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The Past, Present, and Future of Pastrami in NYC

Eater's senior critic lists 13 noteworthy pastrami dishes found in New York City

When pastrami as we know it appeared in New York City sometime around 1900, it wasn’t the most versatile of meats. Said to come from Romania, but probably invented here in its present form, it was commonly a brisket or related cut that had first been brined like a corned beef. It was then dried, rubbed with spices, and smoked, giving it a unique, almost barbecued, flavor. But even Romanian-Jewish restaurants — whose specialty was skirt steak — didn’t serve it. Cut thick, and piled on a sandwich still steaming, pastrami became the exclusive province of German-Jewish delis, and eventually, lunch counters citywide.

Well, pastrami is more flexible than anyone imagined back then, and less than a century after it was first popularized, it began to find other uses. Nowadays, those uses are multiplying, and some of them would be amazing to those who ate pastrami a century ago. Here are some recent appearances of the cured meat that show its versatility and modern significance. In fact, fragrant and delicious pastrami is well on its way to being recognized as New York City’s signature meat.

Pastrami Pizza — Like fine wine, pizza exhibits terroir. Visit Italy and find out how true that is. The pizzas of Rome are elongated, cracker-crusted, topped with two or three surprisingly diverse ingredients, and sold by length. Umbrian pizza, found in bakeries, is thick like focaccia and usually sports a single topping, such as squash blossoms plucked from the surrounding fields. Pizza in Naples is just what you’d expect, a puffy round flatbread dabbed with tomato sauce.

No pie has ever exhibited Lower East Side terroir better than Paul’s Boutique at the new Clinton Street branch of Speedy Romeo. It’s named after a classic Beastie Boys album, reminding us that the band members were once denizens of this neighborhood. The pizza — available only at lunch — is bombed with pastrami from nearby Katz’s, and the other twisted toppings include mustard béchamel, red sauerkraut, fontina cheese, and Thousand Island dressing — referring to islands in the St. Lawrence River belonging to New York State. The crust tastes like an everything bagel, and every supremely delicious bite shouts "Lower East Side." Now that’s pizza terroir! 63 Clinton St, (212) 529-6300

Pastrami Buns — At his Slurp Shop counter in the Gotham West Market, Ivan Orkin had the wonderful idea of folding steamed northern Chinese bao over pastrami instead of the usual pork belly, with a dressing of mustard-laced Kewpie mayo and daikon slaw. The effect was revolutionary, extending the uses of pastrami on its home turf. 600 11th Ave, (212) 582-7942

Pastrami Naan — Newcomer Indian Accent playfully offers a naan flatbread stuffed with pastrami at its first international branch here in New York City, and never has the meat found a more perfect context. Chef Manish Mehrotra offers it as a supplement to his multi-course, prix fixe menu. 123 W 56th St, (212) 842-8070

Kung Pao Pastrami — Named after an early 19th century governor of Sichuan province, kung pao chicken constitutes a fiery classic that has long since been adapted to American tastes. From there the recipe has been further mutated to use pastrami instead of chicken — while retaining the peanuts and ramping up the ma-la peppercorns — by Danny Bowien of Mission Chinese Food. The dish has recently been reformulated to also include spuds at the Lower East Side branch of the restaurant. 171 E Broadway, (212) 529-8800.

[Clockwise from the top left: pastrami buns at Ivan Ramen Slurp Shop; pastrami Bagel Bomb at Milk Bar, pastrami poutine at Mile End, pastrami barbecue at John Brown Smokehouse.]

Pastrami Egg Roll— How and when pastrami crawled into an egg roll is a question for food historians. This appetizer recently gained fame at high-end dim sum parlor Red Farm, but it has actually been a feature of Jewish deli menus for far longer. It’s a simple egg roll stuffed with pastrami and cabbage, then served with honey-mustard sauce. At Red Farm, the pastrami comes from Katz’s.

Brooklyn’s Mill Basin Deli sells a pastrami egg roll, too, and so does Eden Wok, a kosher Chinese joint on 34th Street. Kutsher’s in Tribeca (now defunct) once offered a reuben egg roll that also contained Swiss cheese. The original pastrami egg roll may well have been invented on the Lower East Side in the late 50s at Bernstein-On-Essex, a combination kosher deli and Chinese restaurant that occupied the space where Sons of Essex now sits. 5823 Avenue T, Brooklyn, (718) 241-4910

Pop’s Pastrami Sandwich — Making pastrami in-house has become the ambition of many restaurants these days, including both newfangled delis and barbecues. A recent example is Harry & Ida’s on Avenue A in the East Village, where the homemade pastrami is extra smoky. Called Pop’s pastrami, the sandwich is served on a tapered hero roll. The bread is slathered with the usual grainy mustard, but also heaped with briny cucumber salad and fronds of fresh dill. Harry & Ida’s also sometimes makes pastrami jerky and pastrami hot dogs, two other unusual new usages of the meat. 189 Avenue A, (646) 864-0967

Classic Pastrami Sandwich Revisited — While Harry and Ida’s is intent on sandwich innovation, Greenpoint newcomer Frankel’s Delicatessen and Appetizing is determined to preserve historic practices. More flavorful than most, their homemade pastrami is hand cut and sliced thick, the way it should be done. In fact Frankel’s pastrami tastes remarkably like Katz’s, only a little fattier — a loving recreation of a classic sandwich, simple and elegant. 631 Manhattan Ave, Brooklyn, (718) 389-2302

[The pastrami sandwich at Frankel's in Greenpoint.]

Pastrami Taco — Alex Stupak was quick to jump on the pastrami boat, using the bright red meat in his tacos at Empellon Taqueria. Heaping the shredded meat with pickled mustard seeds, he is giving a twist to conventional pastrami flavor. 230 West 4th Street, (212) 367-0999

Pastrami Wish — Though certainly not the first to do it, the kosher Loeser’s Deli offers something called a pastrami wish, stuffing pastrami and sauerkraut into a split potato knish slathered with mustard. Said to be a school-kid favorite in this Bronx neighborhood. 214 W 231st St, Bronx, (718) 548-9735

Pastrami BarbecueJohn Brown Smokehouse was one of the first in town to treat pastrami as any other barbecued meat, and the results were interesting to say the least. Other barbecues have tried it, too, including Hometown Bar-B-Que and Fette Sau. 10-43 44th Dr, Queens, (347) 617-1120

Montreal Smoked Meat — Introduced a few years ago by Mile End Deli in Brooklyn, but also the centerpiece of its Manhattan branch, smoked meat counts as a variation on New York pastrami, only with a milder rub of slightly different spices. At Mile End Deli, this smoked meat is used not only in excellent sandwiches, but as a topping for the dressed French fries called poutine. 97 Hoyt St, Brooklyn, (718) 852-7510

Pastrami With Gravy — In the style of the city’s oldest lunch counters, Express Brook (once known as Brook Luncheonette) in Mott Haven, the Bronx, still offers pastrami as a main course, smothered in brown gravy along with mixed vegetables and mashed potatoes. Back to the future. 502 E 138th St, Bronx, (718) 585-5880

Bagel Bomb — Though it is not currently on the menu, Momofuku Milk Bar once sold a bagel bomb (a small bagel sphere, about the size of a doughnut hole) stuffed with pastrami and sauerkraut. Please, Christina Tosi, bring it back! Many locations.

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