The pastrami's pretty good, but hold your tongue


July 05, 1991|By ROGER SIMON

I believe in bootlicking boosterism as much as any columnist, so if you want to tell me that Baltimore has the best crabcakes, the nicest harbor and the most plentiful downtown parking in the world, hey, I'll pass it on.

But I have to draw the line when it comes to pastrami. Journalistic integrity and my own taste buds demand it.

Loyal readers (i.e., blood relatives) know that I am somewhat of a pastrami expert. I have eaten it in such exotic and unlikely locations as Saudi Arabia, Beirut, Hong Kong and Los Angeles.

And my finding is that the best place for pastrami in the world is New York City. It's not that I like New York City. It's not that I would ever want to live there. It's not that I feel comfortable visiting there unarmed.

It is just a simple fact: New York may not know how to do civilization, but it does know how to do pastrami.

And in visiting what is to me the mecca of the pastrami world, the Carnegie Deli in Manhattan, I once saw Henny Youngman walk out of the place as the people in the line outside shouted straight lines to him:

"Hey, Henny, how long you been wearing a girdle?"

"Ever since my wife found it in the glove compartment!"

There is nothing quite like deli humor.

But a few days ago, a letter arrived from Al Saval, the Pastrami King of Baltimore. (He is also the Corned Beef King and the Tongue King, but he generally uses one title at a time.)

"Granted," he wrote, "New York has some great pastrami, but you should also know that there is a great manufacturer of pastrami, corned beef and tongue in Baltimore whose product is the ultimate in deli products. I love my product and want others to know that this area produces deli products as good if not better than any other part of the country."

It was the world "love" that caught my attention. I can see loving pastrami and I can see loving corned beef. But tongue? Can anyone really love a cow's tongue? I mean, besides a bull?

So I called Al Saval and we arranged a deli shootout at Jack's on Corned Beef Row, which happens to be across the street from one of Al's plants.

They fry pastrami on a grill at Jack's, which to me is like burning the "Mona Lisa" at the stake. "OK," Al says when we meet, "they fry pastrami in Baltimore. I guess in New York they steam it, right?"

In New York and the civilized world, I say. I have decided to give no quarter in this contest.

Jack's deli, as you may have read, changed hands about 10 days ago, and one of the new owners, Alan Smith, was on hand to supervise the Great Pastrami Shootout.

Alan and his father, Lenny, owners of Lenny's Deli in Owings Mills, have repainted the interior of Jack's, put in brighter lighting and have removed the package liquor counter.

I approve of all these things, especially the latter. I am not saying there is anything wrong with a person buying a half-pint of rye at 11:30 in the morning. I am just saying maybe you don't want to eat a sandwich next to him.

So we get in line and I order a pastrami, which the very nice counterwoman proceeds to fry the life out of. Al Saval's son, Jeff, has joined us, and he explains how frying could be a good idea.

"It burns off the fat," he says. "It's healthier for you."

I cared what was healthy for me, however, I would never order pastrami in the first place.

Jeff has a corned beef and Al picks up a sandwich, and Alan Smith informs us that each sandwich is exactly 5.9 ounces of meat. It sells for $3.19. That's a lot smaller than the sandwiches in the New York delis, but it's also a lot cheaper.

The decor of Jack's is still Early American Picnic, but Alan is soon going to replace the tables with booths. Decor doesn't matter much in a deli, anyway.

We take a table and Al Saval begins to talk inside-deli talk: "The meat at Jack's is better now because it comes from a Boston cut brisket instead of the regular Western cut brisket. Boston cut is the highest quality you can get."

Where does pastrami come from? I ask.

"It's beef, the bottom of the brisket," Al says. "But not from cows, steers. We take the beef and we cure it, pickle it. For corned beef, with salt brine; for pastrami, a dry cure with spices, and then we smoke it. And for tongue . . ."

Don't tell me about tongue, I say. I don't even want to think about


"C'mere," he says. And we go across the street to the plant, which is all stainless steel carts and white tile walls and floors of shiny brick. Everything is very clean and very wet.

At a tongue table stands Luis Perez, a master of his trade, who takes a surgical forceps, picks out a vein in the tongue, forces an injector into it, and then squirts brine through the vein, into the tongue, pickling the whole thing.

"So what do you think?" Al asks proudly.

It's enough to make you a vegetarian, I say.

"Tongue is the most expensive thing for us to buy," he says. "The Japanese like so much of it, the price keeps going up."

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