Welcome back to The Bite, Sheepshead Bites’ weekly column where we explore the foodstuffs of Sheepshead Bay. Each week we check out a different offering from one of the many restaurants, delis, food carts, bakeries, butchers, fish mongers, or grocers in our neighborhood. If it’s edible, we’ll take a bite.
Pastrami. Just the word evokes a certain time, a certain place. I think of the Lower East Side with Katz’s or the Second Ave Deli; not Sheepshead Bay Road. So imagine my surprise when I saw a hand-written sign in front of Taste of Romania Europa Bistro (1652 Sheepshead Bay Road) touting their “in-house smoked pastrami.”
With a sense of excitement I entered the restaurant. But, wait a minute. Looking around I wondered if I made a mistake. The restaurant, housed in the old La Sorrentina space, still looked like the same old pizza joint. The glass cases on the counter still displayed a variety of pizzas. The pizza ovens still loomed as large sentinels behind. In fact, a pizza was being removed from the oven as I approached.
So what gives? Where’s the steam table? Where’s the smoker? Where is the pastrami?
Turns out the pastrami was there, just not front and center. Like many a treasure, you’ll need to seek this pastrami out. This pastrami is not on display; it’s kept hidden away in a special back room, until it’s needed. It is then cut to order and heated in the pizza ovens until warm.
According to Merriam-Webster, pastrami is a highly-seasoned smoked beef prepared especially from shoulder cuts (Shoulder cuts? We’ll talk about that in a minute). The word comes from Romanian pastramă pressed and cured meat. First Known Use: 1925. It’s amazing what you can learn from the internet isn’t it? But can the internet be trusted?
Not this time. First off, New York Magazine published a letter where Patricia Volk, author of Stuffed, Adventures of a Restaurant Family, claimed her grandfather, Sussman, introduced pastrami to New York City in 1888! And he got the recipe from a Romanian friend who was making it years before that!
Secondly, I know a thing or two about smoked meats and the dictionary has it wrong. First off, pastrami is traditionally made with either brisket of beef or the plate. The brisket is the large, tough set of muscles that comprises the chest muscles between the two front legs of the cattle. The plate is the muscle right behind that.
To make pastrami, the meat must first be cured or in this case “corned.” What you do is soak the meat in a seasoned brine for a few weeks. The grains of salt traditionally used to make the brine are about the same size as a grain of wheat (or “corn” in British English). Hence the name “corned” beef which still confuses people to this day. You could stop here, as the Irish do, but to make pastrami, you need to go a couple of steps further.
The meat is removed from the brine, then soaked to take down the salt level, seasoned and smoked. The seasonings vary from recipe to recipe, but traditionally it’s a mixture of freshly cracked black pepper, coriander seed, mustard seed, sugar and garlic. True pastrami is then cold smoked at a temperature under 85 degrees for up to 5 days.
Now, I don’t know all the secrets of the chef’s at Taste of Romania, but I do know they don’t cold smoke their meat. The pastrami here is smoked in-house using a stove top smoker burning apple and hickory chips. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it doesn’t produce the same textured finished product you’ll find other places. Here the meat is denser, and a little more chewy, but not tough. The meat is also never steamed, but heated in a dry oven which results in a more roasted taste and feel.
At Taste of Romania, you are served some of the smokiest tasting pastrami east of Bucharest and north of the Mason-Dixon. You can smell the smoke from this piece of meat, even as it is being sliced. For only $5, the current lunch special, you’ll get a nice size sandwich served with tomato, lettuce, pickle and mustard served on an impressive homemade roll. What is with all the garnish? Ain’t pastrami on rye good enough?
Not here. The rolls are made in-house everyday. Light, but strong enough to stand up to the meat, this roll is easily the unexpected star of the meal. I wish they were available by themselves for purchase.
How I love restaurants that take the time to do it themselves. The pride of the proprietors was evident as we discussed the smoking and baking processes with them.
This is a welcome addition to the neighborhood. The owners tell me that there are only three Romanian restaurants in the whole of New York City, making this an even more unique offering for Sheepshead Bay.
Taste of Romania, 1652 Sheepshead Bay Road, (718) 743-2424