We heaped praise on the brisket pastrami from Mum Foods a couple years back, so I was excited to visit the new brick-and-mortar Mum Foods Deli, in Austin. Geoffrey “Geo” Ellis and Mattison “Matti” Bills opened the place on Manor Road in April to expand upon their popular but limited menu of smoked meats, which they still serve at three area farmers’ markets on the weekends. Even with the new restaurant, they have no plans to abandon the markets that got them started. Besides, Ellis said, “We do as much sales and volume at the Mueller farmers’ market as we do all week here.”
The space is a temporary home. They don’t know whether it will still be theirs a year from now. It’s a stepping stone to a permanent restaurant with a fully functioning kitchen. There’s no hood, no grill, and no fryers. They may lack cooking equipment, but they let their fermentation program do a lot of the “cooking” for them. I tried a sample of a sweet corn dish headed to the menu soon: a half cob was topped with house-made sour cream and pickled blueberries. The aroma of blueberries remained, making the sour fruitiness even more surprising, and it all played well against the burst of sweet corn kernels.
“People think of fermentation as being from certain types of cuisines, but really they’re universal,” Ellis said. Take the pickles, both full and half sours, that come with every sandwich. It wouldn’t be a deli without these fermented pickles, which Ellis explains are a lot different than the quick pickles most barbecue joints produce—at least those joints that make their pickles in-house.
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Most of those pickles are quick pickles. Quick-pickling is really just a process of cooking vegetables with a hot vinegar mixture and storing them in the cooled liquid. “There’s no real fermentation going on there,” Ellis explained. His pickles are naturally fermented. The cucumbers sit out on the counter submerged in salted water for ten days to produce full sours. The half sours spend just a day, and retain some of the flavor and crispness of the cucumber. The fermentation happens thanks to lactobacillus fermentation.
Lacto what? Ellis explained it succinctly during my visit:
Everything we touch is covered in the bacteria lacto bacilli. That bacteria thrives on sugars. It breaks down carbohydrates in things like cabbage and cucumbers. It eats them up, and it produces lactic acid. That lactic acid lowers the pH of things and creates a natural brine. How you set the stage for that process to occur is by adding salt.
The salt eliminates other bacteria, but lactobacillus doesn’t mind some salt. You might say that sounds a lot like the process for pastrami, and you’d be close. Salt is the key ingredient in the pastrami brine, but it’s at a higher concentration than for the pickles. There’s also no fermentation, which in a meat product might smell pretty alarming. Ellis likens the process to controlled aging. “We want the beef to age in the brine,” he said, adding that “There’s a lot of flavor development that’s happening,” during the brining process. It also tenderizes the meat and adds moisture to it as well.
Thirty or more briskets per week are injected with the brine and stay submerged in it for a week. They’re seasoned with black pepper and coriander before getting smoked in an offset. “That’s the flagship of the fleet here,” Ellis said, referring to the pastrami, and it’s best enjoyed in the sandwich they call the Original. It comes with a heap of sliced pastrami and yellow mustard between two slices of country sourdough bread (more fermentation!) from Swedish Hill Bakery. “That’s the pure, unadulterated essence of pastrami and deli culture,” Ellis said.
At the restaurant you can request lean or fatty. I’d suggest a mix. Another pastrami sandwich called the Rachel replaces mustard with a Russian dressing made with beet ketchup and mayo. They also add slaw and some Emmental cheese. The drink pairing options are limitless thanks to their BYOB policy. I happened to have a six pack of the new Berliner Weisse beers from Austin Beerworks. It’s a beer style that utilizes lactobacillus as well (I swear I didn’t plan it that way), and as I’ve written in the past, goes well with smoked meats.
Mum Foods produces more than just pastrami from their smokers. The farmers’ market menu includes traditional smoked brisket and beef ribs. The brisket sometimes shows up as a special at the deli location, but Ellis said Mum Foods isn’t planning to compete with Franklin Barbecue. They have a goal of reminding Texans that Texas barbecue is more than salt and pepper smoked brisket. With excitement, Ellis said, “I love the idea of showing people that pastrami is barbecue.”
Mum Foods Deli
2113 Manor Rd.
Austin, TX 78722