The origin of pastrami remains something of a mystery. Most accounts will tell you it was directly inspired by the preserved meat called basturma, a lean cut of air-dried beef, which was spread throughout Eastern Europe by the Ottoman Empire over the centuries and then brought to America by Romanian-Jewish immigrants who arrived between 1881 and 1914. There’s no doubt the word pastrami is a cognate of basturma, but there the resemblance ends.
In contrast with its dry, thinner-sliced cousin — which is admirable in its own right — pastrami is made with a notably fat-laced beef brisket that’s been brined for several days (a process known as “corning”), rubbed with a spice mixture that often contains black peppercorns, yellow mustard seeds, and coriander, and then smoked. The result is a rich cut of meat with a complex and distinctive flavor, in which smoky notes compete with the sweetness of the spices and the saltiness of the brine. Pastrami in its ideal form is fatty, pink, and spectacular when served warm and thickly sliced.
Many are the conjectures about how the evolution occurred. My own crackpot theory, enunciated in my book New York in a Dozen Dishes, is that kosher butchers who operated in the Lone Star State around 1900 took an unwanted cut of meat that even the army wouldn’t buy, corned it, rubbed it with familiar Middle European spices, and preserved it by smoking, just as Texas barbecue was becoming increasingly popular in the state. Originally run by Germans, both Jewish and gentile, New York delis were quick to learn about and adopt the process. For a time it became their exclusive province, even as Romanian-Jewish restaurants (of which Sammy’s is our last remaining, but imperiled, example) ignored this avowedly American product and continued serving steaks and cutlets.
Whatever the origin, pastrami remains the gem in the crown of New York City’s distinctive Jewish deli cuisine, admired by visitors from all over the world. The modern era has seen a resurgence in its popularity and a broadening of its usage, following a decline during the no-fat ’90s. Even though the pandemic has closed some wonderful purveyors, including Harry & Ida’s and Jay & Lloyd’s, many old places remain open and new places have sprung up. Here are my 10 favorite pastramis in order of increasing excellence.
10. Butcher Block
This Irish butcher shop and grocery selling European packaged products in Sunnyside, Queens, is a neighborhood favorite, with a long, long counter famous for its hot sandwiches. Sure, the corned beef — an Irish passion — is totally up to par, but the pastrami, when it is intermittently offered, tastes even better, and sold at bargain prices. 43-46 41st Street, at Queens Boulevard, Sunnyside
Despite larding its menu with things like shrimp parmigiana, Philly cheesesteaks, and fried chicken, Junior’s remains at its heart a Jewish deli, occupying a key location near the Manhattan Bridge’s entrance into Brooklyn. The deli meats are much better than they need to be, including a delicately flavored pastrami that can be ordered on a pair of luscious onion rolls rather than on cardboard rye. 386 Flatbush Avenue Extension, at Fulton Street, Downtown Brooklyn
8. Second Avenue Deli
It was founded on Second Avenue in the East Village when that stretch was known as the Yiddish Broadway, but eventually moved to its present location in Murray Hill. The pastrami is very good and the deepest shade of red, but sliced too thin for my taste, though with the requisite fattiness that carries much of the flavor. Second Avenue is one of the city’s great historic delis, beset by tragedy but still unbowed. 162 East 33rd Street, between Lexington and Third avenues, Murray Hill
7. David’s Brisket House
Located in downtown Bed-Stuy, this may be the only halal Jewish-style deli in the city, and its pastrami and gravy-drenched roast brisket vie with each other for your patronage. The pastrami is spice intensive and smokier than most, and it’s a real boon that the sandwiches are available in three sizes, running from normal to overstuffed. 533 Nostrand Avenue, between Herkimer Street and Herkimer Place, Bedford-Stuyvesant
6. Liebman’s Deli
Way up north in bucolic Riverdale there lingers a long-running Jewish deli, founded in 1958 with a sea of green Naugahyde to prove it. It’s as though the ’50s never died. The pastrami is made on the premises, and tends to be carved on the lean side, and the aging and health-conscious customers like it that way. Nevertheless, it is exceedingly flavorful, and you may not miss the fat. 552 West 235th Street, between Oxford and Johnson avenues, Riverdale
Yes, this place was founded by a real police sergeant in 1964. His name was Abe Katz, which explains why a more obvious moniker was unavailable to him. The sandwiches here are perhaps the most overstuffed in the city, and maybe on the planet. The pastrami is sliced thin, but the product is flavorful, and if you have a giant appetite and happen to be in Midtown South, this is your place. 583 Third Avenue, between 36th and 37th streets, Murray Hill
4. Frankel’s Delicatessen & Appetizing
When it opened a few years ago on a prominent triangular lot on the Williamsburg edge of Greenpoint, this place combined two traditional Jewish institutions, the meat deli and the fish-oriented appetizing store, as Barney Greengrass had before it. The pastrami here is pale pink, fatty, and sliced gloriously thick by hand carvers. It’s the only place in town besides Katz’s that I know of that does it that way. 631 Manhattan Avenue at Bedford Avenue, Greenpoint
3. Pastrami Queen
Once, it was Pastrami King and located in Williamsburg, then it jumped to Queens, and finally it skipped over to the Upper East Side, occupying a shoebox of a place, which is still there in case you happen to be in the neighborhood. But its new flagship is on the Upper West Side, proffering pastrami that has excited denizens of that neighborhood, piled high, glowing pink, tasting strongly of its rub, and fatty enough to slide down with alacrity, despite the extreme size of the sandwich. 138 West 72nd Street, between Columbus Avenue and Broadway, Upper West Side
2. Katz’s Delicatessen
Katz’s has stood as a culinary beacon of the Lower East Side for 133 years, dispensing salamis and pastrami. The pastrami here is generally acknowledged to be the best in the country (though some prefer Langer’s in Los Angeles or Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor). For one thing, not only is it nice and fatty, though only slightly smoky, but it is hand-carved by wizards who swoop around and through the steaming pink brisket like Olympic skiers with their long sharp knives. 205 East Houston Street, at Ludlow Street, Lower East Side
1. Hometown Bar-B-Que Industry City
A Texas-style barbecue is perhaps not where you’d go looking for great pastrami, even given the possible historical connection mentioned in the introduction. When this offshoot of a Red Hook institution was still on the drawing board, it was conceived of as a barbecue-New York deli hybrid, and the pastrami here is a vestige of that idea. That pastrami is spiced and fatty, but its primary distinction is that the smoke is not only an undertone but a main theme. Yes, this in currently New York’s No. 1 pastrami, barely beating out Katz’s. Try it and see if you don’t agree. 87 35th Street, between Second and Third avenues, Sunset Park