Put me in a Jewish deli and the choice is simple: half tongue, half pastrami (warm) on rye, plenty of mustard. Before and after it’s pickles—all kinds—for an appetizer and dessert. But if you’re somehow still unsure about what to eat in a Jewish deli, you’re in luck: the folks at Eater recently posted a beautiful feature of what they’re calling the “ultimate guide” to Jewish delicatessens in New York City. This collection of individual pieces begins with Robert Sietsema’s short history of Jewish delis in NYC, which began to pop up in the 1880s.
The earliest delis were run by Germans and Alsatians, not all of them Jewish. The Alsatians were responsible for the charcuterie aspects of the menu, including pickled tongue and the sauerkraut that was heaped on such sausages as knoblewurst, garlicwurst, and the iconic frankfurter, whose name suggests an origin in Frankfurt, Germany. The grainy mustard was another Teutonic borrowing. The salami probably came from Italy — at least that’s what the name suggests — although salami-type sausages were popular in Hungary, too. Though the bagel originated in Poland, with its boiling as well as baking, it may represent an improvement over a circular and sesame-seeded Turkish bread popular throughout the Middle East called a simit.
“The centerpiece of any New York Jewish deli,” writes Sietsema, “is pastrami,” of course. This idea is further explored by writer Nick Solares, who gets into the meat’s history and preparation (e.g. “The beef is first seasoned with pink curing salt…[then] rubbed with an aromatic spice blend that includes onions, garlic, pepper, and coriander. It’s then smoked gently over wood, imparting a subtle flavor.)
While the first place to sell pastrami is purported to be at Reb Sussel’s long ago-shuttered delicatessen at 88 Delancey Street, which opened in 1888, it is a claim disputed by Katz’s Delicatessen. The restaurant also opened that year, and it can at least lay claim to being the longest running restaurant to serve the dish.
And thus we can assume that Katz’s Delicatessen serves a dish that’s as close to the prototypical specimen as there exists in New York. The style that Katz’s and other NYC delicatessens sell is fabricated from the navel end of packer brisket, a cut that is not seen at retail. While some restaurants use the front of the brisket for pastrami, Katz’s reserves this strictly for corned beef. The restaurant only uses the naval meat for its iconic sandwich.
Naturally, there are two features on pastrami, as well as one about the “regulars” who frequent 2nd Avenue Deli, Katz’s, Mill Basin Deli, and Sarge’s Deli.
Check it out the Eater article here.
Jonathan Zalman is a writer and teacher based in Brooklyn.