I grew up on ethnic deli foods virtually unobtainable today, outside of a few haunts in Brooklyn, Montreal and possibly Los Angeles. Who today eats the jellied meat aspic ptcha, the sour sorrel soup schav, or kishke, the stuffed cow’s intestine traditionally scraped and hung on a clothesline to dry before stuffing?
What survive in today’s idiom of Ashkenaz—or Eastern European Jewish—foods are pastrami, corned beef and matzo ball soup, although credible versions are hard to find, even in Vegas.
But if those foods are your glass of tea, take heart. Tommy Pastrami, a newcomer franchise that started in that hotbed of Yiddish culture, Orange County, might just be your best, last hope in the Vegas Valley, unless you want to drown yourself in a trencherman’s-sized tummy-stuffer at the Mirage’s Carnegie Deli.
Pastrami, for the record, is merely smoked corned beef, often crusted with spices. Good pastrami, and that includes a Tommy’s sandwich, is also taken from the navel, an obloid sized hunk of meat that sits below the cow’s stomach. An inferior cut, called the deckle, is far cheaper.
For me, then, the Holy Grail of American pastrami is at Langer’s in LA, with Katz’s in New York City close behind. Both slow-steam and hand-cut their meat, but I’d give Langer’s the nod because the meat is served on double-baked rye bread from Fred’s Bakery on Robertson Boulevard.
Order pastrami on white with lettuce, tomato and (gasp!) mayonnaise, and there will be a hue and cry of the sort that once prompted actor Zero Mostel to stand up on a table at the Second Avenue Deli and scream “get out of this restaurant.”
We purists only eat pastrami on rye, with mustard. Ditto for corned beef. I realize that the Reuben sandwich is popular, but it is an innovation. According to Jewish dietary law, milk and meat products may not be eaten together, so there is no such thing as a Reuben, at least in the folk history. (It requires Swiss cheese.)
Tommy, then, a pleasantly nondescript mall storefront with a wooden floor and a few rather contrived-looking, black-and-white photos of the Motherland (N’Yawk), serves a generous, well-seasoned, properly fatty pastrami sandwich on decent rye bread, albeit the meat machine-sliced, and rolled up into a sort of ball-like object.
Owner Ray Blackshear also has the good sense (and good taste) to make the fine Ba-Tampte deli mustard the house mustard, and throw in a few Dr. Brown sodas as well. So when I grilled him about his meats, a couple came to his rescue, telling me that “we drive all the way from Anthem to eat here.” How could I have told them I drive all the way to Los Angeles for Langer’s?
I’d like to be able to explain why a hand-cut sandwich tastes better, but the telling is elusive. If you can’t appreciate the odd bits of spice, fat and smoky meat that are unpredictably random when the meat is cut by an experienced counterman or the mouthfeel of a thick, as opposed to a thin, uniform slice, I can’t elaborate.
So for now, I’ll content myself with a Tommy, or even the restaurant’s excellent brisket, the unsmoked, unspiced version of this meat, which Blackshear serves as either a straight-up sandwich au jus, or with a smoky, sweet barbecue sauce. It is also worth noting that the brisket is kept “wet,” or in its juice, and the pastrami dry. Some people even like “wet” pastrami, meaning sliced, and sitting in liquid. I’d rather eat gruel, personally.
Now, a word or two about the delicious house potato knish, so tasty that even a stint in the microwave can’t ruin its texture, and the matzo ball soup, a nice broth laden with what looks to be around six ounces of pulled chicken meat, plus carrot, celery and one large fluffy matzo ball. Both of these dishes are worth a try, and so, for that matter, is the house-made potato salad, shot through with egg and olive.
Sometimes the place stocks cheesecake—they were out on both of my visits—but there is always a Black and White cookie or a fudgy brownie on hand, if you insist. It’s a shame that this location, near Henderson’s Valley Automall, has suffered because of a slow economy, but here’s hoping it will bounce back.
I’ll just have to get my kishke somewhere else.