Is Pastrami the New Bacon?

These 7 spectacular smoked beef creations take everyone's favorite Jewish deli meat to an entirely new level
March 18, 2014
by Meesha Halm

For a region that doesn't have a strong Jewish culinary heritage, pastrami is suddenly showing up on a surprising number of San Francisco menus. And we're not just talking about mile-high sandwiches on rye bread with a dill pickle. Local chefs are reinventing the humble deli meat to spectacular effect: from a Japanese-inspired “pastramen” - The Trappist's sell-out SF Beer Week sensation - to La Pastrami's pastrami-filled quesadilla. Check out this slide show showcasing SF's 7 most ingenious, genre-bending pastrami dishes, including bonus evidence that pastrami just might be giving bacon a run for its smoky nitrates. 

Kung Pao Pastrami at Mission Chinese Food ($12)

Inspiration: Danny Bowien’s popular East-meets-West culinary mash-up, kung pao pastrami, is just one example of the mad-genius cookery that makes Mission Chinese Food famous. His smoky, meaty take on traditional kung pao chicken was inspired by the twice-cooked pork and peppers entree at Spices and the popular use of smoked ham in Hunan cuisine.

Technique: Bowien doesn’t make his own pastrami from scratch but he does much of the curing and smoking on-site. He brines the meat overnight to achieve his desired salinity, then coats it with a mustard-and-spice rub. Finally, he smokes it for eight hours at 215 F degrees.

The Twist: The final dish features slices of pastrami, stir-fried with potatoes, peanuts, celery, red bell pepper and several types of spicy chile peppers - for an incendiary finish.

Why It's a Bacon Threat: Bowien’s kung pao creation has been a hit on the menu since Mission Chinese Food opened in San Francisco in 2010. And you've gotta give him credit for the chutzpah it took to bring the dish to the Lower East Side, aka the pastrami capital of the world, where it was wildly received by the dining public as well as critics of the New York Times and New Yorker.

Pastrami With Mustard at Alta, CA ($13)

The Inspiration: Chef Yoni Levy grew up eating pastrami sandwiches and fondly remembers going to Jewish delis in Chicago and LA with his grandparents and other relatives. “I’ve always loved pastrami,” reminisces Levy, “so at Alta, I wanted to figure out how to make it myself.”

The Twist: Forget the gut bomb. Although you can order pastrami on rye at lunch, Levy’s favorite way to serve it is straight up like charcuterie, plated as a mound of thin-sliced ribbons of deep-purple meat offset by a ring of tangy whole grain mustard. Really missing the bread? Order a side of house-baked bialys, filled with smoked onions and served with a cream cheese schmear.

The Technique: Levy brines the meat for six days in a mixture of traditional pastrami pickling spices, sugar and garlic, then gives it a good rub with more coriander and black pepper and slow hot smokes it for approximately five hours.

Why It's a Bacon Threat: Because he opts to use beef knuckle, an extremely lean cut, Levy doesn't end up with hunks of fat, just a complex combination of sweet, smoky and almost jerkylike meaty flavor. The dish has evidently become a popular late-night item among off-of-work chefs.

Pastrami Potato Waffle With Sauerkraut and Mustard at Lt. Waffles ($9)

The Inspiration: With limited cooking space and a steady supply of pastrami trimmings at his disposal (courtesy of partner restaurant Mission Chinese Food), owner Anthony Myint was looking for an easy-to-execute savory option for his walkup Mission waffle shop. The answer is this dish, which turns the classic Jewish comfort food, potato latkes, on its head. 

The Technique: Myint starts with what is essentially a potato latke batter (modified for a Belgian waffle maker), folds in cubes of tender pastrami and then presses it into the iron to form a rectangular-shaped pancake.

The Twist: The waffle emerges crispy on the outside, soft in the inside and bursting with umami, thanks to the savory bits of smoked meat and a slight tang imparted by the slow-rising yeasted batter. To cut the richness, it’s accompanied by a heap of freshly made sauerkraut and crunchy housemade mustard studded with pickled mustard seeds.

Why It's a Bacon Threat: “Brisket is an affordable cut of meat,” explains Myint, yet “through a labor of love, it can be made into something that’s far more desirable than filet mignon and more interesting than a plain braise.”

Pastrami Cheese Fries at Wise Sons Delicatessen ($8), 24th Street branch only

The Inspiration: Evan Bloom and Leo Beckerman of Wise Sons make good on their nickname (“the pastrami people”) by showcasing their signature house-cured meat in over a dozen menu items. The duo wanted to come up with a killer french fry dish but didn’t want to serve pork at their restaurant, so instead they turned to pastrami to provide that “craveable” X factor.

The Technique: To make the french fry topping, the kitchen seasons ground pastrami with onions and fresh herbs and spices such as thyme, garlic and bay and chile de arbol, ending up with something that resembles faux bacon bits, albeit far tastier.

The Twist: “You can call them Jewish nachos,” says Bloom, referring to his pastrami cheese fries, “but that wouldn’t do them justice.” The twice-cooked Kennebac potatoes come smothered with Swiss béchamel sauce and a generous sprinkling of crumbled pastrami, topped with chopped pickles and scallions for balance. To cut the richness of the dish, we recommend dipping the fries into the slightly spicy Russian dressing that comes on the side.

Why It's a Bacon Threat: Because pastrami is brined and smoked, it carries the same flavor profile that makes bacon so popular, explains Bloom. “It’s smoky, peppery, sweet and salty, so it works pretty much anywhere bacon would normally go.”

Pastrami Tacos at Foreign Cinema ($8 for 2 tacos)

The inspiration: Foreign Cinema employs an in-house charcutier who makes the pastrami for Machine Deli and Machine Coffee, its mid-Market sandwich and coffee shop. Given the complicated and time-consuming cooking process, owners Gayle Pirie and John Clark wanted to utilize the coveted leftovers to create a robustly flavored appetizer that could stand up to the restaurant’s signature cocktails.

The Technique: Pirie adores the “old-world” process of making pastrami, particularly the heavy use of fragrant spices that she considers vital to the proper curing - coriander, black peppercorns, mustard seeds, paprika, onion, garlic, salt and brown sugar - all of which, when paired with time in a smoker, gives the meat its addictive nature.

The Twist: Although a taco is the opposite of what someone might associate with pastrami, Pirie enjoys appropriating the Eastern Europe staple to Mexican cuisine. Hunks of smoked meat are sliced into warm corn tortillas and then topped with tangy cabbage slaw, red onions and salsa.

Why It’s a Bacon Threat: Ongoing supply: Foreign Cinema is currently in the middle of making its next batch of pastrami, so it’s just a matter of time before you'll see pastrami tacos featured on its bar menu and at its adjacent nightspot Laszlo.

Pastrami Meatloaf Sandwich at Shorty Goldstein's ($12)

The Inspiration: Shorty Goldstein’s, the weekday-only Jewish deli in the Fidi, serves pastrami in a variety of ways, including hefty sandwiches like the Rachel and several eggs dishes. But on Mondays, it makes a stealth appearance in the meatloaf sandwich - because chef-owner Mike Siegel wanted to take the humble staple to the next level.

The Technique: To build a better meatloaf, Siegel grinds up the leftover scraps of his pastrami, and mixes in equal parts of ground beef brisket, to which he adds fresh herbs, spices and lemon zest. After baking it in the oven, he glazes the loaf with a housemade chile sauce (sorry, no ketchup here). 

The Twist: The Monday night special features a Hungry Man-sized slice of meatloaf sandwiched between slices of toasted rye that’s been slathered with caramelized onions. Fittingly, the sandwich comes with a complimentary sweet dill pickle.

Why It's a Bacon Threat: With the exception of the bagels, classically trained chef (and Betelnut alum) Siegel makes everything in-house, and that includes his pastrami, which he brines for five days and then smokes. The latter step is crucial. “If there’s no smoke, you might as well be eating corned beef, ” jokes Siegel.

Pastrami-Spiced Duck Rillette on Caraway Toast at The Square ($10)

The Inspiration: “I’m not a pastrami sandwich guy,” confesses Matt McNamara, who, along with Teague Moriarity, co-runs Sons & Daughters, Sweet Woodruff and their new North Beach gathering spot, The Square, “but there’s something about pastrami’s flavor that sparks memories for me.” The distinctive, bold spice mixture of fragrant coriander, cinnamon, paprika, cloves and all-spice instantly takes him back to his childhood, eating the Cincinnati-style chili at the Skyline Chili diner in Cleveland with his parents.

The Technique: Ever since McNamara tried a “pastrami-cured” tuna at Le Bernardin in Manhattan that “blew his mind,” he’s obsessed about re-creating that evocative flavor. His answer, at The Square, is a pastrami-spiced pork rillette appetizer, for which he first cooks pork shoulder in confit, then mixes in traditional pastrami spices and finally blends the meat into a spread.

The Twist: The final dish features a ramekin of the pork rillete garnished with sliced cornichons and dabs of tangy French mustard, served with housemade caraway toasts that mimic the flavor of rye bread. We like to think of it as a deconstructed pastrami sandwich.

Why It's a Bacon Threat: Pastrami’s potent flavor profile is so distinct and aromatic, it allows the chef to trigger vivid, sensory childhood memories in dinner guests. Newfangled flavor combinations, concedes McNamara, simply don’t have that same kind of power.