Scot’s Lunch Box: A Weekend in Pastrami, California

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Katz's Pastrami

Slicing Pastrami at Katz's Deli, New York City. Are you old enough to remember When Harry Met Sally?

Horrors of the Left Coast

For Pastrami purists, Los Angeles is a nightmare.

Make no mistake about it, L.A. is a pastrami town through and through. The early days of the film industry attracted waves of Jewish transplants to the city, and pastrami naturally traveled with its loyal following. But something strange happened here, and traditional deli preparations of pastrami began to distance itself from its New York roots.

Traditional Jewish enclaves in the L.A. region were gradually infused with the burgeoning Latino population, who not only embraced the classic deli style pastrami, but began to fuse it with their own tastes. The pastrami burrito was born, and today it can be found on the menu of many of L.A.’s taco shops, and is a specialty at Oki Dogs where two hot dogs, pastrami and chili are wrapped in a flour tortilla. Gotta love a heart attack waitin’ to happen.

Once that line was broken, the floodgates opened and Californians found more and more ways to utilize pastrami in their own unique style. Pastrami topped burgers are commonplace, as are pastrami hot dogs and pastrami chili-cheese fries. Yes, you can still find a great pastrami on rye bread just like the best of New York’s delis, but Angeleno’s love their pastrami on a French roll.

A Word About Pastrami

Pastrami is nothing more than good corned beef that has been spiced and smoked – a European technique that was invented to preserve meat before refrigeration was common. Sadly, you can’t get good pastrami at your local supermarket. That’s right, those ultra-lean slices of Boar’s Head and other brands at your local mega-mart’s deli counter are NOT good pastrami. Great pastrami will have a good amount of fat on the edges (this is not diet food my friends), that coats the meat when heated and imparts it’s characteristic  flavor on your palate. Seek out a good local deli that makes their own and you will be rewarded with a moist, succulent meat that is packed with flavor – settle for that supermarket brand and there is nothing but disappointment in your future.

My Youth Comes Back to Haunt Me

This funky little place on the left was about 1/2 mile down the street from my high school in Las Vegas – an imitation of a downtown Los Angeles institution, the Kosher Burrito. These suckers were phenomenal!

The Kosher burrito is exactly what you think it is: a flour tortilla filled with pastrami, California-style chili, cheddar cheese, pickles, onions and mustard. It was born in the heart of L.A. when a Jewish deli stand adjusted their menu to appeal to the tastes of the ever-growing number of Mexican workers in the area. Though the original L.A. restaurant and my beloved Vegas imitation are gone today, their memory lives on in my heart.

When you’re talking pastrami and California, the Kosher Burrito has to be in the mix.

Kosher burrito

For any burrito that you make at home, always start with dry ingredients on the outside so your burrito doesn’t get soggy. Here we begin with nice layer of your favorite cheddar, adding a good pastrami (note the thin strands of fat) that is steamed to heat, along with some classic coarse-grained deli mustard and sour pickle. This is a California-style chili like you would find on chili-cheese fries, without beans and mild in flavor.

Kosher burritoChili is the condiment here, so don’t sweat it if you don’t want to spend all day making championship chili- yes, you can make your own, use a good packaged mix like Carrol Shelby’s, or buy a good chili brick like the XLNT brand (a dead ringer for Tommy’s famous L.A. chili). Pictured above is the first layer, I added another another layer of pastrami, chili, and cheese to finish.

This was an interesting burrito, but like many of our old memories, it just didn’t live up to the remembrances. It was good, but the unique flavors of chili and pastrami seemed to cancel each other out, leaving a curiously bland combination. Why this particular taste has stuck with me for 30 years I just can’t say.

Rusty Chef Scot’s Kosher Burrito Rating: 2 Dull Knives

Big Mac It Ain’t

If there’s anyplace in America that has a long-standing love affair with the burger like California, I’d be surprised. In the mid ’20s, the Rite Spot in Pasadena invented the cheeseburger and in 1948 In-n-Out Burger created the nation’s first drive through window. It comes as no surprise that Los Angeles pastrami purveyors like The Hat in Alhambra have had a pastrami burger on their menu since the 1950′s.

It’s a simple idea, really, think about your favorite bacon cheeseburger and sub out the bacon for pastrami. The key to success is to pan-fry or griddle your pastrami slices – the fat will begin to cook out and the meat will become slightly crispy on the edges. Like your bacon, pastrami is a smoked meat, but the spices used to cure the beef add a wonderful compliment to the burger. American cheese is typical on this burger, but feel free to try Swiss or a combination of both. Condiments are almost typical but not what you would consider “Californian” – a good quality mustard, pickles and onions are standard. Mayonnaise is optional, as are lettuce and tomato. You will never find ketchup or California-style burger sauce (read thousand island here), and the beloved California ingredients like avocado or sprouts would be a travesty.

This is a very interesting variation of a cheeseburger. The pastrami adds a completely unique flavor that is very much at home with the ground beef. The best side dish for this great burger is another California invention – chili cheese fries. I had no fries in the freezer and being way too lazy to go through the required peeling, slicing and double-frying of making my own, I just served chili-cheese potatoes. No one bitched about it.

Rusty Chef’s Pastrami Burger Rating: 2 1/2 Carving Knives


 

Thank You Officer French

One legend has it that the French Dip sandwich was created at the restaurant Philippe The Original in downtown Los Angeles. One day in 1918, while serving up a roast beef sandwich to a policeman named French, the roll was accidentally dropped into beef juices. Undaunted, the officer said he would take the sandwich anyway. The next day he returned and asked the owner to dip his sandwich into the juices again. Philippe’s has had the customers lining up by the hundreds every day since.

Today at Philippe’s you can get the classic beef, roast pork, leg of lamb, turkey or ham. But throughout the Los Angeles area, there is one more version of the French Dip sandwich that is winning the hearts and stomachs of everyone who stumbles across it.

The Pastrami Dip.

Just like the best delis on the East Coast, thinly sliced pastrami meat is piled high, but out here in California, the French roll trumps rye bread. Swiss cheese and hot mustard (I really mean hot!) are optional. Unlike the original French dips though, the au jus is served in a bowl on the side for dipping to prevent the bread from becoming a soggy soup-like lump at the end. A tip for your au jus: Minor’s or Johnny’s concentrates are restaurant quality sauces that are a liquid you combine with boiling water – seek them out, they’re worth it.

This was by far my favorite of California’s pastrami offerings. I found the best way to heat pastrami to keep it moist without overcooking is steaming it.  I toasted the bread by buttering it and tossing it under the broiler for 2 minutes, then added the cheese to melt. I kept the California tradition by using American cheese, but use what you like.

This will make you Snoopy-dance happy and leave you wondering if you will ever need rye bread again.

Rusty Chef Scot’s Pastrami Dip Rating: 3 1/2 Gleaming Knives

 

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  1. [...] is a little like a walking, talking version of the local specialty known as the Kosher Burrito: pastrami wrapped in a tortilla. Indeed, he’s proud of it: “That’s me!” he exclaimed when I [...]

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