When discussing barbecue in New York City it’s hard to leave out the original smoked meat of the city: pastrami. Right around the time Southside Market in Elgin (our oldest barbecue joint) was smoking their first few rings of hot guts, Katz’s Deli opened in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. A tradition was born in the city where beef briskets or plates were salt cured, rubbed with coriander and cracked black pepper, smoked, then steamed until tender. With as much barbecue as I consumed while in the Big Apple, I needed a break or two where I could compare some variations on the original smoked meat of New York.

Here are a few I tried:

With John Brown in Queens being sold out and Fette Sau in Williamsburg leaving it off the day’s menu, R.U.B. (Righteous Urban Barbecue) in Manhattan was the only true barbecue joint I visited that offered their homemade version. A dozen uniformly pink and thin slices from the brisket flat arrived in a paper-lined basket. A tiny corner of fat was left on the very end of the slices and the rub remained on only half of the slice. The meat was undercooked and chewy as was that speck of fat. Without much rub on each slice it was hard to get the smoky essence or the robust flavors of the seasoning. It was the salty cure that was in the foreground, so it differed little from a good corned beef.

A barbecue joint making their own pastrami is less than common, but then I stumbled upon a Chinese restaurant’s take on the meat? Mission Chinese tosses theirs with peppers, celery and fried peanuts in their kung pao pastrami, but the dining room filled up fast, take out was required. Sitting on a park bench with a couple friends, chopsticks were soon entangled in a battle for every luscious fatty cube of spicy pastrami. I needed water, but mainly I just needed another bite.

Glass cases inside the narrow space of Russ & Daughters are filled with all variations of smoked fish. A deep black crust enrobed the one I was seeking: salmon pastrami. Sliced thin just like you would any cold smoked salmon, this was the best one I’ve ever tasted. I’m a fiend for strong smoky flavors, but I’ve never found a cold smoked salmon to fall in love with. Here the intense fishy oils and the heavy salt were tempered by the black pepper and the deep smoke flavor. If it wasn’t a snack between first and second breakfast, I might have eaten a pound myself, even at $33 per pound.

The Meat Hook is an artisan meat market in Brooklyn known for plenty of specialty items and a sassy Twitter feed. I stopped in for any items from the meat case that were ready to eat. Head cheese, lardo and some sliced pastrami were wrapped and destined for a car hood picnic. The thinly sliced pastrami was cold, but even then the generous fat was silky smooth without the least bit of resistance. The smokiness and peppery flavor were forthright. A warmed pile of the meat on rye bread would have done it real justice, but you could see the potential.

Carnegie Deli is such a tourist trap that the Broadway touts sit outside preying on the line that forms, but they’re one of the few delis that still make their own pastrami (it’s brined and smoked in their New Jersey facility and steamed at the restaurant). If you’re craving pastrami for an early breakfast on Sunday, I can attest that you can dine completely alone. Tito the waiter quickly brought a cup of coffee, a bowl of pickles and sandwich piled insanely high with thin slices of warm pastrami. Even with all those layers, it took no effort to chomp through the moist and tender pile. A few bites of naked slices were perfectly respectable, but were missing the oomph I was looking for. The texture was exemplary, but the smoke and seasoning could have been more prominent. 

Those smoky and peppery flavors were much more bold at Katz’s. Opened in 1888, this is the oldest deli in New York. Think of it as the Kreuz Market of pastrami. They use beef plate which is plenty fatty and they slice it by hand. The thicker slices pile nicely on one another, and seem to bring more seasoning along for the ride. The meat was moist, tender and flavorful. I couldn’t even dock them for getting their meat from a local vendor that supplies most of the New York delis. What they do with the steamer and the slicer after receiving it helps make it special. This was a sandwich worth returning for.

A two-year-old newcomer in Brooklyn gets plenty of high praise for their variation on pastrami called simply ‘Smoked Meat’. Mile End Deli has embraced the Montreal tradition where the best known purveyor is the famous Schwartz’s. Having dined at Schwartz’s in the past and finding the meat very similar to pastrami, I had wondered how they differed. Was it the cure, the smoke, the steaming? Nope. Just the coriander (at least that what the meat carver told me. Others say it’s sugar, but I’ve never got a satisfactory answer). While pastrami’s signature aroma comes from the simple rub of black pepper and coriander, smoked meat eschews the spice and replaces it with a mix of other (undisclosed) seasonings. With such a subtle difference, it’s hard to keep this smoked meat out of the pastrami conversation.

Jason, a Brooklyn resident, and I were seated at the far end of the counter. On the other side of the glass was a cutting board where freshly steamed briskets were split into the flat and the point, trimmed, and carved. I almost spoke up over the glass partition when I saw the crusty bits being pushed aside, but I sat instead as a silent observer. Soon those bits would be rescued as the topping on our smoked meat poutine – another Montreal specialty of crisp fries, cheese curds, gravy, and in this case, chopped smoked meat.

I ate a few thick slices out of the sandwich which is where I noticed the difference in fat consistency from a smoked brisket point. While a brisket that is smoked good and long has most of the collagen rendered out into liquid, these slices still had visible fat holding the meat together, but it was super soft and not the least bit chewy. The carver said this was all from the steaming step. I liked it. The sandwich was a highlight of the trip. A few lean slices and few more fatty ones combined on good rye bread with spicy mustard. The meat was so tender and beautifully moist with a powerful smokiness and a nice bite from the generous black pepper. As for the poutine, we did our best. There were a few fries left when we called it quits, but you can be sure that every crusty bit of smoked meat had been picked out. As I finished the sandwich, I didn’t care to debate the superiority of pastrami or smoked meat, brisket or beef plate, thick or thin sliced. I just knew that if I had to choose only one of these places to return to, the Mile End would be my choice.