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His latest quest: Pastrami.

Byline: Don Johnson

COLUMN: Guest Column

It occurred to me, while trying to pick a new food item to sample, that pastrami sandwiches might be a fine choice, since I enjoy them so much. My fear was that I would have to drive to New York City to get a good pastrami sandwich. In fact, Carnegie Deli, possibly the best pastrami vendor in New York City, has a branch location at Foxwoods, so a shorter trip could be made if needed.

Pastrami is a delicatessen meat that originated in Romania. It was brought to New York in the wave of Jewish immigration in the 1870s and 1880s. In Romania, it was made from pork or chicken, the cheapest available meats. It originated, we believe, as a preservation method before the advent of refrigeration. In the United States, beef was the cheapest meat available, so pastrami was made from the navel end of the beef brisket.

Prevailing wisdom is that the pastrami sandwich was first introduced in New York by Sussman Volk, a kosher butcher, in 1887. He claimed he got the recipe from a Romanian friend in return for storing his belongings while he returned home. His sandwiches were so popular that he opened a restaurant just to sell them. Even pastrami is not without controversy however, as the founders of Katz delicatessen in New York dispute that Volk was the originator, claiming Katz deli first made the sandwich in 1888. Others claim that the sandwich was being sold by Romanian Jewish immigrants from pushcarts a decade earlier.

American pastrami is made by curing a cut of beef brisket in brine. The brisket is then coated with a medley of spices including garlic, mustard seed, paprika, cloves, allspice, black pepper and coriander and slow cooked in a smoker. Traditionally it is served by steaming the brisket, slicing it and serving a generous portion on rye bread with mustard. A common variation is the Rachel, which adds coleslaw and substitutes thousand island dressing for the mustard.

My search began at Spoodles on Main Street in Worcester, with the first of my volunteer tasters.

We got there late on a Saturday, just as they were closing. The manager graciously opened up for us and we tried our first sandwich. Served as I like it, on dark rye with a half sour pickle on the side, the sandwich was good, reasonably priced, but small by Carnegie deli standards.

I then tried Tom's International Deli on Millbury Street. It had only one table, as it is mostly a market, but was able to give us a 11/4-inch thick sandwich with a big half sour pickle that was pretty good.

Enlisting another of my group of foodies, we drove to Westboro to try Harry's. Like most places I tried, they served a good, thick, pastrami sandwich on rye with mustard, served with bread and butter pickles (gasp!).

Harry's will make your pastrami sandwich a zippy grinder by adding fried salami, but I just couldn't do that, being a purist when it comes to pastrami sandwiches.

The next week, we tried John and Son's II on Chandler Street, near Park Avenue. I ended up having to go here twice, with different foodies, because they have both small and large pastrami sandwiches. While quite good, and served with the traditional one-quarter, half sour pickle, it was served on very fresh Italian bread.

If you are a real pastrami lover, you may have noticed two big omissions from this quest. When I started this search, I thought I already knew the probable winner would be one of the two remaining deli's, so I saved them until last. They were so close I had to go twice to each, taking different foodies each time.

If you want to eat a pastrami sandwich in Worcester, you have to try Weintraub's on Water Street. It has two sizes, so I suggest you get the "heavy pastrami" (it just means a larger sandwich).

They slice their half sour pickles into disks and give you a small bowl of them, which they will refill. On my first trip, the pastrami was hand sliced, making it thicker than other delis. The second time it was sliced by a slicer, resulting in a thinner slice, which I prefer.

The other possible winner was Maury's delicatessen on Main Street, near Webster Square. They, too, give you a nice thick sandwich, with the pastrami hot, on rye, with mustard and a half sour pickle. Maury's has served great sandwiches and grinders for decades. We were disappointed with our service the second time, as they lost track of our order somehow.

So, who has the best pastrami sandwich? The sandwiches are so close at Weintraub's and Maury's that I would just go to whichever one is closest to you. If you are willing to go anywhere in the area for the best however, I'll tell you that the winner is, by a slice, Weintraub's deli.

There is a reason why these restaurants have been around for 60 years.

Don Johnson is a Boylston resident and occasional contributor to The Banner. In previous columns, he has written about his quest to find the best meatball sandwiches and the best hot dogs.
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Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Feb 24, 2012
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