I first heard of pastrami burgers—which are, oddly enough, pastrami-topped burgers—from a pastry chef I knew from Utah, where apparently the meat-on-meat combo is something of a state dish.
A "product of honest American fusion," as John T. Edge describes it in a piece on the subject last year in the New York Times, they are apparently seriously delicious, particularly after a long night on the town. The flagship chain is Crown Burger, with multiple locations in Salt Lake City, though apparently, every burger joint in town features them on the menu.
The problem, however, is that as a child of New York, there are a number of things that I'm inherently snobby about. Pastrami is one of them. The concept was created in New York by Romanian Jewish immigrants in the late 19th century when they decided to adapt their own meat curing techniques and apply them to what was then a very cheap cut of meat: beef brisket. The meat is first pickled in salt before being heavily seasoned with a blend of spices (most notably coriander and black pepper), then smoked. By the turn of the century, delicatessens across New York (including world-famous Katz's) were serving the meat, steamed until tender and juicy, sliced thick, and stacked high between slices of rye bread.
That's the pastrami I know. The real deal. The kind I ate for lunch every Saturday from the now defunct Mama Joy's deli near Columbia. Thick sliced, satly, fatty, juicy, and seriously delicious.
It didn't make sense to me—I couldn't reconcile how two of my favorite meat products could fit together and result in anything other than an overblown mess. Indeed, I even tried the only home-town version of the dish I could find, the Pastrami Burger from Artie's Deli on the Upper West Side.
As I expected, the flavor of the rich, juicy pastrami completely overwhelmed that of the burger, despite the fact that it was char-grilled. Not to mention the fact that as Ed concurs, lettuce has no business being anywhere near a pastrami sandwich.
To get a better idea of the concept, I appealed to Alison Herzog, former Serious Eats intern, and current resident of Salt lake City. Specifically, I was interested in the quality of the pastrami itself. Was it true juicy New York style, or was it some sort of ersatz "pastrami," the orangey-pink, thinly-pre-sliced, griddled stuff, pastrami in name only? I'd had this style a few times before—most notably at unreasonably popular S&S deli in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and while it's tasty stuff in its own right, it's not something a New Yorker would ever consider to be pastrami.
According to Allison,
It consists of a sesame seed bun, thinly sliced pastrami, tomato, charbroiled burger patty (1/4 lb. I believe), American cheese, lettuce, and fry sauce. The pastrami isn't grilled from what I can tell, but is a drier pastrami.
No doubt about it: that stuff is pastrami-in-quotes.
This left me with one option: rather than go about my normal M.O. of trying to perfect an existing style of burger, why not just create my own version of a pastrami burger? One that's true to both my New York City upbringing (i.e. I'd have to start with real New York-style pastrami), and simultaneously allows the flavor of the burger itself to shine through?
First things first. The pastrami has to be old school New York, so I headed to the Zabar's deli counter. I knew that simply steaming thick slices and piling them on top of the burger wouldn't work from my experience with the Artie's offering, but what if I were to simply reduce the amount?
I asked the deli man for two different cuts: one thick sliced as for a traditional sandwich, and the other slice paper thin.
To be honest, I wasn't quite happy with how either one of them tasted on the burger. It was a textural thing: soft on soft. Perhaps there is something to the Utah-style pastrami, which if anything, seems to be at least a bit more textured than ultra-tender New York pastrami. A bit of crispness might be just the ticket.
Looking over at the well-marbled pastrami slices, I was struck by how bacon-like they were in appearance, not surprising, considering how similar the process of making the two cured meats is. Both are cut from the belly, both are cured, both are seasoned, and both are smoked. In fact, the only real difference is the flavorings, and the animal it's cut from.
Here's one more similarity to add to the list: both of them render and become shatteringly crisp when you cook them:
Now that's the ticket. I found myself downing strip after strip of the addictively salty and crispy things, necessitating a whole second batch just to have enough to top the burger with.
While the thicker slices more closely resembled actual bacon, and might even be good in a regular cheeseburger, it was the thin ones that really captured my heart. After rendering, they became mere whisps of crispness, their extraordinary surface area-to-volume ratio improving both their browned flavor, and texture. They'd be fabulous in a summertime P.L.T. sandwich. The best part was that by slicing them so thin and rendering them, their flavor was muted enough that they no longer overwhelmed the beef in the patty. Rather, piled high atop the burger, they added a hint of smokiness, a touch of spice, and a whole lot of crunch.
The only question that remained was what to top them with. Cheese was a given, and Swiss seemed more appropriate than cheddar or American, given its deli-sandwich credentials. I also opted to use a much larger, sturdier bun than I'd normally go for. This is not a sandwich to be trifled with, after all. I tried spicy deli mustard, but in the end preferred the sweet tang of a Thousand-Island style dressing, which is very similar to the "fry sauce" used on the Salt Lake originals.
Lettuce and tomato seemed inappropriate for a gut bomb like this one. Sauerkraut was delicious, but I'd be straying dangerously close to "Reuben-burger" territory, so backed off and went with that other crunchy deli favorite: coleslaw, in a sweet and creamy dressing.
The resulting sandwich was nothing short of glorious. Textures spanning from soft and succulent to crackling crisp, with a healthy dose of fat and a bang up blend of salty, spicy, nutty, savory, and sweet flavors, I can think of few foods that would be more at home late at night in a happily intoxicated stomach.
In fact, I may have to test that very theory tonight.
Continue here for our Pastrami Burger Bomb»
Follow Kenji on Facebook or Twitter. About the author: After graduating from MIT, J. Kenji Lopez-Alt spent many years as a chef, recipe developer, writer, and editor in Boston. He now lives in New York with his wife, where he runs a private chef business, KA Cuisine, and runs the collaborative blog GoodEater.org about sustainable food enjoyment.