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A Three-Way Battle for Pastrami Supremacy

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Katz's Delicatessen. All photos by Robert Sietsema

As a girlfriend says to George in a fifth-season episode of Seinfeld, "I find pastrami to be the most sensual of all the salted cured meats." And indeed it is: ruby colored, moist and oily to the touch, rich tasting in a salty and smoky sort of way. Pastrami is also the meat most associated with New York, top of the menu in the city's celebrated Jewish delis. It is made by curing brisket in brine like corned beef, rubbing it with spices, and then smoking it like Texas barbecue. Indeed, pastrami can be seen as a species of barbecue (or maybe barbecue can be seen as a form of pastrami). Recently, Sarge's Deli reopened after a 15-month hiatus. So we decided to do the logical thing, and compare its pastrami with that of two other noble purveyors — one nearby in Murray Hill, the other on the Lower East Side.

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Sarge's Delicatessen
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Stats: Weight, 16.6 ounces; Loft, 4" (including bread); Slicing Method, Machine; Kosher Certification, None; Price, $14.95.

Observations: Sarge's pastrami is mild — not much smoky flavor — and colored a medium pink. The texture is fine-grained, the fat content relatively low for pastrami. The meat is sliced exceedingly thin and piled high on the sandwich, though the slices of rye are notably small in area, and the meat wadded in the middle in the usual deli style. Tasty pastrami, but not going to knock your top off. Very nice price, and served with huge tubs of sour and half-sour pickles and mayo-based coleslaw, a little on the sweet side.

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Second Avenue Deli
Stats: Weight, 12.4 ounces; Loft, 3.25" (including bread); Slicing Method, Machine; Kosher Certification, Yes; Price, $16.95

Observations: Sliced with an equal degree of thinness, the pastrami at Second Avenue Deli — a legendary, former East Village establishment — is slightly darker, slightly more marbled, and slightly more flavorful than that of Sarge's, though wadded a little less opulently on the small slices of rye. The bread at both places, also sliced thin, was nearly identical. You're definitely paying for the kosher certification here, with a slightly smaller and slightly more expensive sandwich. You don't get as many pickles as at Sarge's, but the non-mayo coleslaw was judged better. Actually, kosher certification aside, there were more similarities than differences between Second Avenue and Sarge's; it would be hard to distinguish them in the dark.

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Katz's Delicatessen
Stats: Weight, 16.2 ounces; Loft, 3" (including bread); Slicing Method, By Hand; Kosher Certification; None; Price, $16.95
Observations: Katz's pastrami comes on like gangbusters; more coarsely textured than the other two, notably fattier, sliced thick by hand. Thin slicing make a sandwich slipperier, and makes the meat seem more tender. Katz's pastrami sandwich takes a little more work to eat, but the flavor is richer and emphatically smokier. I pondered the spice rub, which is finer-grained and more subtle than the other two. And more blackened. It certainly contains coriander seed, but it's hard to determine what else. Served with half-sour, sour, or green-tomato pickles, thoughtfully sliced.

Overall, Katz's pastrami kicks Sarge's and Second Avenue's ass!

· All Posts by Sietsema [~ENY~]

Katz's Delicatessen

205 E Houston St., New York, NY 10002

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