Few sandwiches elicit such passionate responses like a classic pastrami sandwich. (As one deli owner told me, “The Reuben and the pastrami are the Adam and Eve of deli sandwiches. Everything else came from there.”)
While the idea of a hot pastrami loaded onto rye bread smeared with mustard has been around since 1888 when Lithuanian immigrant Sussman Volk opened a small counter shop in New York’s Lower East Side, the concept of brining & spicing meat goes back hundreds of years.
The name pastrami comes from the Romanian verb păstra, which means “to conserve or preserve food” for later consumption. A centuries-old method of preserving meat, the process involves several steps. The raw meat is brined, partially dried, seasoned, and then smoked. Most preparations involve heating sliced meat through steaming or boiling before serving.
In the pantheon of delicatessen lunch options, the pastrami sandwich is royalty. Whether it’s hot or cold, there is no shortage of opinions on how it should be made and served. Twice-baked rye or marbled for the bread? Steamed or boiled meat? Mustard of course, but sweet or spicy? I visited some delis around town to learn more, and the results were enlightening. From old-school versions to cutting-edge recipes, there is no shortage of places to enjoy this venerable lunch classic.
Here are 5 killer pastrami sandwich makers (and sandwiches) around Boston you need to try.
Michael’s Deli, Brookline
When owner Steven Peljovich bought Michael’s Deli seven years ago, he knew he wanted to bring his “mi casa es su casa” way of doing business to the famous deli. Seven years later, that vibe is still alive and well. Winners of numerous awards and featured on Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations”, Peljovich and his team still focus on the same customer service and sandwich quality as the day he took over the reigns.
When asked what his secret is, Peljovich comfortably replies, “Our meats. It’s what we think and talk about.” Sourced from the Bronx, Michael’s Deli takes pride in finishing their briskets in-house before cooking each sandwich to order in their high-pressure steamers. “We prefer this way of cooking because the the meat is much less salty. It’s not soaking in liquid,” he says.
Peljovich’s personal favorite combination - steamed pastrami on rye with a heap of sauerkraut and a thick smear of spicy pepper relish - is an amazing combination of salty, sour, and spicy flavors colliding with each mouthwatering bite. Other house specialties include The Big Lebowski (pastrami, turkey, hots, sauerkraut, and Russian dressing served on Cissel rye bread), and the Thorty Black & Gold named for Bruin Shawn Thornton (pastrami, cheddar, and honey mustard served on a bulkie roll.)
While they are happy to serve your sandwich any way you like, one thing is non-negotiable. The pickle. “If it doesn’t have a pickle, it’s wrong. With a pickle is the way to eat a deli sandwich.” If you’re all sandwiched out, Michael’s Deli also offers nine different knishes daily, soups, kashas, and kugels - all homemade. Just make sure to bring cash. Credit cards aren’t accepted.
At Michael’s Deli, the goal is good eating. As Peljovich jovially exclaims, “I’m ready to feed you!”
256 Harvard St., Brookline, 617-738-3354, michaelsdelibrookline.com
Beantown Pastrami Company, Boston
Using meats sourced from New England farms and bread from Boston bakeries, Beantown Pastrami Company keeps it local. Offering a menu of five sandwiches with a handful of sides and beverages, they also keep it simple. Bread choices include light rye, sourdough, and even a gluten-free option. Their New York-style pastrami is seasoned and prepared each morning, then steamed for hours to keep the flavor and quality high. Make sure to save room for a half-sour or spicy pickle.
Boston Public Market, 100 Hanover St., Boston, 617-943-0705, beantownpastrami.com
Our Fathers Restaurant and Delicatessen, Boston
Named Best Deli in Boston in 2018 by Boston Magazine, Our Fathers may be Boston’s best competitor against the old-school Jewish delis in New York City and general manager Andrew Znidarsic isn’t afraid to say it. “There is no better pastrami in the county,” he asserts confidently. “It’s ballsy to say with Katz Deli in New York City and Langer’s in Los Angeles, but I really believe it.”
Biting into a sandwich, his argument becomes more compelling. The satisfying crunch of the twice-baked rye bread gives way to the intense Ba-Tampte mustard. The spicy condiment is applied to both sides of the sandwich. “There’s no upside-down way to eat our sandwich,” he says. “The flavor goes edge to edge.” The wide slabs of Navel brisket in the center are rich and unbelievably tender, the result of nearly two years of research and taste-testing by owner Dave DuBois. It takes two weeks to prepare a brisket for cutting, and the result is unquestionably amazing.
Znidarsic’s favorite sandwich is the Pastrami Rachel, loaded with coleslaw, Swiss cheese, and Russian dressing. “The hot, fatty pastrami hits the cold coleslaw and dressing.” he comments. “The whole point is the temperature variation. It’s great!”
All sandwiches are served with a pickle and a pickled green tomato wedge. “People are surprised to see the tomato,” Znidarsic admits. “But they love the tangy bite. We’re making a lot of friends with that.”
197 North Harvard St., Boston, 617-303-0101, ourfathersboston.com
Sam LaGrassa’s, Boston
Tucked into a little side street a block outside Downtown Crossing is Sam Lagrassa’s, a downtown lunch institution that’s been serving hungry Bostonians since 1968. Their menu features soups, chowders, salads, and sides in addition to sandwiches. Lots and lots of sandwiches, including the Southwestern Pastrami (pictured above), most of them involving meat.
When describing their Famous Rumanian Pastrami, adjectives need to include “enormous” and “hefty”. Cooked with brown sugar and secret ingredients they won’t share, the meat is tender and rich with just a hint of sweetness. Thickly piled onto light rye bread with mustard, this monster easily conquers the biggest appetites.
44 Province St., Boston, 617-357-6861, samlagrassas.com
Mamaleh’s Delicatessen, Cambridge
This is one of the only places I know of in Boston that serves egg creams. If you’re not familiar, it’s a New York drink made from syrup, milk, and seltzer. No, there’s no egg in it. Yes, you should visit Mamaleh’s to try one. They are delicious.
Mamaleh’s menu is loaded with classic Jewish fare, including house-cured lox, chopped liver sandwiches, and matzah ball soup. Peek at the available sandwiches, and you’ll see Reubens, patty melts, hot corned beef, and of course...pastrami.
Piled high with brisket that is cured, brined, and steamed in-house, the hot pastrami is beyond satisfying. Seeded rye is the standard bread used, but others are available including a homemade gluten-free option. Mustard is assumed unless otherwise requested, and they hold firm to that. Be sure to leave room for one of their amazing old-fashioned sodas or milkshakes.
15 Hampshire St., Cambridge, 617-958-3354, mamalehs.com