Monday, January 25, 2016

Pastrami: Ode To A Lifelong Obsession

Just to let you know, I have had pastrami sandwiches from all over the United States. Yes, I have been to Carnegie Deli and Katz's in New York (which I touch on), but what you are about to read is my pastrami obsession from the different places I have lived in, both here in Tucson and back in California. Think of it as a "where can a pastrami hooked kid get a decent sandwich in his neighborhood?". Makes it a bit more intimate don't you think?

I think so.

Anyway, the sandwiches I have had in New York and beyond were amazing (although I do think the Carnegie is a bit overrated, I mean, c'mon, it's a tourist spectacle at this point, that tower of meat is just silly...yet delicious) but here is a nod to all of the pastrami sandwiches from around my blocks.

Thank you pastrami, past, present and sandwiches yet to be consumed. made me the man I am today. complete me.

Young Metal Mark and his early pastrami filled belly in repose in Los Angeles

Not too sure, but I think it came from a movie. Or perhaps a TV show I saw.

Somebody was eating a pastrami sandwich and it just looked heavenly. At the age of 8 or 9 the only deli meat I was accustomed to was bologna that came in clear plastic silos, "ham" and the frozen meat surrogate enigma also known as Steak-Umm. Living with my dad, who was famously known for being quite terrified of most foods, he kept the fridge stocked with glistening slabs he thought a spazzy little KISS listening to kid would enjoy for lunch or snack. I had little time to care about the menu in the house; between playing outside, going to school, getting high score on Donkey Kong or trying to get my Thief/Magic User to the next level, as long as I was eating, I was content.

Here's the thing though: I grew up in Glendale, CA, a pleasant suburb in Los Angeles. My friends were really diverse, culturally, so I was extremely lucky in that capacity. When I spent the night at any one of their houses, I was treated to trips of varied cuisines from around the globe.

Monte was Hispanic and through his mom and family I had my first tamale and authentic taco, not the yellow greased meat stuffed variety at Taco Bell (which was right next to the arcade I frequented so I have had my share, believe me) and they were fantastic. Victor was Korean so marinaded pork and rice with kimchi, hot and cold noodles, spicy soups and squid, squid! I ate squid!, were suspicious at first but divine. Michael was Italian so real pasta with real sauces and real meatballs made fresh by a real Italian mother changed the way I look and treat food to this day.

That's why when I saw that guy on the TV eat a pastrami sandwich, I knew I had to have one. Just think of it as a calling of sorts.

At a little corner deli, the pastrami craze took hold

Luckily, just a few blocks from where we lived, right across from my elementary school, was a little corner deli called the LA Cafe. When I walked in I was greeted by the ding-a-ling of a bell and a smiling Vietnamese lady behind the counter. The place smelled exotic, like a combination of steaming meats, fresh bread and heavy mustard; familiar yet strange at the same time. It was quite small so all of the ingredients, I'm sure, were packed tight together and with the front door always closed, along with an old oscillating fan working on a table in the distance, the scent of the place immediately drew me in and for some reason I knew I had found something special.

I got a small sandwich, like 6 inches, hot, with yellow mustard, tomatoes and Provolone cheese, which is what the guy on TV was eating...I think. The nice lady quickly went to work and after a few minutes my first pastrami sandwich was in front of me. After taking a seat near a window, I nervously picked up the soft roll packed deep with cured meat and took a bite.

Even at that young age, I knew I had found what I had been looking for - food wise that is. Whatever that movie or TV show that I wanted to sandwich emulate did nothing for what I was experiencing at that moment. That sandwich was beyond any fast food burger or sweet treat from the U-Tote-M market. So young, yet I had found my calling. Food wise, of course.

That night when my dad came home I told him about my new found love of pastrami.

"You don't like pastrami," he claimed as he put a Swanson's Salisbury steak dinner in front of me.

"Uh. Yeah I do."

"Since when?"

Even after telling him the extended story, he was still convinced that I was lying somehow about my love for that sandwich. Maybe because at that age I changed my love of things quite often. I was a Cub Scout for exactly a week, I wanted cello lessons and went once, Power Lord action figures were quickly replaced by Masters of the Universe. Stuff like that.

"You don't like pastrami."

But this phase I knew would stick.

The addiction taken to a new level

When my mom got word that I was now a pastrami fiend, she only had one thing to say:

"Oh, you like pastrami? Well we need to take you to Langer's then."

Apparently this place she was taking me to was famous for their pastrami sandwiches. Whatever. I was content with my little corner place, with the nice Vietnamese family that always greeted me with warm smiles and after a couple of visits all she would ask in broken English was "Pastrami?" All I had to do then was nod and she'd deliver another perfect sandwich to my 9 year old chubby face.

Langer's Deli was different. It was bigger. Much bigger. And packed with people. On a late afternoon on Alvarado Street in the MacArthur Park area of Los Angeles, there was a line out the door. So we shuffled through with the rest of the hungry crowd, eventually getting to the counter.

There it was, in a big sign over the bustling sandwich line, proclaiming: The #19, World's Best Pastrami Sandwich".

Okay mister number nineteen. Let's see what you got.

The Langer's Deli #19, a sandwich game changer for this kid

It was rough but we luckily found a table by walking around the busy restaurant a bit. After sitting down among the throngs of blissful eaters, I scooted my chair in, took a look at my pastrami sandwich and made a face. It didn't look like the sandwich I got from the LA Cafe. This was on seeded rye bread, no cheese, just mustard and served with a dill pickle. But, whatever. I was hungry and curious to know what World Famous pastrami tasted like.

After taking a bite...yep. It tasted like this.

The flavor on the meat was different but so much deeper in quality and excellence. The bread was soft and chewy and I didn't even miss the cheese or tomatoes. Mom then explained what Kosher was, that dairy couldn't be anywhere near the meat, which I found strange but didn't care. Luckily I had a few Jewish friends so from then on I always had them take me to their favorite Kosher deli for a pastrami sandwich when we got the chance. Most were good, but none compared to the #19 at Langer's.

Oh sure, I still went to my little Vietnamese family down the street, but only because it was so close and they knew exactly what I wanted when I walked in with the tinkling of that bell. But when I bit into the oh so familiar taste of the LA Cafe sandwich, I knew there were pastrami adventures just waiting for me out there, and Langer's had planted that seed of exploration.

Then, without warning, the little corner deli closed down.

Soon after, my dad and I moved from Los Angeles to a town near my hometown, Carmel, called Salinas,  and my pastrami prospects didn't look too good.

At the time, ToGo's was the only pastrami game in town

Salinas, for quite some time, was the hub of farming in central California. In fact, Salinas had the nickname of "The Lettuce Bowl" because there were nothing but lettuce fields everywhere. In my big city/small town displacement and creeping adolescence, my love of Hard Rock turned to Speed and Thrash Metal, my love of New Wave turned to Hardcore Punk and my youthful skateboarding around town progressed into a full thrasher lifestyle. This is where cute little Mark began forming into Metal Mark and my angst was only offset by the lack of a decent deli in Salinas.

Oh sure, there were plenty of good Mexican restaurants, which was great, and lots of cheap fast food and donut shops that served pizza, but what I really missed was my longtime friend the pastrami sandwich. Only trips to LA to visit my mom were I treated to good delis and Langer's, but around Salinas in the mid-80s, there was only one game in town.

It was called ToGo's and was a local west coast chain. The first time I walked into a ToGo's my first reaction was 'I don't like the smell.' It had this fake meat and hard plastic aroma but I was desperate to find a good pastrami sandwich within skating distance and there was one just a few blocks from my school, much like the little corner deli I missed so much back in Glendale.

The sandwich was...fine. Not horrible, not great, but good enough to satiate my eternal craving for pastrami. Luckily, when high school rolled around, I had friends that would go to work for ToGo's and often enough would get the occasional "hook up" on the pastrami front. But it wasn't the same. It lacked character and fresh flavor and was also kind of drippy. And when my mom moved from LA to Wilmington, Delaware, her home city and state, to be closer to her family, I knew I was in trouble.

The ToGo's pastrami sandwich...meh, but fine when the cravings came, which was often

In the post high school stage of my life there were various holidays back east to visit my mom, which meant trips to New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, etc. It was at these bustling metropolises I tried a variety of foods; the cheesesteaks in Philly, Chicago dogs, New York style pizza, all that. One thing was for sure though...I got me some fantastic pastrami sandwiches, especially in New York. My favorite was at Katz's Deli on East Houston street. It was a lot like Langer's; loud, busy, brimming with life, very Kosher and most importantly, had an amazing pastrami sandwich. The meat tower over at the Carnegie was just silly to me and the vibe there was way too touristy. Katz's though. That was my east coast jam.

After "dabbling" in college, I moved to San Francisco in 1995 which made me more excited than ever because I knew the food scene there was unbeatable. My pastrami addiction moved to Mission Style Burritos and if you've ever had a Mission Style Burrito, you know why. Still though, I needed to feed the pastrami beast that still lived inside me. I searched the local papers and publications looking for a real deli, when the internet became, well, the internet, I did online searches for the best pastrami in town, I asked locals where I should go, what I should eat and which bus line did I need to get on. Honestly, at that juncture in San Francisco, there wasn't a whole lot of options.

Except one.

A second home in SF if you will
Tommy's Joynt rested on the corner of Geary and Van Ness and was famous for their huge cuts of meat and gargantuan portions per plate. For me, this is where Metallica got Jason Newsted drunk and then announced that he was their new bassist. It was also a return to a corner deli, although in a much louder and drunker capacity. The deli wizards at Tommy's cut thick slices per order and then piled it on soft rolls or crusty bread and the addition of a full bar didn't hurt either.

The pastrami at Tommy's was good. Not Kosher, a bit greasy but still they provided a good sandwich when the perennial fog and drizzle gloom hit. This was my place to tuck in and hide among the crowds, disappearing into a mammoth sandwich and a mug of beer when the bustle of the traffic and onset of hipster bullcrap became too much.

I can't even imagine what it's like now. But in the early 2000's, it was glorious.

Thick and manly, the Tommy's pastrami way

Right before I moved from San Francisco to Tucson in 2006 to be with my now wife, a great little place opened up on upper Polk that I only visited once but was amazed at how they captured the essence of east coast deli.

Miller's was a delight, surrounded by questionable Asian fare and sex shops, and their pastrami sandwich brought me back to snow days in New York, watching the heavily coated community shuffle by in the sleet as I cozily sunk into a hot pastrami on rye. After experiencing Miller's, which wasn't too far from my last apartment on Columbus and Union, I knew I would return for more. Then one chilly night I met She-Ra, two days later I proposed and a month later I moved to Tucson. It's...a long, but lovely story.

You can read all about it in my first book HERE.

We could have been something Miller's, we coulda had a relationship

My first meal in Tucson was breakfast at Blue Willow, which was fine. I was bleary from the 14+ hour drive on no sleep but was happy to watch a brightly colored macaw dance around the back patio who had obviously escaped from the vet clinic next door. The second thing I ate, as She-Ra was driving me around town introducing me to my new home, was a Sonoran hot dog. No, it wasn't from BK or El Guero Canelo, it was from random dude with a cart on some dusty lot and, just like the Mission Burritos, my attention moved from pastrami to those hot dogs for a bit. I think I ate like three or four right then and there. They were unique, delicious and oh so bad for you. I couldn't get enough.

That is until I started to get a little pudgy, especially 'round the middle, then I knew I had to dial the Sonoran hot dog habit down a few notches.

As I began settling into my new home in the Old Pueblo, I knew what my next mission was: to find a great pastrami sandwich.

When I asked around the resounding direction I was pointed towards was a place called Schlomo and Vito's. It was a bit out of the way from our snug garden nook in midtown but, hey, if everyone says this is the place to go in Tucson for pastrami then a mini road trip it is!

The place was nice, a great set up, obviously catering to the more affluent residents surrounding the place. So I ordered my custom sandwich to go and when it was ready I drove out to a scenic spot to eat my first Tucson pastrami sandwich.

The result?


Sorry, this place just didn't live up to the hype

There was a sort of blandness about the whole thing, the sandwich felt as if I was supposed to love it. I didn't love it. The meat lacked inspiration and seasoning which sucks coming from a spot that has "New York Delicatessen" on it's marquee. I've had New York deli pastrami...this wasn't New York deli pastrami. It was more like Montauk pastrami.

I don't know. That was back in 2006 so perhaps they have changed. Hate to say it, but, I haven't been back since.

Then a word came from the Kosher deli underground. In hushed tones, someone told me that a place that used to be called Feig's Deli was now the Fifth Street Deli (which is now under a new name, Eli's) and their pastrami was to die for. Great. So the next chance I got I drove out to see what all the rumors were about.

Now this joint made me feel at home. The guy behind the counter, a rather Hasidic man with the curls and everything, angrily took my order and in a huff made my sandwich. Was it because I am gentile, one with long hair and wearing a High On Fire hoodie, or was he just having a bad day? It didn't matter.

This sandwich ruled.

Thank you Fifth Street Deli, and thank you angry Hasid dude

Whew. Finally, after all this time, traveling hundreds of miles to be with my true love and leaving my city of 12 years behind, I finally grabbed onto a decent pastrami sandwich. It was perfect; simple yet elegant. No cheese (duh), but the meat was cured just right and the bread resonated with Langer's and Katz's divinity. Lovely, just lovely. Welp, I guess I found my sandwich.

Uh, nope. Because I was about to get thrown a pastrami throwback curve ball.

One night, after a screening at The Loft Cinema, a group of us converged to a bar and grill right next door. Called the Red Garter, it was a spot I had been to once before but had a hesitancy to return, mainly because the last time I was there smoking was still permitted in bars and it was a choking smog bank of cigarette pollution. Me having never smoked a cigarette in my life, I nearly died. But now that the smoking ban was in full effect, I decided to give it another go.

It was getting rather late. My buddies and I were a few drinks in. Seeing as I had only eaten lunch many hours ago, my belly was rumbling. Luckily they served food till late so I grabbed a menu and made a pleasant surprise.

The Red Garter had a pastrami sandwich.

Things are about to get real here

Now, knowing the environment I was in and how tipsy I was, my expectation of the sandwich was quite low. Still, I was curious as to how a divey type bar would handle a pastrami sandwich. So I ordered it up and when it arrived I made a very pleasant discovery.

It looked almost exactly like the sandwich from the little corner deli in Glendale! Nearly on the same roll, similar build and presentation but, most importantly, the smell. This pastrami sandwich, in one whiff, brought me back to being a curious nine year old kid, hungry for a sandwich he saw in some show on the TV and immediately became obsessed with. And after taking a bite? I knew I was home.

I almost wanted to go back into the kitchen and look for the nice smiling Vietnamese lady who always greeted me with a knowing "Pastrami?" before I confirmed her prediction and her going to work on it. Now, you may be reading this and are rolling your eyes before yawning and consoling with the local hipster pastrami elite, but for this food guy, this rolly polly writer and lover of all things pastrami, the Red Garter does it old school correctly. Sorry, but their pastrami sandwich is now my birthday treat, as my wife and I watch one of the various o.g. Star Wars movies on the back wall of our favorite bar, and it always takes me back to a more innocent and (palate wise) simpler time.

It might not be the most perfect pastrami in Tucson, but it is perfect for me thanks.

That being said, I want to thank the early Romanians for coming up with the idea and recipe for pastrami and the Kosher sorcerers that made it what it is today. Thank you all the deli kings and queens for assembling and delivering delicious sandwiches to my salivating mouth and to all the future pastrami masters yet to feed me.

Thank you pastrami. You've always been there for me...

Honorable Tucson mentions for pastrami go to: The Sausage Shop, the Sausage Deli, that one time offer at Old Chicago, Daggwoods (rip), Kappy's and Tony's Italian. You guys rock. Cheers!

Photo Archives, Scanning and Typing
"Metal" Mark Whittaker
Late January, 2016

Metal Influence:


  1. well old buddy ....I'm completely with you for the love of pastrami and the hunt for the good stuff.... I have been to the Carnegie and was not that impressed except for the unmanageable height of the thing (plus they almost wouldn't give me any mayo to mix with my mustard)....but a pivotal moment for me was when I visited a bar/tavern that is long since gone and had a grilled pastrami sandwich on a soft French roll that was fashioned from a fattier cut of pastrami that wasn't trimmed and steamed like the traditional deli stuff but rather grilled on a hot flat-top with salt & pepper and garlic powder and Worchester until the edges browned and the fat carmelized .... a total game the god of bacon took an interest in other sandwich meats.....I have yet to find anything that equals this sandwich but the search continues and it stays in the back of my mind that I may have to open a bar and grill to bring this sandwich back to life....anyway it's good to know when I do make it to Tuscon you got my back.....and pastrami will ensue....

  2. and I have been going to Tommy's since I was 13...what a place !