Pastrami…on the road

(Hey! Don’t start here!! Start with the first part of this article.

When we last met, we discussed the excellence of the pastrami sandwich available at Manhattan’s Second Avenue Deli and Katz’s. If you’ve let a week go by without one of their sandwiches, there’s still time to correct the error of your ways.

Once a familiar sign throughout the five boroughs (okay, maybe not Staten Island), the kosher delicatessen is becoming an endangered species. (Those three Hebrew letters, read from right to left, spell the word Kosher, but some also feature non-Kosher foods on the menu.)

With David Sax as our guide (see his book, Save the Deli), we first travel to the Bronx for “hush puppies”–little hot dogs wrapped in potato–at Liebman’s, which carries a full New York deli menu, and continues a generation-old tradition. It’s a neighborhood place, worth the easy trip from Manhattan. Then, not so far from Yankee Stadium, there’s Loeser’s, a comfy old fashioned place that David describes in his blog. In Queens, the queen is Ben’s (with restaurants on Long Island and Manhattan), but neighborhood places like Buddy’s remain.

Knishes from Knish Nosh in Queens (and now, in Manhattan, too!). They don’t get much better than this.

While in Queens, there is one place where you must eat. It’s called Knish Nosh (for the uninitiated: a Knish [KUH-nish] is a large baked dumpling, and Nosh is casual eating, nibbling–the noun form would be a nosh, and the verb form, noshing). Few may disagree, but this is probably the place to buy the best knishes in New York City (maybe even the world). Potato or kasha would be the purist’s choice, but mushroom, mushroom/carrot, sweet potato, and spinach would also score on a top knishes list. And–who knew?–there are now Knish Nosh outposts near Central Park and 106 Street, near CitiField (where the NY Mets play) around Flushing Meadow Park, and in Florida, too.

In Brooklyn, where there may have been as many kosher delis as churches, choices are few, but the few choices are good ones. There’s Adelman’s, a throwback to the era when Brooklyn might have been the center of the world, and here’s a rundown on the others–with pix of tasty sandwiches.

A good home-cured corned beef sandwich served in Newark, NJ at the long-running Hobby’s.

Across the Hudson, Hobby’s Deli is all that remains of a once-grand tradition in downtown Newark. It’s favored by the city’s power elite, quite the place to meet friends and business associates while enjoying a corned beef or pastrami sandwich. In northern New Jersey, it’s Eppes Essen in Livingston, and others celebrating the old style, often with a more generalized deli menu alongside the kosher favorites. Outside of NYC and its suburbs, demand is lower, so options are few. Philadelphia has Famous 4th Street, and Baltimore, Attman’s, where you can enjoy a terrific sandwich and then wander by the Inner Harbor or Fell’s Point, both nearby.

Old-style delis are famous for pastrami and corned beef, chicken soup and kneidlach (matzo balls), but there’s nothing quite like a kosher hot dog. In fact, there’s a wonderful category of Jewish sausages–frankfurters, “specials” (fat hot dogs), Kosher bologna, Kosher salami (soft or, for connoisseurs, the garlicky hard version). Here’s Nate N’ Al’s take on the simple dog.

For old-style New York City deli, however, you’ll need to follow the Jews to southern California. Nate n’ Al’s is the Beverly Hills institution–the place where Larry King and half of the entertainment industry seem to gather on a regular basis. The sandwiches are worth the trip (for years, my NYC-LA routine required lunch at Nate n’ Al’s immediately after landing at LAX). Here, the sandwiches are special, but it’s the chicken soup that reminds everyone of their bubba (translation from the Yiddish = grandma). Sax calls it “some of the finest chicken soup known to man–a wide bowl of silky broth dominated by a single, almost meaty matzo ball.” He also recommends the kishke (KISH-kuh) at Brent’s–a once-standard, now hard-to-find slice of Jewish sausage made by stuffing a cow’s intestine with matzo meal and schmalz (chicken fat); remember, all of this is based upon peasant food! (In fact, kishke is delicious, but only when freshly prepared; the frozen alternative is just awful.) One LA old-school favorite is found downtown, near the La Brea Tar Pits (no, it’s not that old): Langer’s. Here, it’s all about the perfect pastrami sandwich. Again, Sax:

How do you describe the taste of a perfect pastrami sandwich?…The specific flavor profile–at once peppery, smelling of the sea, and hinting of butterscotch–would sound contradictory and confusing. Any turn of phrase or illustrative metaphor–how the peppercorns and salt and sugars dazzled my taste buds like a Chinese New Year’s fireworks show going off in my mouth00would never measure up to the real thing. It is simply legendary…”

So it’s off to Las Vegas, where the casino outposts of the Carnegie and Stage Delis smell as sweet but taste nowhere near as good as the NY originals, and then, down the road to nearby Henderson, where New Jersey’s Michael Weiss takes the craft seriously, and “pickled his own corned beef and tongues, cured and smoked his own pastrami, and baked his own bread and pastry,” according to Sax. The result is deli magic. Deli done right. Worth a trip just to rediscover the roots of this fading cuisine. Houston is home to “a traditionalist succeeding jun a modern market”, Kenny and Ziggy’s, where “the giant noodle kugel [pudding] had the consistency of a soufflé.” Watch them on Food Network.

Outside the U.S., three delis belong on every foodie’s bucket list.

The first is Schwartz’s in Montreal, where the smoked meat sandwich more or less combines all that is sacred about corned beef and pastrami. Here, the spectacular sandwich begins as “raw brisket from Alberta” which is then “rubbed with a mixture of coarse salt, cracked peppercorns, and Schwartz’s special spice mix, which involves much less sugar than a New York style pastrami, with more pepper and fewer aromatic spices. Briskets are then cured in plastic barrels for a…week…ready to enter the smokehouse…stained with burnt fat and old spices…[where they] smoke for five to seven hours…” (While in Montreal, be sure to sample the uniquely sweet, smallish, delicious bagels from St. Viateur.

The second must-visit is to B&K Salt Beef Bar, home to “stupendous” chopped liver (made from ox, not chicken, as is the US tradition), followed by a sandwich of either hand-cut tongue or salted beef, cured for a remarkable two-and-a-half weeks. Both are made with good Scotch beef, and that makes all the difference.

The third diverges from the peasant food history. It’s located in Antwerp’s diamond district. Hoffy’s treats delicatessen as fine food, with small portion sizes (take that, Carnegie Deli!). Start with the pickles, which are always difficult to get right. In New York delis, the brine must contain the right balance of salt, dill, garlic, and other herbs and spices–otherwise, they just don’t taste like sour pickles or, with a different recipe, half-sours. Here at Hoffy’s, the focus is on the garlic, and the flavor soars. Meats are lean (never the case in a New York deli), extremely tender (similar to NY deli), and according to Sax, the best is the veal–a meat not often associated with NY deli–“creamy pink and tasted almost sweet.” Portions are small, and elegant: bite-sized portions of stuffed cabbage, gefilte fish, chopped liver, and apple kugel.

There are so many Jewish specialities, so many variations, such unique flavors and delicacies, each wrapped in years of tradition. Blintzes and lox, the bialy and the plateful of rugeluch; the mushroom barley soup and latkes. But the tradition is fading. The people who opened the delis came from an Eastern Europe that no longer exists. There will be no more Jews with the old traditions emigrating from Poland or Lithuania or the Ukraine. They’re gone. There are fewer Jewish neighborhoods to support the delis–the people who used to live, in great (but poor) communities, in Brooklyn or lower Manhattan now live with everybody else. The small delis can no longer support themselves–except in areas where the tradition lives strong, as it does, largely due to the Jewish show business community, in Los Angeles. And yet, this is a cuisine worth nurturing, worth embracing. How? I guess that’s why Sax calls his book Save the Deli! Without a concerted effort, the few remaining delis will be gone, and with them, a great cuisine may vanish, or, perhaps worse, may be reduced to Nathan’s hot dogs, Einstein’s bagels, and the occasional frozen knish.

Long may it wave! A corned beef sandwich from Attman’s in Baltimore, founded 1915. Will they survive the next 100 years?

A Nice Pastrami Sandwich…

It started in Poland. And Romania and Russia. And, of course, Germany. Two million Jews, long separated, settled in the US, many  in a small parcel of Manhattan known as the Lower East Side. They lived in tenements, they bought food from pushcarts. and in time, those pushcarts became markets and small sit-down restaurants.

A century later, not much remains. Except Katz’s, of course. The corner of Houston and Ludlow Streets has seen its share of changes–from a Jewish community to a dangerous place popular with drug addicts and ne’er-do-wells, to its modern incarnation as home to various dot.coms, NYU students, and those with enough money to live in the neighborhood. It’s the oldest deli in the country, and among the survivors. (Not a bad starting place: learn some Yiddish from Katz’s.)

Pastrami on rye from Katz’s on NYC’s lower east side. To the left, a half-sour pickle, and to the right, a sour pickle.

Like good barbecue (which uses similar cuts of beef, including the brisket and the navel), the proper preparation of pastrami requires a great deal of loving care. It’s dry-rubbed, then allowed to cure for as long as two weeks, then smoked for about five hours. It’s a costly process that involves a few dozen steps, some at the meat processor, more at the store. Most stores cut corners and buy meat injected with flavor. The best stores have their own processes, including the best way to cut the meat (always hand-cut, never by machine!) A good sandwich contains about a half pound of the succulent, slightly fatty, slightly salty, slight smoky red meat; a ridiculous sandwich, served, mostly, to tourists who now frequent Manhattan’s The Stage and the Carnegie Deli (both located between Times Square and Carnegie Hall), weighs a pound. (These are very smart, if very full, tourists. The pastrami at both the Stage and the Carnegie smells, and tastes, fabulous. But there is lot of it!)

Sadly, I’ve just named half of Manhattan’s Jewish delicatessens. In times past, New York’s kosher delis (not always completely kosher; times change), there were dozens. Now, there are a handful. All good. Some better than the best. Katz’s is in the better category, a definite must-do for visitors to Manhattan. Arguably, the reopened 2nd Avenue Deli is better still. There’s Artie’s on the upper west side. Sarge’s is a good neighborhood place (once, I sat next to Abbie Hoffman). On Manhattan’s upper east side, Pastrami Queen is another good choice. (Update: I recently tried Pastrami King in Merrick, on Long Island; it’s the newer version of the Queens, New York Pastrami King, and, to be honest, rather under-spiced, lightweight and devoid of interesting flavor—but the dining room was a white tablecloth design and sadly the deli sandwiches occupied a relatively small portion of the Pastrami King menu;; I’d give it a meh.)

Sliced pastrami from the reopened 2nd Avenue Deli in Manhattan. One of the world’s best, it rose from the ashes in 2007, and remains very popular in its new location on east 33rd street, a mile or two from the original lower east side site.

So what’s so special? Start with a good pastrami sandwich. The flavor is powerful, sweet and peppery, salty and smoky, a blend that smells wonderful and tastes even better–when the meat is prepared the right way, it’s over-the-top, or as Food Network’s Guy Fieri would say, “a one way trip to flavor town!” Pastrami can be eaten on a roll, but it is so much finer with good crusty Jewish rye bread (must be fresh). Many people insist upon a dark brown mustard (Gulden’s), but I’m not a fan. I do, however, insist upon both half-sour and sour pickles on the side. A proper pickle will make a cracking sound when you bite in, and will explode with some juice. The appropriate beverage accompaniment would be a (vanilla) cream soda or a black cherry soda, made by a long-time Brooklyn brand: Dr. Brown’s. If you’re a purist, Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray soda is an even better choice (it’s made with celery seeds). Dr. Brown’s soda is still independently made, and you can (and should) buy it in New York City and Florida grocery stores (or online).

Again, the source is 2nd Avenue Deli. In a kosher deli, these come from, just for sitting down at the table. In most places, you’ll get a small stack of sliced rye bread and maybe some cole slaw, too. BTW: the egg-shaped light-colored pickle is pickled plum tomato, a sure sign of a deli that knows what it’s doing.

Okay, back to the deli menu. For some, the powerful punch of pastrami is too much, so the fall-back choice is corned beef. This is not Irish corned beef, but it is similar. It’s salty and a bit smoky, but not peppery. It’s milder. It’s delicious–but beware of corned beef sold in places that are not serious about their pastrami. The result will be salty, but ordinary, just a wad a salted meat. Of course, you can go for roast beef or turkey (often freshly cut), and these are just fine, but not so different from what you will find elsewhere. Sometimes, you’ll find rolled beef (sort of a cross between pastrami and roast beef), and often, you’ll find tongue. Yes, cow’s tongue, sliced as deli meet. The tongue is cured, like corned beef, and it tastes great, but then, you find yourself thinking that you are eating a slice of a cow’s tongue, and well, pastrami may be an easier choice.

A good pastrami sandwich can be quite filling, not something you should enjoy alone. Bring a friend. That way, you can rationalize a side dish. And there is no better side dish than a potato knish (KUH-nish). It’s a fist-sized potato dumpling, filled with mashed potato, onion and spices, then baked in a very, very thin pastry shell. Actually, even better (and even more filling, a meal in itself) is the kasha knish. Kasha is a buckwheat groat, enjoyed either as a knish or as part of another deli favorite, kasha varnishkis (same kasha, this time with pasta bow ties and, in the best delis, a thin brown gravy).

The popular side dish–easy to make at home, in fact–Kasha Varnishkes as served, perfectly, at 2nd Avenue Deli. Click on the pic for lots more images of menu items.

Hey, this blog article is already getting long, and we haven’t even left Manhattan. There’s good stuff to be eaten in the other four boroughs, and (many would say) even better stuff in Los Angeles (where the NY delis best customers moved), and wonderful surprises in a handful of other places in the US and abroad. The tour continues next week.

Meantime, if this article has made you hungry, two options. First, get yourself to Manhattan this week. (Katz’s is open late.) Second, dig into Save the Deli by David Sax. Nobody knows more, and I suspect, few people care more, than this traveling author.

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