Like bagels and pizza, nothing quite says New York like a good deli sandwich. In my opinion (and I’d bet many others’) there’s no better choice of deli sandwich than hot pastrami on rye.
This cured indulgence was originally created as a way to preserve meat before refrigeration was widely available. The name pastrami comes from the Romanian word a pastra, which means to preserve. During the mid- to late-19th century, Eastern European and particularly Yiddish immigrants introduced pastrami to New York.
We talked to three Westchester shops — Ben’s Deli in Scarsdale, Epstein’s of Hartsdale, and Melt Sandwich Shop in White Plains — on how they preserve the traditions of Eastern Europe by serving their own twists on the classic pastrami sandwich.
WM: Can you take us through the process of making your pastrami, including the cure, rub, and smoke of the meat?
Melt Sandwich Shop: The whole process is pretty simple. We start with the best quality meat — Angus briskets only. We cure the meat with curing salt, salt from vitamin C, onions, garlic, black pepper, coriander, and bay leaves. Depending on the size of the cut, the meat generally cures about 1/8 inch a day. On average, we cure our cuts for about 12 to 14 days each. After the meat is cured, we trim off as much fat as possible to result in a very lean final product. To start the cooking process, we rub the entire outside of the cut with black pepper and coriander and then smoke it with a combination of alder wood and mesquite at a very low temperature for about 14 to 18 hours. After it rests, we slice the finished pastrami as thin as possible which all comes together to make an incredibly tender and flavorful sandwich!
WM: What are the keys to making a great pastrami sandwich?
Epstein’s of Hartsdale: It’s in the art of the slicing. Slicing hot meat is a difficult process and our slicers are real technicians. It takes years to learn to slice pastrami and our other hot meats correctly and to the high standards we require. They are constantly stopping the slicing process to skillfully remove the fat and membrane of the meat. While the fat gives the pastrami its flavor, once the steaming process breaks it down, it’s mostly removed for the sandwich’s final presentation, piled high on only the absolute best Jewish rye bread.
WM: What best complements your pastrami best? (toppings, side, and drink)
Ben’s Deli: Our pastrami sandwich goes perfectly with a traditional potato pancake, baked potato knish, or fresh-cut French fries. Best to wash it all down with a can of Dr. Brown’s cream soda.
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WM: How did pastrami become a tradition at Jewish delis?
Epstein’s of Hartsdale: Epstein’s pastrami is a recipe copied from the early Eastern European immigrants to the new world. The process was originally created to preserve and improve the flavor and texture of inexpensive cuts of meat. And there was nothing like it in the new world when they arrived so the tradition and process was transferred here in New York where the European Jewish settled.
WM: Do you prepare pastrami in ways other than a classic sandwich?
Ben’s Deli: Ben’s offers pastrami sandwiches, pastrami omelets, chef salad w/pastrami, cold cut platters, by-the-pound at the deli counter, and the ever-popular Big Ben Burger (which is a half-pound of fresh-grilled Kosher beef topped with juicy pastrami, a homemade onion ring, and a side of Ben’s hand-cut fries, available at select locations).
When National Hot Pastrami Day rolls around on January 14th, set your New Year’s diet plans aside and indulge yourself in an authentic pastrami sandwich. You’ll have the rest of the year to eat your salads and kale-beet smoothies.
Melt Sandwich Shop
277 Mamaroneck Ave, White Plains
718 Central Park Ave, Scarsdale
Epstein’s of Hartsdale
387 Central Ave, Hartsdale