So the corned beef/pastrami search was a little tougher than the pizza search. And it’s not just because those combo sandwiches were gutbombs and I could really only eat one a week without killing myself.
But there wasn’t as much of a difference from deli to deli. Most of the delicatessens get their meat from a purveyor and I learned that the pastrami I ate at one deli could have been the exact same product from somewhere else. What makes one deli better than another though is how they store the meat (in a steamer), how they slice it, and what they serve it with.
From my research, the only two places that actually make their own meat is Carnegie Deli (they have their own processing plant) and Mile End (who smoke their meat at a commercial kitchen). And you can certainly tell the difference, especially at Mile End where the sandwiches are incredibly complex and you pick up notes of almost all the curing spices and plenty of smoke flavor.
And then how you slice the meat is important. With the exception of the aforementioned Mile End and Katz’s Delicatessen, every other deli slices their meat by a machine. It turns out a consistent product and you can control the thickness of the meat. However, hand sliced meat allows the brisket to stay in the steamer longer and it makes a much more meaty and tender sandwich. And turns the ordering process into a show (I could go just to watch Katz’s slicers do their magic).
And what it’s served with is just as important as the meat itself. And while places like Mill Basin Deli make awesome sides (latke chips) and 2nd Avenue Deli wow you with their complimentary chocolate soda, I’m talking more about the mustard and bread. Homemade mustard sounds nice, but I couldn’t tell the difference from Artie’s recipe and the store bought stuff that Pastrami Queen uses. Rye bread is very important and I prefer to see and taste the caraway seeds, like at Sarge’s. And if you can make a warm, toasty pillow for the meat while still keeping the bread tender and soft, then you know you’ve done something right. I had this experience at both Liebman’s and Mile End (do you see trend here?)
In case you didn’t notice, Mile End was clearly a favorite of mine. It’s the newest of these delis and I can’t rave about them enough. All the food there is great and the Montreal Smoked Meat sandwich is out of this world. Please go and try it. But I can’t crown them the best in this race because I didn’t have a corned beef and pastrami combo sandwich (since they don’t have corned beef on the menu).
So that leaves all the other delis. And I have to say there weren’t too many surprises here. While I discovered some unexpected fantastic sandwiches at Liebmn’s in the Bronx and David’s Brisket House in Brooklyn, I think the best still come down to the three most popular (with locals and tourists) delis in Manhattan: Carnegie, 2nd Avenue, and Katz’s. Carnegie’s sandwiches are monstrous and the meat tastes fresh and homemade. 2nd Avenue is one of the few kosher restaurants I’ve been to that’s managed to keep flavor (and lots of it) in their food. And Katz’s is the mecca of all delis – it’s a huge circus of a restaurant and it turns out classic, tender meat in a showy and extravagant setting.
You really can’t go wrong with any of those three. But if you were visiting New York for one day and wanted to try one quintessential Jewish deli, I’d have to tell you to go to the Lower East Side and experience Katz’s. On your way to Brooklyn to taste the food at Mile End.