By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 1998 Gourmet Magazine
Steamy hot, soft and supple, perfumed by spice and smoke, pastrami is the most voluptuous of delicatessen meats. You might find a counterman who will cut it lean if you insist, but that’s as much a crime against taste buds as carrot sticks instead of peanuts at cocktail hour. The only pastrami worth sandwiching in slabs of crusty fresh rye bread is pastrami that is heavily infused with the deep succulence that animal fat alone supplies.
Tasty pastrami can be found in almost any American city with a population of Romanian-ancestored Jews; but for the very best, there is only one place to go: New York. Here is exquisite meat, cured and smoked by experts, served with all the fixings that vintage Jewish restaurants offer, including pickles as sour as the beleaguered waiters who lug the thick crockery plates of food from the meat counter to the tables.
New York has many Jewish delis that do it right, some strictly kosher (no dairy products are served), some “kosher style”; most have the familiar long glass counter where smoked fish are displayed and meats are sliced. We recently visited four favorites, each a very different sort of place, but every one an exemplary purveyor of that ultimate deli indulgence, a hot pastrami sandwich.
The oldest—since 1888—is the wonderful and exasperating KATZ’s of the Lower East Side. Signs outside advertise WURST FABRIC (an Americanization of a Yiddish term for “homemade sausage”) and offer an enigmatic boast: KATZ’S—THAT’S ALL! (In the early 1900s, when Benny Katz was asked by the signmaker what he wanted painted on the sign to go outside his deli, he replied, “Katz’s. That’s all.” And that’s exactly what he got.) Inside the eccentric culinary landmark is a cacophony of shouted orders and clattering carving knives, all swirling through a high-ceilinged eating hall festooned with odoriferous garlicky salamis and pictures of happy celebrity customers ranging from comics Jerry Lewis and Henny Youngman to politician Charles Rangel and former police commissioner Raymond Kelly.
For a greenhorn, merely getting food can be an adventure. Ordinary table service by waiters is available, and quite easy. But that is the coward’s way. To earn your stripes at Katz’s you must personally engage wits with a counterman. Here’s how: When you enter, you are given a little ticket by a gatekeeper at a turnstile. It is then your job to go to the nose-high counter and try to make eye contact with one of the white-aproned carvers who are busy slicing meats and making sandwiches behind the glass. Once you’ve obtained his attention, be quick and tell him what you want: pastrami, corned beef, or brisket on rye or on a club roll. Not one of these guys would win a Mr. Congeniality contest, but consider yourself lucky if your man happens to be Krinsky, a professional sourpuss who has been slicing meats at Katz’s counter since the days of the Pharaohs. Ask Krinsky for white bread (there is none) or a little mayonnaise for your sandwich (it’s hidden away), and he will go into a Kabuki-like routine of dramatic sighs and eye rolling that makes it clear he can barely live through another moment of your benightedness.
“Where are you from?!” Krinsky barks when, just to yank his chain, we ask him to explain the difference between corned beef and pastrami. (Pastrami is beef that is cured in brine—i.e., corned—then spiced and smoked.) Instead of answering with words, which would pain him too greatly, he takes his carving knife and in about .75 second lops off a slice of each and forks them over the counter for us to taste.
When the meat is cut (all by hand, of course) and the sandwich assembled, it is plated with a pickle. The counterman then uses a grease pencil to mark its cost on the ticket you received on the way in. You carry the plate and ticket to the far end of the counter for French fries or a Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray soda or to the near end for an egg cream, where the ticket is marked up accordingly by the staff. Now carry your food to a table and feast. Pay when you are finished, on the way out.
Even if you don’t enjoy the attitude (we find it fun, as if Don Rickles had become a restaurant), all is forgiven when you heft a Katz’s pastrami sandwich: some three quarters of a pound of meat, expertly severed into pieces so chunky that the word “slice” seems too light-weight to describe them. Each brick-red, glistening hunk is rimmed black, redolent of garlic, smoke, and pickling spices, as savory as food can be.
“We go through five thousand pounds of pastrami every week,” says Alan Dell, one of the owners, who happens to stroll by our table and stop when he sees us beaming with joy over how delicious his sandwiches are. Apparently, our rapture is so audible that he says, “What, you’re not sitting at the When Harry Met Sally table?” and points to the one at which actress Meg Ryan did her show-stopping scene while eating Katz’s food. “You know, I counted: Billy Crystal ate six pastrami sandwiches when they filmed that,” Mr. Dell reports. “And between sandwiches, he was at the counter eating hot dogs.” (Although we missed Meg and Billy’s table, we did manage to secure seats at the one where a hand-lettered sign advises: YOU ARE SITTING AT THE TABLE WHERE VICE-PRES. GORE AND THE PRIME MINISTER OF RUSSIA HAD THEIR DELI SUMMIT LUNCH.)
Mr. Dell, wearing a Katz’s souvenir shirt that implores SEND A SALAMI TO YOUR BOY IN THE ARMY, engages us in a Socratic dialogue about pastrami’s roots.
“Who invented it?” he asks.
“Romanians,” we say—the traditional history-book answer.
“Pickling and smoking are ways of preserving meat without refrigeration.” Again, we give the standard explanation. “Aha!” he says, raising a forefinger in the air. “Who else preserved meat that way? Who else didn’t have refrigerators?”
We are stumped.
“Indians!” he says. “That’s the new twist. They invented pastrami, long before Romanian Jews came to America.” As we marvel at the theory, Mr. Dell adds in a low voice, “Of course, they had no rye bread or pickles.” He then seamlessly segues into a monologue about all the T.V. shows and movies that have come to Katz’s because it offers such a colorful slice of city life. Before strolling away to educate other customers, he offers a grand finale to his recitation: “If it’s New York you want, Katz’s is the spot!”
Years ago, when Hollywood super-agent Joan Hyler used to represent the likes of us, she took us to lunch at FINE & SCHAPIRO. She had the chicken in the pot (a soup/stew of grandmotherly succor); we had pastrami and corned beef with bowls of matzo ball soup on the side. We fell in love with Fine & Schapiro, and it wasn’t only because the food was good. The place itself—strictly kosher—is the quintessential Upper West Side neighborhood deli. No Lower East Side commotion here; instead, a radio tuned to a soporific lounge-singer station provides mood music to aid digestion. The unflappable waitresses are never aggressively smiley but they might worry out loud if you don’t finish all your sandwich, and some fuss over regulars as if they were their own children. A gentleman, for example, walks in the door, and before he’s seated his gal has a turkey drumstick on a plate at his usual table. At lunchtime, several booths are occupied by elderly people in the company of caretakers.
Even the pastrami sandwich expresses this restaurant’s gentle personality. The meat packs all the proper wallop—it’s well-spiced and lusciously fatty, served fresh-cut and piping hot—but is not piled ridiculously high the way some other show-off delis do it. This is a sandwich you can pick up and eat without too much spillage—nice and normal, the Fine & Schapiro way.
Most Jewish delis in New York serve Hebrew National–brand pastrami, which can vary from decent to delicious, depending on how it is stored and steamed and sliced. At PASTRAMI KING in Queens, they cure and smoke their own. What a difference that makes! Pastrami King pastrami is dark red, deeply smoky with a complex fragrance, ultra-lean, and fall-apart tender.
“We use no chemicals and no salt, but herbs and much garlic,” is all co-owner Joy Harrison will reveal about the racy spice mix, in which the cut that kosher butchers know as deckle spends at least three weeks before it is smoked. The result is pastrami that has won the loyalty of judges and juries from the courthouse across Queens Boulevard and of travelers who call to have it delivered to the Long Island airports as they leave New York. “I ship to dignitaries around the world,” Joy boasts. “To Los Angeles and Israel and to the Hotel de Paris in Monaco. Now they want us to bring our pastrami to Japan. But how could we make sure they serve it right?”
Joy is a pastrami maven, having grown up in Forest Hills, Queens, eating Pastrami King food all her life. When the opportunity arose to buy the old deli in 1994, she and partner (also son-in-law) Gary Zinger gave it a makeover in a style that might be called Deli Deco, replacing hoary bas reliefs of Hebrew kings with an etched-glass mural of Mount Rushmore in which the four presidents are licking their lips, in anticipation of eating. Despite modernization of the dining room, no shortcuts were attempted with the old ways of preparing pastrami, a topic on which Joy holds forth with the faith and conviction of a rabbi interpreting the Old Testament. The first thing she’ll talk about is temperature. “You want meat so tender that it melts,” she says. “For that, it must be served hot-hot.” Furthermore, she discloses, if you really want to indulge your appetite, you must have the meat hand-sliced. Ordinarily, Pastrami King uses a machine, resulting in neat slices that fit well between slabs of bread. But if you request it the pastrami will be cut by hand into thicker pieces—less wieldy, but juicier, more intensely flavorful, and sensuously hunky. To cut it so is not a job for amateurs. “Bob, who does our hand-slicing, has been in the business twenty-five years,” Joy says. “And Gary does a gorgeous job, too. That is the right way, that is the only way—hand-sliced, pink and hot, and falling apart in your mouth.”
Across Seventh Avenue from Carnegie Hall, your waitress at CARNEGIE DELICATESSEN & RESTAURANT may or may not allow you to order your pastrami hand-sliced. It depends on her mood and your resolve. Insist on it, and if she isn’t too crabby she will secure what you want from the expert carvers at the counter—a magnificent sandwich. Machine-sliced sandwiches at the Carnegie are pretty astounding in their own right—so tall that the top piece of rye bread appears to be merely an afterthought applied to the tower of meat. This is a sandwich that is difficult to eat the ordinary way, by picking it up in your hands and taking a bite; instead, many customers go at it piece-by-shred, directly from the plate. The hand-sliced version is a tad smaller-looking but no easier to eat, for it is a crazy, steaming-hot jumble of little nuggets, long flaps, chewy morsels, and supple shreds, all fatty enough so your fingers glisten as you pick. To accompany this plate of luscious meat and bread, the Carnegie supplies perfect puckery accoutrements—half-sour and sour dills and pickled green tomatoes.
The pickles and tomatoes are arrayed in silver bowls on long shared tables where strangers are crowded elbow-to-elbow as in a school cafeteria. Forget privacy and peace and quiet when you sit down here; a Carnegie meal is a down-to-earth communal experience shared by blasé regulars, wide-eyed tourists, and lots of show-biz celebrities (whose pictures line the walls). It is a madhouse, so noisy that conversations must be bellowed, meaning everybody hears what you have to say.
“Today I saw the doctor,” shouts the little old lady sitting near us to her friend across the table. The sparrow-size woman actually has to crane her head high to see over the monument of hand-sliced pastrami combined with about an inch-and-a-half of chopped liver sandwiched in rye. “His office is nearby. I make my appointment in the morning so I can come here when I’m through.” She expertly hefts half of the mighty sandwich in her two tiny hands, inhaling steam wafting up from the warm pink meat. Before taking that first delicious bite, she proclaims loud and clear: “First I have my treatment…then I have my treat!”
Carnegie Delicatessen & Restaurant (permanently closed)
854 Seventh Avenue
Fine & Schapiro
Pastrami King (new location)