They call it hot pastrami for a reason: it should, unlike revenge, be a dish best served hot.
Alas, it’s not unusual to be served pastrami at room temperature, but there’s one cardinal reason why pastrami should be served hot: warm fat is delicious, silky, and flavorful; cold fat is yucky.
Cold meat can be enjoyable, particularly cold ham or cold turkey. But with pastrami, I really can’t see eating it unless it’s served hot.
The old, now closed Carnegie Deli in New York City, which I’d been visiting since 1971, served a bulging, monstrously big pastrami sandwich, a mountain of meat that was delicious, but had it been a little warmer, it would have been much more delicious. Warmth brings out the subtle flavors of the pastrami and makes the scrumptious fat simply delightful.
Pastrami is usually cut from around the navel; corned beef is usually cut from the brisket. Pastrami is fatter than corned beef. Also, pastrami is smoked and corned beef is boiled, and the boiling melts and removes some of the fat; smoking renders out some fat, too, but as smoking is a low temperature cooking process, not as much fat is going to be lost. And that’s a good thing.
Thick stripes of fat in the best hot pastrami slices are smooth and fragile, almost melting, resting at the cusp between liquid and solid, providing rich blasts of smoky, salty flavor that can be lost as the meat cools.
Too much bread or condiments can smother the taste of pastrami, and although I’ve enjoyed Langer’s famous #19 in Los Angeles, there’s so much on top of it – Swiss cheese, Cole slaw, Russian dressing – that the taste of the pastrami gets lost in the crowd of flavors.
Recently, at The Onion Roll, Carolyn and I shared a “spaceman”-sized sandwich (basically 3 half-sandwiches). Though we had mustard and horseradish at the table, I couldn’t bear to cover over the flavor of the pastrami. In fact, I deconstructed my portion and ate my pastrami on open faced bread slices, the better to let the pastrami taste come through with minimal interference.
The Onion Roll pastrami sandwich was pretty good, not overloaded and about as warm as you’d want it to be. It was also not as fatty as I would have preferred, though I understand that for a health-conscious Oak Park clientele, big seams of fat are not going to be well-accepted. For many, leaner pastrami is preferred, and there’s no denying that’s the healthier choice.
When I order pastrami at a place like Manny’s (1141 S. Jefferson) in Chicago, I make a point of telling the guy at the hot table (usually Gino) that “I’m not afraid of a little fat in there.” For the occasional indulgence, I don’t any of us should be afraid of a little fat.
Next time at Onion Roll, I’m going to ask for my hot pastrami to be a little fattier. Hey, it’s winter, I’ll burn it off fast, and it just tastes better with fat.
National Hot Pastrami Day is January 14.