Halfway through lunch at S&P, a staffer in a white apron walked the length of the lunch counter with a metal sheet pan. In that pan was a side of beef so blackened and heady it took on the appearance of a fresh meteor, still steaming from its trip through the galaxy. “That’s the pastrami,” a worker told us. I instantly regretted my BLT order (it was fine), but what pained me even more is that when I returned a week later, the spiced meat was sold out by 2:30 p.m.
Anyone who cares about pastrami, that black and red gemstone of Jewish deli cuisine, should swing by this successor to Eisenberg’s for a stunner of a sandwich. The smoked and sliced beef is a quintessential New York luncheon meat, though the labor-intensive processes behind the charcuterie mean it doesn’t see as many new entrants as, say, cheese pizza, birria tacos, or ribeyes.
Eric Finkelstein and Matt Ross of Court Street Grocers, who run the month-old S&P in Flatiron, serve a style of pastrami that already belongs in the same conversation as Katz’s, 2nd Ave, or the late Harry & Ida’s. The meat smells like a sack of hot dogs that vacationed in a steakhouse dry-aging room, while the exterior bark packs an herby punch so clear it’s as if the chefs wait for each order to come in before rubbing in the coriander.
The sandwich could sell out on the taste factor alone, but the cost merits as much attention. The price is just $16, or $21 after tax and tip.
At the city’s top delis, simply encountering a sub-$20 pastrami sandwich is a rarity. High beef prices — likely to get higher due to droughts out west and rising labor costs — means higher pastrami prices. To wit: A single big sandwich can now cost you as much as a seven-day unlimited MetroCard.
When Robert Sietsema checked out Katz’s in 2014, the pastrami — with the meat piled high like stacks of red poker chips — cost $17. Over the years, the price climbed, most recently jumping up by a buck this summer to $26. Tack on a tip for your sandwich carver, and you’ll spend about $33.
The hikes at Katz’s, while fully in line with rising beef costs, are roughly double the rate of U.S. inflation over that same time period. Translation: Your hard-earned dollars now buy less pastrami than they used to.
2nd Ave Deli, known for its peppery and almost prosciutto-thin meat, has risen too, from $17 to $25. And then there’s Bill Durney’s Hometown in Red Hook and Industry City, where the pitmasters use USDA Prime deckles and navels to produce a profoundly delicious sandwich.
Durney charged $17 for pastrami at the time of my 2019 review, but bumped it up to $28 shortly afterward. The restaurateur tells me he made the adjustment quickly because the hefty portion sizes “weren’t in alignment with what we were charging.” Even still, Durney was running such a high food cost that he started limiting the sandwich to weekends only. Hometown serves about 30 to 50 each day and sells out by early evening.
Durney, who’s also facing cost increases from butcher’s paper, says has no plans to charge more while adding that a more realistic price for the sandwich would be $30.
To be fair, folks likely won’t cross borough lines solely for the S&P discount, just as $30 pastrami isn’t going to send folks into bankruptcy. This isn’t something you eat a few times a week, like a char siu bao or Colombian breakfast pastries. A New York pastrami sandwich, like a milkshake, is a treat — a study in how much meat a deli professional can stack in between two slices of rye before the whole thing topples over. It is the porterhouse “for two” of sandwiches.
“Do you offer half sandwiches?” a patron next to me asked at S&P, which is a fair inflation-era question. “We do not,” a worker replied. Half-sandwiches, alas, don’t always don’t end up saving you much, especially if the order comes with a mandatory soup or salad. In most cases, the best approach to a big pastrami sandwich is to simply split it with a friend. One can only tolerate so much sodium nitrite.
S&P’s sandwich, thankfully, is portioned for a solo diner. You won’t have to chug water out of a Nalgene for eight hours afterward.
Old World Provisions in Albany smokes the deckles with coriander before in-house cooks at S&P rub the beef with black pepper. Then the meat gets a nice long steam treatment — about 14 hours. What results is a flavor profile that isn’t predictably warm and spicy but rather sharp and herbaceous, with notes of cilantro and lemon. Smoke is there, but it doesn’t scream at heavy metal volumes; it whispers.
Request a “moist” cut and the thick, hand-sliced beef will flaunt a luxurious, accordion-like texture, while still exhibiting a pleasant chew. Go to Katz’s instead for fall-apart tenderness. Salt levels are aggressive, though a sugary fat cap helps matters out when it dissolves into a sweet pool of ooze. The bread, Anthony & Sons rye, does a fine job chaperoning the powerful ingredients.
After ten minutes of eating, only crumbs are left. This isn’t a blowout, once-a-year pastrami sandwich that pickles your intestines; this is a once-a-week snack you pair with a frothy egg cream.
One wonders: Wouldn’t it be nice if more pastrami places cut portions and charged less? As for the cost, here’s what Finkelstein tells me: “We’re going to keep that price where it is for the time being; we’ll see if we can make it work.”