I dubbed 2016 the year of pastrami. Barbecue joints across the state were turning out pastrami beef ribs, beef cheeks, briskets, and even pastrami pork ribs. The pastrami fad has slowed since then, but for Russell Roegels it wasn’t the trendiness that got him hooked anyway. His interest was sparked by a pastrami beef rib he saw Billy Durney prepare at New York City’s Hometown Bar-B-Que in late 2015. “I said ‘That’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen in my life,’” Roegels told me.
Russell and his wife Misty Roegels have been perfecting their own version of pastrami ever since. Their persistence has made the Reuben sandwich at Roegels Barbecue Co. in Houston as big a part of their barbecue identity as any other menu item.
New York pastrami is usually made from the beef navel cut, which is cured, smoked, and steamed to finish. What they produce at Roegels is what I refer to as Texas-style pastrami. It starts with a whole cured brisket that’s smoked until tender. There’s no steaming. A more accurate name might actually be smoked corned beef. To serve it, the brisket pastrami is cut thick, just like standard smoked brisket. In New York the slices are often machine-sliced, and even the pastrami cut by hand is thinner than Roegels’s version.
When Roegels first starting making pastrami, it took him two weeks for each batch. The briskets had to sit submerged in the brine of salt and spices for that long; otherwise, the curing salt wouldn’t make its way into the middle of the brisket. Then Roegels met barbecue writer Meathead Goldwyn in Chicago. Goldwyn gave him an injection pump for the brine that gets it right to the middle of the brisket and cures it much faster. “We shoot these things up on Sunday and cook them on Wednesday,” Roegels said of the new process. That’s how the joint became known for its Pastrami Thursday. The shorter cure time allows two batches of brisket pastrami per week, so they added it to the Monday menu as well, hoping to attract business on an otherwise slow day.
On either day, the brisket pastrami is available on a barbecue plate, sliced by the pound, or in the Reuben sandwich for $14. The Reuben has a loyal following on Thursdays, when lines stretch out the door. Houston BBQ Fest founder Michael Fulmer, who works next door at Killen’s STQ, told me, “I limit myself to one a month now.” Last Thursday they made 53 of the sandwiches at lunch, but the demand isn’t as great on Pastrami Mondays, which Roegels added in June. When I stopped in on a recent Monday at 12:45, I ordered only the fifth Reuben of the day. That’s inexcusable for one of the best barbecue sandwiches in Texas.
Pastrami is just the start to this sandwich. Every other element is treated with equal care. Misty developed their sauerkraut method. They ferment it themselves back in the kitchen. She makes a whole grain mustard from scratch for the sandwich, but her Russian dressing is far more popular. To construct the sandwich, slices of rye bread are buttered and placed on the griddle. Swiss cheese is melted over top. Besides the cheese, which they also use on Tuesday’s Cuban sandwich, every element of the Reuben is made especially for it.
A lot of work went into perfecting his pastrami recipe, so Roegels isn’t keen to share his secrets. He said the brine recipe comes from the book Charcuterie, but he adds more pickling spice. The rub he uses is just black pepper and coriander. Roegels believes anyone making pastrami should abandon all rubs with salt in them, since the cured brisket will already have plenty. He noted that it takes a little longer for the pastrami to finish on the smoker than it would take standard smoked brisket of the same size.
Roegels sat and talked with me about the sandwich while I ate it. It was hard to follow his description as I savored each bite, but I could only get through half of it. At least a half-pound of pastrami is piled onto each sandwich. The salty meat pairs well with the sweet dressing and the acid of the sauerkraut. It felt like a shame to waste any of it, so I tried convincing Roegels to take the other half. He politely refused. “I have never eaten a Reuben,” he said with a straight face, as I stared in disbelief. He added simply, “I don’t like sauerkraut.” Even Russell Roegels doesn’t know what he’s missing on Pastrami Mondays at Roegels Barbecue Co.