During a 1997 episode of Seinfeld, the “show about nothing,” George Costanza and his girlfriend du jour discussed the possibility of incorporating food into their lovemaking–not as a post-coital meal, but in flagrante delicto. George listed as potential food candidates: strawberries, chocolate sauce, honey and…pastrami on rye with mustard. Yes, that’s pastrami on rye. His girlfriend, unfortunately, failed to appreciate the erotic qualities of pastrami and thus, their relationship terminated.
Ultimately George met up with a woman who echoed his sentiments when she declared pastrami to be “the most sensual of all the salted cured meats.” With that proclamation, their lustful appetites took over and they succumbed to the pastrami inspired throes of passion, albeit also incorporating television watching. It’s no wonder George Costanza’s face grew flush when he ate with friends at their favorite neighborhood diner; the association of food with pleasure became a sensual one.
I don’t know about pastrami being the most sensual of all salted cured meats (sounds like a bit of double entendre here), but do know there are few sandwiches quite as wonderful as a pastrami sandwich. Alas, not all pastrami is created equal. The perfect pastrami finds its genesis as brisket given a salt, sugar and spice rub, dry cured, smoked, and cooked. Having grown up in bucolic Northern New Mexico, I had no idea pastrami existed until the Air Force sent me to Massachusetts and I discovered pastrami at Steve’s House of Pizza in Bedford. It was love at first bite. For two years I visited delis throughout New England and New York City in search of the best pastrami.
If you’ve ever wondered what the differences are between pastrami and corned beef aside from taste and texture. Pastrami comes from the naval area while corned beef emanates from the brisket area. Where pastrami is given a salt and spice rub, dry cured, smoked then cooked, corned beef is cured in brine. To me, the main difference is that pastrami is much better, but then, like George Costanza, I consider pastrami the most sensual of all salted, cured meats.
Since returning to New Mexico in 1995, I’ve lamented being short-changed insofar as Duke City restaurants or delis not offering a world-class pastrami product, not even close. Fortunately semi-frequent (every few years) trips to Chicago have proven to be fulfilling pastrami pilgrimages. Most meat distributors serving New Mexico sell a processed pretender, pastrami “loaf.” I wanted the real thing–whole beef brisket with lots of marbling and heavy, briny seasoning.
Real pastrami is also what Joseph Rodriguez wanted to bring to New Mexico. A California native now living in New Mexico, Rodriguez was raised on hot pastrami sandwiches and like dozens of us pastrami paramours, he couldn’t find good pastrami in New Mexico. Rodriguez buys his pastrami from a supplier who furnishes it to The Hat, a Los Angeles area pastrami sandwich shop chain. It’s the real stuff–well marbled, briny, highly seasoned and absolutely delicious. It’s comparable to pastrami I remember fondly in New York City, but not quite as good as my favorite pastrami in Chicago.
The rest of us are thrilled that he took it a step further and begin selling it at the New Mexico state fair during the fall of 2006. His success there convinced him there was a legitimate market of passionate pastrami fanatics like me. Rodriguez didn’t start off by selling his pastrami at some fancy storefront. He built a concession trailer and parked it on the corner of St. Francis Drive just as you turn into Alameda. The trailer was furnished with all he needed to prepare his product and was so portable, he took it to the state fair and balloon fiesta.
In November, 2009, Duke City pastrami aficionados no longer had to drive to Santa Fe to assuage their chile fix when Rodriguez launched California Pastrami on Alameda Boulevard. California Pastrami was in that location until January, 2011, its closure coinciding with the opening of a location at 6125 Montgomery, N.E. By year’s end, he had sold the concession trailer and closed the Santa Fe operation. Ever the entrepreneur, he remains optimistic about opening a storefront location both in Albuquerque’s west side and perhaps in Santa Fe.
Having lived in the East Coast and traveled extensively in the Golden State, the term “California pastrami” gave me nightmarish visions of pesto packed pastrami desecrated with sushi grade sashimi, artichoke and the designer vegetable de jour. Fortunately, as it turns out California (or West Coast) pastrami is served on a hoagie bun with yellow mustard and dill pickles (just as some grinder shops in Massachusetts sold it). Even better, this is an outstanding sandwich.
Years ago, television and radio commercials for Reece’s Peanut Butter Cups introduced America to a catchy jingle which touted “two great tastes that taste great together” in describing the marriage of chocolate and peanut butter. Until my friend Larry McGoldrick suggested it, I had not tried a pastrami sandwich with green chile–a marriage of California and New Mexico. Indeed these are two great tastes that taste great together. Green chile can improve almost everything, including desserts. California Pastrami doesn’t shy away from piquant chile; it’s got a tongue-tingling bite and a nice roasted flavor that complements the pastrami surprisingly well.
You can also get your pastrami sandwich New York style–on light rye sandwich bread with grainy mustard. Having tried both California and New York style pastrami, I’m not ready to declare a preference. Both are terrific! The advantage the hoagie roll has over the rye bread is that it holds up better against the onslaught of juiciness from the fresh, delicious and utterly unctuous pastrami. The advantage of the New York style pastrami sandwich at California Pastrami is that it’s served with a side of coleslaw and a dill pickle spear.
My friend and frequent dining companion Bill Resnik thought he had partaken of good pastrami during his years of travel and was skeptical when I first brought him to California Pastrami in January, 2010. He had no idea what a difference truly great pastrami can make, his previous experiences with pastrami being less than memorable. By mid-February, he had visited the restaurant at least once a week and as often as three times in one week. He’s hooked and so are many other Duke City diners.
As for the “More” portion of the restaurant’s name, “more” includes burgers, fish tacos and burritos, some of which I may never try courtesy of pastrami George Costanza would have loved in the Biblical sense. It also includes corned beef and a number of burgers, including a pastrami burger. The pastrami burger is humongous, a generous amount of pastrami, a one-third pound ground beef patty with a slice of cheese, lettuce, pickle and mayonnaise on a sesame seed bun which struggles to contain all that flavor, all those ingredients. It’s a great burger!
Pastrami and corned beef are often paired together in menus and in the hearts of sandwich aficionados. California Pastrami offers a very good corned beef sandwich stacked high on light rye bread with Swiss cheese and Russian dressing. As previously stated, it’s a very good corned beef sandwich, but it’s not a special sandwich as both pastrami sandwiches are. Still, I would stack it up against any corned beef sandwich in town. It’s far superior to the one served about a block away at Jason’s Deli, a chain with a large menu. The difference is that California Pastrami’s largeness is in the flavor of its product.
Astute members of the Duke City Fix’s Chow Down in Burque Town” forum found it intriguing (to say the least) that mayonnaise and pastrami would share space in the same sentence, much less the same sandwich (the aforementioned pastrami burger). Though a purist myself, I’ve long ceased being surprised by flavor combinations that work surprisingly well. My first experience with pastrami and mayonnaise was at the aforementioned Deli Mart’s elder sibling on Albuquerque’s east side where the much-missed New York transplanted to Albuquerque Cerami family served their pastrami sandwiches in that fashion. My first inclination was to declare that blasphemy, but the mayonnaise-pastrami combination was actually quite good, albeit not as good as pastrami with real deli mustard.
Call it blasphemy if you will, but I’ve long had a preference for pastrami Rubens instead of the more conventional corned beef Ruben sandwich. A pastrami Ruben at California Pastrami is a thing of beauty. Unlike other Rubens I’ve had in the Duke City, the Russian dressing doesn’t taste like a cloying Thousand Island clone and the sauerkraut won’t purse your lips with its tartness. It’s served on a lightly toasted light rye bread and includes a heaping mound of pastrami, the starring attraction of any sandwich.
Joe Rodriguez, like me, recognizes the potential in pastrami to improve everything it touches. He didn’t blink an eye during a visit in which I asked for a patty melt sandwich with pastrami. By itself, the patty melt had all the essential elements of a very good patty melt sandwich–a light rye bread grilled until toasty brown, finely chopped onions fried nearly to the point of caramelization, a hand-formed all-beef patty and rich melted cheese. The pastrami elevated it from very good to excellent. Next time I may just ask Joe to add pastrami to one of the burritos served at his restaurant.
Lest you think California Pastrami is a one-trick pony whose expertise is limited to pastrami, the menu includes several burritos as well as fish tacos (on hard shells, no less) I’ve heard draw utterances of “wow” from other patrons. The restaurant also prepares a very good Philly cheesesteak. It’s served on a hoagie roll and is engorged to overfull with chopped beef steak, finely chopped green peppers and onions and melted white cheese. It’s steaming hot when you bite into it and is as juicy and delicious as almost any Philly cheesesteak you’ll find in Albuquerque (my favorite being the one at Itsa Italian Ice). You won’t find a speck of excess fat or sinew on the beef which is very tender.
10 APRIL 2013: Several years ago, television commercials for a pseudo Mexican fast food chain encouraged diners to “make a run for the border.” Duke City diners should run, not walk, to California Pastrami to partake of a new menu item called The Border Dog. The Border Dog is perhaps as close to a Sonoran Hot Dog as you’ll find in Albuquerque. The hot dog is wrapped in bacon and deep-fried. Nestled in the bun are caramelized onions and chopped jalapeños. Perhaps some sort of jalapeño mayo would
Another addition, perhaps in response to complaints of bread which withered neath the moistness of the steamed pastrami, is a much improved bread baked on the premises. The bread is chewy and formidable enough for the moistness of the steamed pastrami. It doesn’t wither and doesn’t get soggy. Best of all, it’s a delicious bread which disproves the notion that good bread can’t be baked in the alkaline-rich Albuquerque area.
California Pastrami & More
6125 Montgomery, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 10 April 2013
# OF VISITS: 16
BEST BET: California Style Pastrami Sandwich, New York Style Pastrami Sandwich, Corned Beef Sandwich, Pastrami Burger, Philly Cheese Steak, Pastrami Ruben Sandwich, Fish Tacos, The Border Dog