did put thinly sliced radish in as well (I grew up a few blocks from the deli)! The potatoes were cut as if scalloped, he definitely used white vinegar, and the binder was primarily sour cream. Well done! Paul

    • Claire D says:

      Thanks Paul – I never would have guessed the radish – that is so helpful to know. Looks like I will be making potato salad this weekend with radishes in tow. Thanks!!

  4. Sharon says:

    The Will’s brand San Francisco Potato Salad sold by Costco has eggs. It is not the good stuff!

  5. Tim K says:

    The ingredients of Will’s according to the label at Sprouts is: Potatoes, mayo, water, sugar, onions, carrots, salt, white vinegar, parsley, soybean oil, xanthan gum, potassium sorbate (preservative), “spice” and garlic. The label says it contains egg, but that may be in the mayo.

    The Will’s does have a definite mayo taste, so adding sour cream would lessen that I guess. Which makes sense because I have never, especially as a kid, liked mayo.

  6. W.M. says:

    I purchased “Will’s SF Potato Salad” (no it’s not me) yesterday at Sprout’s Farmers Market in Phoenix. While there is a familiarity to the flavor, I don’t think it has enough of the “bite” from the white vinegar…perhaps from using too little? Anyway I intend to make a batch from your recipe here, but I may try cooking the potatoes whole as is usual in many other recipes as I think it somehow preserves more of the natural flavor of the potato. I’ll just have to take extra care not to overcook them. I do want to thank you for your time and hard work in bringing this recipe back to all of us who delighted in enjoying Herman’s all those years ago and for posting the update on our Western Neighborhoods Project message board. A happy 4th of July to you and all!

  7. Claire D says:

    Tim,
    Thanks for taking the time to share the ingredients label for Will’s – appreciated!

  8. Claire D says:

    W.M
    It was fun trying to recreate the recipe – hope you try it soon. Let me know how it goes with cooking potatoes first. I don’t have much luck cooking potatoes first – my potato salad turns to mashed potatoes when I slice em after cooking. Hope you have a wonderful 4th too and thanks for visiting my site.

  9. Richard T says:

    San Francisco Style potato salad is available a a couple of markets in Marin County. (United Markets and Mollie Stones) I asked a deli clerk if they made it, and he said that all of their potato salads were made by Home Maid Ravioli Company. So it is probably available from other stores too? Look at: http://www.homemaidravioli.com/homehistory/productsservices.html

    Tastes just like Hermann’s to me! My dad uesd to take me there as a kid, and I remember that they would give you Two Dollar bills in change if you asked for them. I still have one!

    I do plan to try your recipe too.

    • Claire D says:

      Thanks Richard. You have just made some of the locals very happy with this information!

      • Richard T says:

        There apparently is another source for S F Potato Salad! Check out WILL’S FAMILY FAVORITES, in San Leandro CA. Their list of ingredients is different that your recipe though. They also include, high fructose corn syrup, whole egg, mustard bran, lemon juice, sugar and garlic. These added to the items in your recipe. I found an old container in my basement, and looked on line to find that they are still in business.

  10. Josh says:

    I cant wait to try this. The Savemart in Seaside, CA had this when I was living there, and when we got stationed elsewhere I missed it more than anything else about California.

  11. Mario Grillo says:

    Yes Claire, my father would take me to Hermanns. I remember the potatoes would be more solid and “scallop” styled and not approaching mashed ,but that happens to potatoes hehe.

  12. Mr Oh says:

    I love potato salad and have never tried it made this way before, so I must try it! Thanks for the follow. I look forward to reading more of your delicious blog. Rob :)

  13. cindy knoke says:

    I love this recipe detective story! Great, as well as the recipe itself!

  14. Laurie says:

    The addition of carrots sounds like a good idea.

  15. Can’t resist a good potato salad! thanks.

  16. This is a great recipe, I love potato salad and there are so many variations. I make so many different kinds and always add a little vinegar, I usually use apple cider instead of distilled it adds a touch of sweetness. I really love the addition of carrots, I have never tried that and it sounds great.

  17. Greg Pabst says:

    I was a pup Ad Man in 1973/4 and working for a small Ad Agency at 4444 Geary. Most media salesmen – who were used to working with pups like me – were used to taking my downtown peers to the Redwood Room, the Tonga Room or the Leopard Cafe, etc.
    Meanwhile, I was stationed only yards away from Herman’s and could get sales types to drop the puffery and “let’s do business.” I made deals over Hermans Potato Salad, and I was sure the cost of the lunch plus the Potato Salad (and the great sandwiches) was why my negotiations went better than others.
    My boss agreed.
    I am – after a 30 year of Advertising in San Francisco – now teaching advertising at USF and am not too working not too far from 4444 Geary and wish that Herman’s potato salad had lasted longer.

    • Claire D says:

      Greg – thanks for commenting and sharing your story – it was delightful! I can totally relate and love that you feel your negotiation power increased when you did business over Hermans Potato Salad. I had a similar routine and would take clients in the 1980’s to a tiny sandwich shop at Stanford Shopping Center. They made an amazing pastrami sandwich with horseradish dressing on a Kaiser Roll that had been dipped in au just. I conducted my best negotiation in a 12 year hotel sales career over this sandwich with a well-known East Coast football team that was looking for a hotel to stay in for a week during the playoffs with the 49ers. Just when I thought I was ready for the “close”, the travel manager said “this is the most incredible pastrami sandwich I have ever eaten, and could we ask them to wrap up another one “to go”. The topic immediately switched from football to food for the next 20 minutes, and I was certain I had just blown my opportunity to ask for the business, when he reached across the table and said “hand me that contract and let’s get this underway”. Always loved pastrami sandwiches from that day forward!

  18. Barbara Bauer says:

    I love the San Francisco Potato salad at Molly Stone’s (I grew up in LA so didn’t experience Will’s). You can also buy San Francisco style potato salad at Costco in (of course) huge tubs. All that said, it all tastes identical to a recipe developed at Knudsen Creamery in LA (I had several family members who worked there plus Knudsen and my great uncle were childhood best friends in Denmark). They had the recipe years ago in their share holders cook book and they sold it in supermarkets for years along with macaroni salad. The patents were sold after Knudsen died and most, but not all are now held by Kraft foods. A bit of trivia…Knudsen invented the process for cottage cheese so it would stay stable (Kraft has that patent too).

    • Claire D says:

      Thanks for the info, very interesting. I wonder if the shareholders cookbook is somehow available (maybe through Archives). Thanks for visiting my site Barbara!

  19. Jeff hanna says:

    Interesting to discover the origin of “San Francisco Style” potato salad, which I’ve been buying for several years at Sprouts in Southern Ca. and at an “upscale” market in Fresno. Also interesting that your delicious-sounding recipe calls for much more Sour Cream than Mayonnaise. I trust that you’ve got it right and can’t wait to make it.

    Awhile back I tried, like you, to track down a recipe for a superb and long-remembered potato salad, this one from Brink’s Delicatessen in Santa Barbara, which I discovered had closed long ago. An unusual characteristic of their version was that half of the potatoes in the salad were mashed.

    • Claire D says:

      Thanks for your comment Jeff. Until I did my research I never added any sour cream to my potato salad, but it really does taste very similar to the potato salad I was trying to replicate. How interesting that your favorite version had mashed potatoes – not something I would have ever thought of. If you make the recipe, let me know what you think. Thanks for visiting my site!

  20. Debbie Bueler says:

    I just brought the Wills Potato Salad yesterday and it is not the same any more. That good old San Francisco Style is gone, I was sad, anyway I will also be out looking for that Potato Salad, since I am other girl who grew up in San Francisco and loved Hermann’s Potato Salad!!!! Will let you know what I find…

  21. Linda T says:

    Herman is my great uncle. Unfortunately I don’t have the recipe. I’m making your recipe today and taking it to my parent’s for my dad’s 84th birthday. He remembers the potato salad well. I’ll let you know what he thinks. I know I should let it set overnight but I didn’t have time for that. If there are any leftovers I will taste it again tomorrow.

    • Claire D says:

      Linda,

      I am so excited that you found my recipe and that you are related to Herman. I hope your Dad liked it – will really want to know if he thinks it tastes like the original. Hope you saw that I did an updated version which includes radishes. Would never have added that ingredient if a reader hadn’t mentioned that he knew that was part of the recipe. Will be very excited to hear from you after your Dad’s birthday!

      Thanks for stopping by and sharing your comment!

  22. Linda T says:

    Claire, How much parsley? I think I may have used too much. Too soon to tell though.

  23. tony rose says:

    Wasn’t it “Hermann’s” (2 n’s)? Lowell’58

  24. Herman Voss says:

    I am Herman, named after the Potato Salad and Deli..my Dad in1920 was on
    Fillmore St., then California St, then across Geary two blocks North of 4228
    Where it stayed 1933-1985. President Hoover, Governors Pat & Jerry Brown,
    Senator D. Feinstein lived near and were also customers. No Radishes were
    Used in Salad..twice, dishonest workers tried to steal the receipe but did not
    Last on market long. Glad to read of those being happy with their attemps.
    One was correct, the method of applying ingrediants are very important. That
    Is all I will say until one of our offspring decide to try 12 hour days at that.

    • Claire D says:

      Thank you so much Herman for your comment – I am delighted you read my post about your father’s potato salad as it was truly one of the best potato salads of all time. I will remove the radishes from the recipe immediately – was never quite comfortable adding it, but thought it helped to make the recipe taste close to yours. Now I will have to continue to investigate that one elusive ingredient that makes it taste like your father’s recipe. I totally understand your not wanting to share the recipe, but please, please, please nudge your offspring to take the challenge and give your fans (and you know there are many) what they want – your potato salad! You/they would make a fortune!

  25. W.M. says:

    Last year I posted the idea of cooking the potatoes whole prior to slicing…an idea I still stick by. One method I came across to best avoid overcooking them is to steam cook the whole potatoes until tender yet firm (this was from a post I read on another blog site from someone who worked at Herb’s Deli on Taraval St). When I tried this method out, I kept a close eye on them and tested their doneness by simply pinching them (quickly) with my fingers. The end result was minimal “mashed” potatoes that peeled and sliced easily after cooling enough to handle (a quick submersion into an “ice bath” would work well for this).

    Now for an updated idea using today’s technology if you are more pressed for time would be to cook the whole potatoes in a microwave until the same firm/tender state is reached. I haven’t yet tried this method for your potato salad recipe, but I have done this for other dishes including a variation I sometimes use for preparing hash browns.

    Obviously cooking times are depending largely on the size of potatoes and how many you are cooking, but I started testing for doneness after about 30 minutes while using the steaming method and about every 5 minutes after that.

    I do have to say that I had an amazingly tasteful flavor from the past with the guidance of your recipe (I never follow exact, but close for this one. Oh, one shortcut I took was to not bother peeling the radishes. I really don’t think it would make much difference either way. Again I thank you for all your experimenting to find such a great recipe.

    • Claire D says:

      Thank you for your comment. I have not had much success with slicing the potatoes after cooking but think it’s good to give people options – and like your idea about the microwave. I am glad to hear your taste buds had a blast from the past – just wish we had the real recipe. See comment from Herman Voss, as he is the real deal.

      • Joyce says:

        You can definitely pick up San Francisco Potato Salad at Piazza’s Fine Foods, corner of Middlefield Rd/Charleston Ave in Palo Alto. I just picked up a pint last week (1/10/2014). I used to live in Palo Alto but can’t get there often enough so delighted to find this recipe.

  26. jud says:

    Hi Claire.

    I grew up on 7th between California and Lake back in the 50s and 60s (GWHS 66). I still think the deli on Clement between 7th and 8th Avenues and Herman’s made the best potato salad, both salads were German-style, but a little different from each other. Personally, I think it is a draw when it comes to which was THE Best. I’ve been trying to recreate the other potato salad on and off for decades, and now I think the OTHER world’s best potato salad can be made by folks who use my recipe:
    Potato Salad–San Francisco Clement Street Deli Style

    Original recipe makes 6 to 8 servings

    3 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes
    1/4 cup grated onion
    2 teaspoons salt
    1/4 cup, plus more to taste, mayonnaise
    1/4 cup vegetable oil
    1/2 cup rice vinegar
    1 tablespoons white sugar
    1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
    ground black pepper to taste

    Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add potatoes; cook until tender but still firm, about 15 minutes.

    Drain. As soon as the potatoes are cool enough to handle, remove skin by holding them in a towel and using the towel to rub off the skins. Cut into 3/4 inch dice and put in a large bowl.

    In a large bowl, whisk together the oil, vinegar, sugar, onions, salt and pepper until the sugar and salt is dissolved and vinaigrette is emulsified. Gently stir it into the potatoes. Refrigerate for an hour. Gently stir in 1/4 cup mayonnaise and parsley. Taste, add more mayo if desired and adjust seasoning.

    Let me know what you think. You would be doing me a solid if you knew the name of that old and apparently most forgotten Clement St. Deli. Enjoy!

    Jud

    • Claire D says:

      Jud, I can appreciate your effort in spending decades trying to recreate the OTHER best potato salad as I did the same for Herman’s! So am posting your recipe here in the Comments section but would like to post your recipe as a future blog too on my site, since Potato Salad recipes are so in demand. Do you have a photo of the prepared potato salad? Your recipe looks really good and I am curious about your addition of Rice Vinegar – I may try substituting that in my own recipe and see how it enhances the flavors.

      • jud says:

        Claire,
        I’ve used white, cider, wine or rice vinegar for pasta and potato salads over the years, depending on what flavor I want to impart. Personally, (and hey, doesn’t everyone seem to have a specific potato salad that is their favorite?) for German style, I favor the clean, sharp flavor and mild bite of rice vinegar – you can add enough to get strong flavor without an overwhelming acidic bite. Over the years I’ve modified many recipes by substituting rice for another kind of vinegar. One example: we like to make a salad out of fresh orange segments, sliced red onion, and sliced avocado with butter lettuce. To dress it, we make a orange vinaigrette with grapeseed oil, rice vinegar, minced shallots, orange juice and grated zest and a little simple syrup. The orange flavor really comes through because it isn’t hidden by stronger flavors.

        Sorry, no photos. I cook, eat, and talk about food, and that is enough.

        Do you recall the name of the Clement St. deli I refer to? If not, maybe Herman would remember? Anyway, would love to give an attribution to the deli in my recipe title for being such an inspiration.

        I’ll be interested to hear if the OTHER “San Francisco’s best” potato salad reminds you of a p.s. you may have purchased from a Richmond Dist. deli other than Herman’s, which by the way was indeed a great deli. A cousin made one like this in another German style deli she and her husband ran on Geary St. (and maybe 18th Ave. or so) back in the ’50s), and I think there were others as well.

        One other question you or one of your blog readers may have the answer to: the Clement St. deli my family shopped at, and maybe Herman’s, sold thin slices of a German sausage that my grandmother called “mettwurst”. it looked like genoa salami but had a very different unique flavor. Any idea what that sausage was? It was great by itself on a slice of fresh Larabarue Sourdough. I’d even consider mail-ordering it if I knew what it was.

  27. jud says:

    Hi Claire.

    I just found out the name of the Clement St. deli I refer to in my recipe above–it was the California Delicatessen. So the name of my dish is now Potato Salad –California Delicatessen Style

  28. Barbara Bauer says:

    Claire: copies of really old cookbooks from Knudsen (my mother is 89 and she remembers the recipe being different but can’t remember in what way. I don’t remember the egg)
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/34370769@N07/7061638221/in/set-72157629778485375

    • Claire D says:

      Barbara, thank you for visiting the site and sharing your Knudsen recipe – it is very similar! I don’t think there was any egg in Herman’s either.

    • Barbara Bauer says:

      I actually just read all of the other recipes…talk about time traveling. When was the last time you were tempted to add canned chipped beef to a salad? The shrimp salad sounds just like something you could have at Fifth Ave in the lunch room watching fashion shows (my grandmother would take me…I loved the way the clothes looked and the models softly saying things like “sports wear, fourth floor”)

  29. Shirley says:

    We live on Ft Ord in Seaside, Ca and I love the San Francisco style potato salad they sell in the commissary. If Josh ever had it from there this recipe is just like the one in the store! I am making it now for a father’s day picnic tomorrow!

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