If we’re talking about the origins of pastrami, most accounts will tell you it was inspired by the preserved meat called basturma, a lean cut of spice-rubbed and air-dried beef or goose, which spread throughout Eastern Europe by the Ottoman Empire over the centuries, and was later brought to America by Romanian Jewish immigrants who arrived between 1881 and 1914.
In contrast with its dry, thinner-sliced cousin basturma, delectable in its own right, pastrami is made with beef brisket that’s 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 hopelessly 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 thickly hand-sliced.
Over the years, other ideas about pastrami’s evolution have emerged. My own crackpot theory 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 ignored this avowedly American product and continued serving steaks and cutlets.
Whatever the origin, pastrami remains the crown jewel of New York’s Jewish delis, admired and sought out 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. The pandemic closed some wonderful purveyors, including Harry & Ida’s and Jay & Lloyd’s, but brought about many others. Here are my 12 favorite pastrami sandwiches, ranked in descending order.
12. Mendy’s Kosher Delicatessen
Made famous by an episode of Seinfeld, Mendy’s Kosher Delicatessen is one of Manhattan’s old-line Jewish delis. It recently relocated to Park Avenue South and is now mainly a takeout operation, although there are few tables for dining in. Most customers prefer the lean; ask for the fatty instead. The pastrami will be piled thickly on rye, with pickles, mustard, and Russian dressing on the side. There’s another branch at the Jewish Children’s Museum in Brooklyn. 441 Park Avenue South, at East 30th Street, Murray Hill
11. Butcher Block
This Irish butcher shop and grocery store selling packaged European 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. 43-46 41st Street, at Queens Boulevard, Sunnyside
Despite larding its menu with items 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
9. 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 supremacy. The pastrami spice is intense and smokier than most, and it’s a real boon that the sandwich is available in three sizes, running from normal to overstuffed. 533 Nostrand Avenue, between Herkimer Street and Herkimer Place, Bed-Stuy
8. Liebman’s Deli
Way up north in bucolic Riverdale, there lingers a long-running kosher Jewish deli, founded in 1958 with a sea of green Naugahyde to prove it: It’s as though the ’50s never died. The pastrami tends to be carved on the lean side, and the aging and health-conscious customers seem to 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
7. S&P Lunch
This restored lunch counter tranformed what had been Eisenberg’s Sandwich Shop not too long ago. It upped its pastrami game considerably, with garnet-colored, spice-rubbed meat that’s slightly crumbly, hand-sliced, and layered on a rye bread that is avowedly human-sized at a more affordable price, ignoring at least a half-century of overstuffed pastrami sandwiches. I challenge you to not eat the whole thing. 174 Fifth Avenue, near 22nd Street, Flatiron
6. Second Avenue Deli
This quintessential Jewish deli was founded in 1954 in the East Village when that stretch of Second Avenue was known as the Yiddish Broadway and moved to Murray Hill in 2007 following a rent increase. 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 E. 33rd Street, between Lexington and Third avenues, Murray Hill
Yes, this place was founded by a real police sergeant in 1964. His name was Abe Katz, which explains why a more obvious restaurant name 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 corner in Greenpoint, Frankel’s 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 one of the few places in town besides Katz’s and S&P that I know of that cuts by hand. 631 Manhattan Avenue at Bedford Avenue, Greenpoint
3. Pastrami Queen
At one point, it was called Pastrami King and located in Williamsburg. Later, it relocated to Queens, and eventually landed on the Upper East Side, occupying a shoebox of a space, which is still there if you happen to be in the neighborhood. Its new flagship is on the Upper West Side, proffering pastrami 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. Hometown Bar-B-Que
When this offshoot of a Red Hook institution was coming together, it was conceived of as a hybrid between a Texas-style barbecue joint and a New York deli, and the pastrami here is a vestige of that idea. The meat is spiced and fatty, and its primary distinction is an enhanced smokiness. Pastrami is also served in sandwich form at the Red Hook branch on weekends. 87 35th Street, between Second and Third avenues, Sunset Park
1. Katz’s Delicatessen
Katz’s has stood as a culinary beacon of the Lower East Side for 135 years, dispensing salamis and pastrami. The pastrami here is generally acknowledged to be the best in the world (though some prefer Langer’s in Los Angeles or Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor). It’s nice and fatty, not as smoky as some examples, but hand-carved by wizards who swoop around and slice with their long knives through the steaming pink brisket like Olympic skiers on a gold medal run. 205 East Houston Street, at Ludlow Street, Lower East Side