The Pastrami Dilemma

Of course, not every old-fashioned process works in the modern world. Ever tried making your own salt by evaporating seawater, or not washing your hair like the Native Americans did? At Portland, Oregon, deli Kenny & Zuke's there's been some backsliding on the road to authenticity.

One of the earliest pastrami revivalists, co-owner Ken Gordon started making his own while still a chef in a Portland bistro, six years ago. (Hear Gordon talk about pastrami and watch his curing and smoking process.) He used the navel. But at Kenny & Zuke's, he found the original recipe to be off-putting for many Portlanders.

"It was too fatty," he says. "My grandparents came over from Russia and Warsaw and ate serious chunks of fat and died in their 60s. These days customers want it lean."

So the deli switched to what people are used to: brisket.

Now Kenny & Zuke's pastrami has a cult following. (One reviewer described their sandwich as capable of bringing a woman to orgasm.)

And yet a week's worth of curing is a long time. Imagine you're burning through, say, 2,000 pounds of pastrami a week. How are you going to keep up? And where are you going to find the walk-in space? Such were the problems for Kenny & Zuke's. Add to that the fact that Gordon has designs on Whole Foods—he hopes eventually to get FDA approval to package his pastrami to sell to retailers.

And so, there have been some tweaks to Kenny & Zuke's traditional-ness. To shave a few days off the curing process, it's injected. Gordon says this is a minor adjustment—his pastramis still cure for a week, before smoking for 10 hours.

Berkeley's Levitt has started injecting, too. He was a pastrami purist, but these days he says he doesn't think the old-timey wet brine makes any difference to the taste of the meat.

And a week after opening their brick-and-mortar delicatessen, Wise Sons' Evan Bloom is already thinking about how he can speed up the curing process.

The revivalists' pastrami still tastes great, though. It still sells like crazy. And it's still handmade. After all, Gordon's and Levitt's employees are the ones holding the syringe. For now.

Somebody tell the gorilla that he can come back for a pastrami sandwich.

(If you want to try your hand at making pastrami yourself, check out CHOW's oven-smoked pastrami project.)

Photographs by Chris Rochelle

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