Let’s get this out of the way: There is no pastrami in the Twin Cities as good as Katz’s / Langer’s / your favorite place in Montreal. But wait! Don’t stop reading! Just because nobody in town quite reaches the unattainable heights of Katz’s in New York City doesn’t mean that there aren’t quite a few places in town to get a great pastrami sandwich.
But first, a primer. Pastrami, as a lady-friend of George Costanza said, is “the most sensual of all the salted, cured meats,” and it is a multistep process that makes it so. The beef is brined in salt water, rubbed with spices, smoked, and steamed. The ideal result is pink on the inside, coated with dark, aromatic spices on the outside, and most importantly, melt-in-your-mouth tender. Salt, spices, smoke, and steam. Simple enough, right?
So what makes pastrami so widely variable? It starts with the cut of meat. Many traditional Jewish delicatessens use a fattier, navel-end cut of brisket. Some people believe this is the “right” way. Others like a leaner pastrami, made from trimmed brisket. The spice rub varies, but it almost always includes black pepper and coriander. Because brisket is a tough cut of meat with lots of connective tissue, tender pastrami requires time for the connective tissue to break down.
Despite our predilection for Katz’s, we ate every pastrami sandwich in the Twin Cities that we could get our hands on, and we did so with an open mind. Some were house-made. Some boasted pastrami that came from places eastward. Some were served hot on rye bread, naked but for a smear of mustard. Some were served with cheese and coleslaw on fluffy bread. One place had the nerve to serve pastrami cold on a crusty baguette, topped with everything but the kitchen sink. There were a couple of home runs, some solid hits, and very few outright misses.
Cecil’s Deli (651 Cleveland Ave S, St. Paul) has been serving Jewish (but not kosher) deli favorites (matzo ball soup, pastrami, lox) in Highland Park for more than 65 years. With a full-service grocery in the front and a restaurant in back, the place is a neighborhood hub and an institution. Cecil’s told us that they “go through quite a bit” of pastrami (below) and it would be very difficult to make enough in house to meet the demand, so they use Vienna Beef pastrami ($8.29 regular, $11.29 New York).
The meat is cut thin and has a somewhat mass-produced, briny flavor and a texture that was a little too tough for our taste. Where the sandwich really shines is the bread, which they bake in house in an old oven that uses steam injection to give it a chewy crust. For our money, visit Cecil’s for the Sasha ($9.89), a phenomenal grilled pastrami sandwich with a fried egg, Swiss cheese, and a highly addictive mayo and mustard dressing they call “bird sauce.”
With salamis hanging in the deli as you walk in, Mort’s Delicatessen (525 Winnetka Ave N, Golden Valley) is self-consciously evocative of the Lower East Side prototype. The dining room walls display larger-than-life pictures from the old Jewish North Side of Minneapolis, and the menu is ringed with celebratory expressions, including a few random Yiddish words like “bubbie” and “nosh.” Mort’s imports its pastrami (above) from Carnegie Deli in New York and then steams and slices it in house. The sandwich ($9 half, $13 whole) is tall, commensurate with its East Coast origins, though a lot of the height is due to the thickly sliced, fluffy caraway rye — the kind of bread that sticks to the inside of your teeth. And the salty meat was a little dry, despite a visible ribbon of fat.
Crossroads Delicatessen (2795 Hedberg Dr, Hopkins) is another iteration of the modern Jewish delicatessen, with a counter in front and restaurant in the back. They get their pastrami (above, $13) from “out east,” specifically from Sy Ginsberg, a brand of United Foods in Detroit, where it is smoked to Crossroads’ specifications. They slice it in house, and the result is relatively lean, but not very smoky or noticeably spiced. As at Cecil’s, the made-from-scratch bread — both the marble rye and caraway rye — stands out as the highlight of the sandwich. In a slight diversion from form, Crossroads has Mustard Girl American Dijon on the table instead of brown mustard, and it worked perfectly. Be sure to try their pickles and pickled beets; both are excellent.
Prime Deli (4224 Minnetonka Boulevard, St. Louis Park) is a newcomer and a rarity for being a certified kosher restaurant. Their pastrami sandwich (above, $9 regular, $15 large) is made with ultralean brisket, sliced medium thin, and neatly folded between slices of caraway rye. The meat is cooked in house, and the spice blend strikes that Lower East Side note. Lovers of fatty pastrami will want to look elsewhere, but if you like a leaner cut, this is your best bet. Half-sour and full sour pickles and pickled green tomatoes come on the side to complete the experience.
Our Yiddishe heart was filled with sadness as we sat in The Brothers Deli (50 S Sixth St, Skyway Level, Minneapolis), eating our pastrami sandwich (above) and watching the business-casual masses line up by the hundreds across the skyway at a trendy, fast-casual Mexican chain. Sure, occasionally we like a gut-bomb, and we didn’t have too much trouble finding a table at Brothers during the lunch rush, but come on people! You are right next to one of the best delis in town, and there is hardly a line! Fatty and spicy, the Brothers’ pastrami sandwich ($6.50 regular, $10 New York size) is excellent, and a good bargain to boot. It comes with either their great house made-potato chips or the even greater pickle / sides bar, which includes Asian-spiced green beans and, of course, multiple kinds of pickles. Owner Jeff Burstein was unequivocally clear: Brothers uses navel cut brisket (none of that lean nonsense), and they make it in house using a family recipe that goes back to when Brothers was a local deli dynasty. It’s a shanda that the downtown Minneapolis location is the only one remaining, and that it is open only on weekdays and only until 2 p.m. So if you don’t work Downtown, call in sick and head to Brothers.
Along with Brothers, Be’Wiched Deli (800 Washington Ave N, Minneapolis) is probably the closest you are going to get to your favorite New York / LA / Montreal pastrami sandwich. The meat is coated with aromatic spices, tastes of just a tinge of smoke, and is so tender it falls apart with every bite. The bread is thinly sliced and was a little bit dry, which actually helps to hold the works together. The sandwich (above) comes with scant pickled cabbage that adds a hint of tang and crunch. The New York size ($15) is laugh-out-loud enormous, but you’ll be sad when it’s over. A regular size ($9.50) would be enough for any normal appetite. Our only complaint is that the little skewers of pickle and olive left us wanting more. A sandwich that large deserves more pickles. Firm believers that it is never too early in the day for pastrami, Be’wiched serves the P&E (pastrami and egg, $8.50) on their breakfast and brunch menus.
The big surprise of our pastrami tour was Clancey’s Meats and Fish in Linden Hills (4307 Upton Ave S, Minneapolis). Their sandwiches are the stuff of legends: a Rustica baguette overly stuffed with meat and myriad toppings and condiments. We passed on their pastrami back in our younger, naive days as a strict New York Deli adherent, but we are older and wiser now. The pastrami (below, $10) isn’t an everyday offering, but if it isn’t on the board, ask for it, and you might get lucky.
Sliced to order and served cold, the meat is transcendent. It’s deeply smoky, spicy, and despite the lack of steam, tender as well. When they ask if you’d like it with everything, say yes. Everything includes coleslaw, lettuce, cheese, brown mustard, red onion, mayo, pickled peppers, roasted red peppers, salt, pepper, and freshly ground horseradish. Clancey’s does just about everything well, and their pastrami is no exception.
The press leading up to the opening of Nighthawks (3753 Nicollet Ave S, Minneapolis) bragged about their game-changing pastrami (above, $13 regular, $18 New York). We sat at the counter overlooking the kitchen and watched them slice the bread, slather it with kewpie mayo and Uncle Pete’s mustard, and cut the meat from a sous-vide bag, from whence it slithered forth onto our sandwich. It was an inelegant process and the result was mixed. The bread was a fresh rye with a delicate, soft crumb and a pronounced rye bitterness. The pastrami was decadently tender with bacon-like ribbons of fat, so tender in fact that the mayo pushed it over the edge to unctuous. It was so infused with smoke and spices that the nostril-singeing mustard was a distraction when we’d rather have used our schnoz for smelling and tasting the pastrami. While the pastrami itself was excellent, we found the sandwich as a whole too soft and too fatty. Order it without the mayo, change up the mustard (sorry Uncle Pete), and there’s probably a great sandwich there.
Eli’s (multiple locations) and Lowertown newcomer Ox Cart Ale House (255 E 6th St, St. Paul) are doing similar pastrami sandwiches: thickly cut, fluffy bread grilled on the flattop, pastrami, coleslaw, and cheese. Eli’s ($10) uses Swiss; Ox Cart ($13) uses horseradish Havarti. Both restaurants make their pastrami in house, and both sandwiches were flawed in the same way: when you take a bite, the pastrami pulls out of the sandwich. Maybe it didn’t spend enough time in steam or maybe it was cooked too quickly. Ox Cart’s pastrami had a good spicy flavor and we’ll definitely be back to revisit when they’ve been open a little longer. The sandwiches at Eli’s and Ox Cart reminded us of the life-altering corned beef sandwich at Paddy Shack, which proves that pastrami isn’t the only sensual salted, cured meat.
It’s worth mentioning in passing that pastrami can be found in some unexpected and ephemeral places. We tried a pastrami dog at World Street Kitchen. It tasted like a really good hot dog. Common Roots had a nitrate-free pastrami sandwich on their menu this past spring. Blue Door Pub does a Jucy Blucy stuffed with pastrami, pepper jack, pickles, and cream cheese. Several years ago, we happened upon the spiciest, most tender pastrami at a pop-up at the Turf Club. We might not be New York City, but we’re doing just fine.