The following 1,500 or so words, dear reader, are meant as an ode to the pastrami sandwich and to the lusty delights that have made it, and other deli favorite, corned beef, icons of the New York Jewish delicatessen. Because it is a New York story, you will not read about fried chicken, tacos, or cheesesteaks. Rather than waste words on history (such as pastrami having originated in Romania), I focus on the aroma, flavor, texture, and overall opulence that keep it popular with hearty eaters and why it is enjoying a high-fashion appeal, appearing seemingly everywhere these days.
This, even as we are told to eat less fat and less meat. And never mind the soaring beef prices that have upped the retail ante. That is especially true of cuts such as navel, which is brined, then spiced, smoked, and steamed for pastrami, and the adjoining brisket, which is simply brined and steamed to emerge as corned (pickled) beef. Ready to open mouths wider than Mother Nature ever intended, countless native New Yorkers and deli-starved tourists line up daily for towering rye-bread sandwiches bulging with layers of pastrami that might weigh half a pound (Pastrami Queen, $16.50), three-quarters of a pound (Katz’s Delicatessen, $19.75), or a rousing one pound (Carnegie Deli, $17.99)—those being my three favorite New York pit stops, each for a different reason. (While in Los Angeles, I try not to miss the perfect specimens at Langer’s (704 S. Alvarado St.; 213-483-8050; langersdeli.com), where even the rye bread outshines New York’s.)
In fact, right now, pastrami enjoys such lofty culinary status that its spicy cure is used for many other foods, allowing them to be labeled pastrami something. Cases in point: salmon, chicken, duck, venison, tofu, celery root, and a garden of other vegetables to lure the vegan.
Hugely overstuffed with rolled bundles or crisscross layerings of garnet-red fat-laced beef encrusted with peppercorns, the pastrami sandwich represents food porn at its most lascivious. It affords sensuous pleasure, first with its tantalizing smoky, pungent aroma, then with its contrasting textures as it is gnawed, bitten, and chewed through: the moist, slightly tangy sour rye bread with its fresh-air scent of caraway contrasting with the tender, yielding beef accented by yellow or brown deli mustard. Dijon need not apply. Magically most finish this monumental creation, while the more abstemious share or take a half home. “Not only do most eat the entire sandwich,” reports Jake Dell, the fifth-generation owner of Katz’s Delicatessen (205 E. Houston St.; 212-254-2246; katzsdelicatessen.com), “but real New Yorkers—not tourists—usually have a hot dog on the side, often while waiting for the sandwich to be made at the self-service counter.”
For an inspiring pastrami or corned beef sandwich, every element has to be perfect. First, of course, is the meat. Both should be served hot and are usually available in three or four varying degrees of fattiness. Those who order extra lean or lean are kidding themselves, as the meat lacks the supple melting quality that releases flavor. In the words of the late Leo Steiner, one of the guiding hands behind the Carnegie Deli: “If you want lean, order turkey.” The best cuts are classified as regular or fatty, and I usually order a combination of those two. “But don’t say ‘fatty!’” admonishes Dell. “Say ‘juicy!’ ” (Alright, juicy.) For the most-rewarding mouthfuls, the meat should be hand-sliced as machines tend to smooth out the texture, and the slick result lacks the proper, slightly uneven bite. Katz’s hand-slices, as does Langer’s, while Pastrami Queen and Carnegie will do so if requested—so request it.
Bread must be fresh, moist, and eminently bitable and should not disintegrate as the sandwich is being negotiated. New York’s best option is standard at Pastrami Queen (1125 Lexington Ave.; 212-734-1500; pastramiqueen.com): Orwasher’s Bakery’s seeded rye—something Dell admits that he loves, but he doesn’t want Katz’s to pay the higher price that the bakery commands. Proper garnishes should include firm full-sour kosher-style dill pickles and pungent pickled jade-green tomatoes. Coleslaw has no place at all here, especially if dressed with mayonnaise.
Rather, order a side of cold sauerkraut. Full satisfaction also has a lot to do with atmosphere. (The notion of ambience is irrelevant.) The only setting in which a pastrami sandwich rings true for me is that of a typical New York deli (which, in appearance, Langer’s is, in L.A.): huge; hectic; headily aromatic with whiffs of spice, garlic, brine, and steamy beef; and alive with noisy voices shouting, demanding, complaining, kibitzing. Similarly there is the wild ballet of movement, from impatient customers on line to others cramped into shared tables and the comings and goings of waiters bearing monumental burdens. For the ultimate in atmosphere, it’s Katz’s all the way, with its daylong mobs and its reassuring ethnic mix. It’s diverting enough to make one forgive an occasional bit of sinew marring the bulging, gleaming, craftily constructed sandwich.
Smaller, more personal and restrained, Pastrami Queen, on the Upper East Side, is a class act even though it offers little comfort for eating within its tiny space. Yet the few tables are rarely empty at peak mealtimes. The reward here is what I have always considered the best-quality beef, both as pastrami and as succulent rose-pink corned beef, and the most meticulous craftsmanship. That plus the already mentioned rye bread and proper garnishes make this a supreme experience, albeit one that, though substantial, is less grossly gargantuan.
The Carnegie Deli (854 Seventh Ave.; 212-757-2245; carnegiedeli.com), close to the Theater District and temporarily closed as this goes to press, has a sentimental Broadway–Borscht Belt ring for me, probably because I recall midafternoon schmoozings with comedians such as the late Henny Youngman, who once announced, “The average age of the customers here is deceased!” To make the experience complete, there is the always juicy (I never say “fatty”) pastrami and corned beef and particularly refreshing cold sauerkraut.
So where does that leave the more recent, effete representations of these sandwiches now that they have become trendy? For lunch at the smartly tailored Lambs Club (132 W. 44th St.; 212-997-5262; thelambsclub.com), chef-restaurateur Geoffrey Zakarian offers a minimalist presentation of house-smoked American Beauty red pastrami on rye bread held together with, of all things, frilled toothpicks. Devotees do not seem to mind that the meat is a bit stiffly lean nor that the bread is grilled, giving it an intrusive grittiness against the meat. At $27 and modest in size, that sandwich might seem poor value compared to the delis’, but it includes a dazzlement of garnishes: a mildly flavored new-potato salad, chips of bread-and-butter pickles, very good warm red cabbage, overly sweet stewed onions, ancienne mustard with crushed seeds, a sort of mustardy mayonnaise. If it all comes without the drama, aroma, noise, and angst, the fans seem not to notice and perhaps find it easier to take.
Sadly corned beef ranks as an almost poor sister. “Almost” because each deli reported sales of that more delicately flavored beef to be about half of those of pastrami. Dell, at Katz’s, claims to sell 7 1⁄2 tons of pastrami a week against a not so mere 4 tons of corned beef. That, even though to many cognoscenti (myself included), corned beef is the elegant choice among New York deli meats and even more difficult than pastrami to find at its best.
It was corned beef that inspired the famed Reuben sandwich: a stack-up of thinly sliced beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and Russian dressing grilled on rye bread. At the moment, the Reuben du jour is the one that was re-designed by Ralph Lauren at his hot new horsey supper club, the Polo Bar (One E. 55th St.; 212-207-8562)—a svelte version much in the same minimalist spirit as the pastrami sandwich at the Lambs Club. Given the action at a busy dinnertime, Ralph’s corned beef sandwich seems to have become an instant hit with high-rolling patrons undaunted by the $24 tab. Roseate corned beef (somewhat too lean for rich flavor) is layered with Swiss cheese and Thousand Island dressing between grilled slices of marbled rye bread and somewhat awkwardly presented on a small wooden board. Nary a wisp of sauerkraut is in sight, but served on the side are horseradish coleslaw; slim fries (often limp); a sliver of bland half-sour pickle; a pretty, little silver bucket of ketchup; and, for a final, suitably plebeian touch, Gulden’s brown mustard.
Perhaps the biggest accolade accorded the time-honored pastrami is its power to inspire innovative chefs, such as Wylie Dufresne of Alder (157 Second Ave.; 212-539-1900; aldernyc.com), in the East Village. His deconstructed riff is a bowl of pasta that suggests a dream of a pastrami sandwich: silky caraway-flavored rye-flour noodles tossed with flecks of pastrami and pickled green tomatoes, glossed with a reassuring brassy hint of deli mustard with white wine—a pastrami sandwich for the molecular age.
Image Credit: © Marcus Nilsson