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Pastrami Paragons

NYC’s best old-school meat mavens

Created as a way of preserving meat before the dawn of refrigeration, pastrami has become a delicatessen delicacy. Rooted in Jewish culture, the cured and smoked meat pairs best with a hearty rye, whether dressed simply with spicy mustard or piled high with Swiss cheese, Russian dressing, and sauerkraut on a Reuben sandwich.

In New York City, lovers of the lunchmeat flocked to the now closed Carnegie Deli for nearly 80 years. The Midtown landmark, which served up sandwiches containing a pound of pastrami, closed its doors at the end of 2016. While Carnegie’s closure marked the end of an era, those with a passion for the deli’s pastrami can take heart—it can be ordered online or found at its outpost in Madison Square Garden.

In addition, a handful of other eateries throughout the city have perfected the art of preparing the mouthwatering meat. And while they all claim to have the best pastrami, slight differences in preparation or presentation—perhaps perceptible by only the true connoisseur—set them apart from one another.

Pastrami Paragons

Pastrami Paragons

Katz’s Deli

{205 East Houston Street, New York City; 212.254.2246; katzsdelicatessen.com}
A true icon, Katz’s Deli has been around for close to 130 years. The longevity of the family-run eatery is a testament to the quality of its famous pastrami and other menu items, and owner Jake Dell says little has changed since the deli’s opening in 1888. “We do everything the old-fashioned way,” Dell explains. Instead of taking shortcuts in the curing process by injecting meat with additives, Katz’s depends on the most important ingredient of all—time. “It can take up to a month to make a good piece of pastrami,” Dell says. “It really is a labor of love.”
Because the meat becomes so tender during its slow journey toward greatness, it would fall to pieces on a slicer, Dell explains. Instead, Katz’s hand cuts its pastrami into thick, succulent slices to be stacked hot onto mustard-slathered rye (the menu warns diners to request mayo only at their own peril), crafted into a Reuben or tucked inside an omelette.

It’s this Old World, personal touch that has kept New Yorkers coming back. And while tourists may first be drawn by the deli’s cameo in “When Harry Met Sally” or its appearances on the Food Network and Travel Channel, after getting a taste of the painstakingly prepared pastrami, they too become devotees. Lucky for them, Katz’s ships nationwide.

Artie’s Delicatessen

{2290 Broadway, New York City; 212.579.5959; artiesny.com}
This Upper West Side deli’s slogan advises, “Be a smartie, eat at Artie’s!” Since its opening in 1999, scores of devotees have been doing just that. Despite being a relative newcomer among the city’s most well-known pastrami purveyors, Artie’s has carved out a name for itself by using heirloom recipes and following traditional techniques to bring patrons back to the 1930s with its food and ambience.
General Manager Barry Orenstein proudly proclaims that Artie’s is a pastrami-lover’s paradise. “This is the best pastrami I’ve had.” Procured from a high-end butcher and prepared in-house, the meat is cooked, then steamed to serve, with sandwiches containing about eight or nine ounces of the brined beef. “This is very high-quality pastrami,” says Orenstein, adding, “It’s a great value; you’re never hungry when you leave.”

Artie’s is particular with its condiments, too. Dusseldorf mustard spices up the sandwiches. “I feel that enhances the sandwich,” Orenstein explains, adding, “But Midwesterners will ask for yellow mustard.” Those who prefer their pastrami with additional accompaniments can order a Reuben or combination sandwich, or opt for a pastrami omelette. But regardless of how the pastrami is served, diners can always expect to get it lean, Orenstein says. “Customers want lean meat because of the outcry over fat.”

Most of the throwback deli’s customers are in the over-50 age bracket. “The younger generation isn’t eating this food anymore,” says Orenstein. “It’s a dying genre; it’s a dying subculture of food.” Still, Artie’s remains popular enough to draw daily crowds. For New Jerseyites who don’t want to brave the bridges and tunnels, the deli offers delivery throughout the tri-state area.

2nd Avenue Deli

{162 East 33rd Street and 1442 First Avenue, New York City; 212.689.9000 and 212.737.1700; 2ndavedeli.com}
With its Midtown and Upper East Side locations, 2nd Avenue Deli keeps as kosher as its roots, which date back to 1954. Abe Lebewohl started as a Coney Island soda jerk after emigrating to America, saving for his own deli while learning the art of peerless pastrami. After over 40 years of tireless work at his establishment, Abe was murdered while on his way to the bank in 1996. In tribute to their uncle, nephews Josh and Jeremy Lebewohl have continued the tradition. “Pastrami is definitely our specialty,” says Josh. “We only use the finest cuts. We steam it a long time so it’s very tender, and we machine-cut it thin so it melts in your mouth.”

While its kosher designation nixes Reubens from the menu, 2nd Avenue Deli offers plenty of variety for the pastrami-loving palate. Along with the traditional hot sandwich and omelette, patrons can top their sandwiches with sauerkraut and coleslaw or feast on a pastrami burger or the pastrami skirt steak platter. The Instant Heart Attack sandwiches pastrami between two potato pancakes, while the Triple Bypass Sandwich combines pastrami with other meats amid three potato pancakes. For those steering clear of red meat, pastrami salmon provides a viable alternative. A nice touch is that at the end of each meal, everyone is served a shot of chocolate soda.

Pastrami Queen

{1125 Lexington Avenue, New York; 212.734.1500; pastramiqueen.com}
Lauded by Anthony Bourdain and Zagat rated as “the best pastrami anywhere,” this Upper East Side kosher deli is small and family-owned, which manager Jack Turner says contributes to its greatness. A more intimate establishment allows for more time and focus to be placed on perfecting the deli’s namesake staple. “It’s a pretty lengthy process,” he says. “It starts with salting and brining, and then it’s smoked and then steamed. It’s all about the cooking method.”

The 20-seat eatery is tucked away from major tourist corridors, instead attracting a loyal contingent of locals, Turner says. “We’re an everyday spot for a lot of people.” In business since 1956, Pastrami Queen has kept its following by upholding tradition. “We’re a real by-the-book place,” Tucker explains, adding that the deli also offers pastrami-stuffed knishes and potato pancakes.

By Jessica D’Amico