Let's Eat

Getting spicy with the beef

Salt beef is the traditional favourite here, but in the US, pastrami is king


Micah Wexler has good looks and a celebrity following - but what he's best known for is pastrami.

This deli staple, far preferred to salt beef in the US, is a big deal to American Jews and non-Jews alike, even though it's underappreciated and hard to find properly made in the UK.  The fondness our Stateside brethren have for it could be because it was brought to America by a 19th century wave of Romanian-Jewish immigrants who settled on New York's Lower East Side rather than London's Spitalfields, creating a market for it in the Big Apple. As their descendants headed west, the spiced-meat treat spread to Chicago and California.

British Jews never got the same exposure to the real thing in the early days, and mass-produced attempts at popularising pastrami have done it no justice: "There are too many poor, industrially made versions circulating here; people don't get the access to properly made pastrami they do in the States," explains Ben Tish of London's Salt Yard group, who makes his own pastrami for home consumption.

Justin Davies also makes pastrami for patrons of the north-west London Delisserie chain as does Mark Ogus, whose pastrami sandwiches are a staple at Monty's Jewish Deli in Bermondsey. Yet it doesn't always sell out: "The Brits are much more used to salt beef," says Ogus, while Davies adds: "Pastrami is better understood in South Africa, where we Delisserie owners come from. In the Delisserie, it sells most successful as thinly sliced pastrami 'bacon' to serve with fried eggs."

But back to Wexler, whose meaty star wars with rival pastrami-maker Norm Langer are the talk of La La Land.  Wexler is the new kid on the block, 70 years after Norm's dad, Al, created the gold standard in what is essentially salted, spiced and long-smoked brisket of beef.

"I grew up with pastrami; deli food was a staple of all our family events," says Wexler, who admits his grandparents' favourite LA restaurant was Langer's. He is gracious enough to admit his rivals' pastrami sandwich influenced his own approach to deli food - "which is the rule that both the mustard and the rye bread have to be as good as the meat, given that they're its perfect partners".

What distinguishes Wexler from others in the deli world is that he is a chef trained to deliver three-Michelin-star food. He has worked with both Joel Robuchon and San Sebastian superstar Martin Berasategui, but chose to put fine dining behind him and embrace the heimishe food of his childhood.  "I'm still a perfectionist but now I'm focussed on creating perfection in a genre which is considered all-American," he explains.

That perfection has been honed by starting in the simplest way possible and doing just a few things very well.   Until May this year, he ran a pastrami and smoked-salmon stand (branded Wexlers) with half a dozen stools in Grand Central, the old LA Latino food market that has evolved into a trendy eat-in lunch hall for the arty downtown crowd. Now there is also a smart sit-down deli in Santa Monica, the seaside neighbourhood with a large Jewish population. He explains that a large kitchen will enable him to expand his very short menu: "Just enough to attract locals who might want to ring the changes now and then."

Not too much, though, for that pastrami is still the star of the show - and it's a real performance to make. First comes the spiced brine, in which the meat marinates for at least a week; then the spice rub in which it sits and dries for a day before you need to smoke it over wood for three hours. Finally it gets a very long, slow cook till it's meltingly tender. Only then is it ready to slice and pack into a Wexler's sandwich.

Tish feels five days is long enough to bathe the meat in brine, which he sweetens with honey and treacle as well as scenting with aromatic spices. The touch of heat comes later, in a rub of black pepperorns and coriander seeds. In his view, the only way to make pastrami is to smoke it on a charcoal barbecue: "I think industrial versions disappoint because the manufacturers try to bypass the smoking step. They add smoke flavour, but there's no substitute for real smoke made from lighting wood." Ogus and Davies agree that smoke is essential, but both use a commercial smoker.

When it comes to eating it, traditionalists will find mustard an indispensible accompaniment, but Tish prefers horseradish, fast-pickled after it's been sprinkled with salt and sugar.  That might not be how they eat it in LA, but now that slow-cooked brisket and pickled vegetables have established themselves in the British consciousness, it might be time for us Brits to get to grips with the spicy treat that's more in tune with our evolved palates than bland salt beef.

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