The Pastrami Dilemma

Sauls Sandwich
Evan Bloom, left, and Leo Beckerman of San Francisco's Wise Sons Deli

The joke goes: A gorilla walks into Sol's delicatessen and orders a pastrami sandwich.

"That'll be $15," says Sol, handing the gorilla a sandwich. "I gotta say, I never expected to see a gorilla in my deli."

"At $15 for a pastrami sandwich," snaps the gorilla, "you never will again."

Once, pastrami was cheap. It came from Jews on New York's Lower East Side in the 19th century, when beef was abundant. They adapted it from Romanian pastramă, originally made from salted and pressed geese and ducks. And since then, it's been viewed as a well-loved but lowbrow American original, like the hot dog or the hoagie. You could say it's the soul of the American deli.

But even while chefs in other parts of the restaurant industry are making their own charcuterie, pastrami has, until recently, been stuck in the deli case of the 1950s: industrialized and mass-produced.

You know all those discussions about who has the best, Stage or Katz's, Langer's or Canter's? Forget about it. Three factories make nearly all of that famous deli pastrami, and distribute it around the country.

The owners of these three pastrami factories, kind of like dons in a benign pastrami mafia, each control their own turf. In Brooklyn, for example, there's Eddie Weinberg, who supplied the old 2nd Ave Deli. In Detroit, it's Sy Ginsberg, who does Zingerman's. Lou Sandoval of Burbank, California, supplies Langer's.

But finally, there's a pastrami revival going on: Artisans all over the country are starting to make pastrami the old-fashioned way. From Portland to Brooklyn to San Francisco, young chefs are opening traditional Jewish delis, and bringing back the nearly extinct tradition of hand-cured, hand-smoked pastrami. But it turns out the old way is a lot harder than you'd think.

HOT BEEF INJECTION
Picture your favorite Jewish deli: You probably have visions of a guy in a white apron slicing spicy, steaming brisket into a gorgeous tower. The truth is, that guy didn't make that brisket. Almost all pastrami in this country is made more like a Honda on an assembly line than like a craft project.

First, the meat goes into an injection machine, where it's shot up with a salty solution. Then it gets a quick brine (watch this video of corned beef production), is coated in spices, and gets smoke flavor—either briefly, over actual smoldering wood chips, or more likely on a grill like at a backyard barbecue, where the "smoke" comes from fatty juices flaring up against hot metal. Or even in a chamber of aerosolized liquid smoke. The whole process is over in a matter of hours, after which the meat is vacuum-sealed in plastic so it can sit in a cooler for weeks before it's dumped in some deli's steamer to cook for a few hours.

And probably not surprisingly, the factory dons are vague about where they get the meat for their clients' famous pastrami. We can guess it's not grass-fed.

The truth about pastrami isn't exactly a secret. David Sax's book Save the Deli, published in 2009, revealed the state of industrialization of high-end deli meats. And it's not that pastrami's an unpalatable product. A pastrami sandwich from one of America's storied delis can be great. (LA food critic Jonathan Gold, for instance, thinks Langer's makes the best pastrami sandwich in the country.)

But handmade everything is the new ethos among a certain breed of chef. And those opening up nouveau Jewish delis think they can do better. As it turns out, though, making pastrami is a lot more challenging than making rugelach and whitefish salad.