Pastrami King opened in 1956 in Williamsburg, but for most of the century it was located in Kew Gardens, Queens, where it was a fixture of the courthouse dining scene. In 1998 the Jewish deli defied expectations by moving to the Upper East Side — and changing its identity to Pastrami Queen. The place was known for its garnet-red pastrami, sliced thick and redolent more of coating spices than smoke. In 2019 it opened a snazzy Times Square branch, intent on exploiting the potential of pastrami as a tourist lure, but the place closed unceremoniously soon after.
Now, the much-respected deli has hopped across Central Park and opened a new branch on the Upper West Side, a neighborhood with a longtime Jewish population, just before Hanukkah. Replacing Fine & Schapiro, the new storefront is considerably bigger than its Upper East Side counterpart, with a long, well-lit deli counter on the right, over which the white-hatted heads of the meat carvers can be seen bobbing. Deeper in is the type of narrow, extended dining room often seen in New York City Jewish delis.
I stood in line last Sunday afternoon, as the fourth night of Hanukkah approached, and ordered a picnic, the weather being fine and Central Park less than two blocks away. There was no seating at the restaurant, indoor or outdoor, but the assembled throng waiting for their orders was upbeat and excited as the manager came outside bearing bag after carryout bag. Once I got my order, 20 minutes later, I headed for Strawberry Fields, where a few stragglers were still laying wilted flowers for the 40th anniversary of John Lennon’s death on December 8.
Eaten sitting on a rock, the overstuffed pastrami on rye ($20) was magnificent. The spice mixture coating the brisket still dominated, and the flavor of ground coriander and black peppercorns shone the brightest. The bread was the usual blah deli rye bread, but remember: It’s only a vehicle. On the side was grainy mustard along with a sour and a half sour pickle. My only complaint: The properly fatty pastrami was sliced thinner than usual.
The pastrami was obvious, but what to eat next? A bucket of matzoh ball soup ($8.75) beckoned. It sported two smallish and feather-light dumplings shot with fresh dill, altogether some of the best I’ve ever tasted. Egg noodles cooked into oblivion were also present, in a wan broth that I suspected I wouldn’t particularly like, but that convinced me of its rightness as the soup disappeared.
Next came the iconic jelly doughnut of the holiday, known as sufganiyot ($4.50). These had been displayed by the register and were irresistible with their crown of powdered sugar so white it almost hurt your eyes. When bitten into, a modest amount of bright red jelly oozed, but who could tell what kind? These doughnuts distinguished themselves by being dense, yeasty, and damp, all in a very good way.
Really, the best thing of all was probably the hot dog ($4). Slathered with just the proper surfeit of mustard by the deli employees, the links were dark, poppy when bitten into, and of course all beef, though some very fatty cuts of beef had been incorporated. Two of these would be a meal from heaven, and challenge to Gray’s Papaya, which is just around the corner, but not kosher by any stretch of the imagination.
And what would lunch be without chopped chicken liver ($13.50)? Here, Pastrami Queen abdicated, as far as I was concerned. The puree was a little too smooth and too sweet, and not very liver-y tasting. Also, no bread was provided for spreading, so it had to be taken home to be eaten. Oh, well.
Everything else verged on the exemplary. I didn’t try the latkes, simply because I thought they’d be clammy once I’d trekked to the park — some foods fare better in 2020 than others. And besides, during Hanukkah, these shredded-potato pancakes are best eaten at home, hot out of the fat.