EAST WILLIAMSBURG — For the past five decades, David’s Brisket House and Deli at 533 Nostrand Avenue has been the main purveyor of buttery sliced meats on the border of Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights. While it’s not in a historically Jewish neighborhood, it has long been considered an institution, and a critically acclaimed one at that. The New York Times gave it a glowing review in 2012, and the New York Daily News claims it “one of the borough’s best Jewish delis.” And while the name, menu, and aesthetic all evoke old-school Jewish delis like Katz’s, there’s currently no one of Jewish heritage on staff.
In fact, the original David hasn’t been in the picture for over 40 years.
David’s Brisket House and Deli started as a shop across the street from the current location, selling Jewish delicacies like pastrami and brisket. The original David, a Slovakian Jew, sold it in the 60s to a Yemeni Muslim, Hamood Almass, one of the current owners, Riyadh Gazali, told Bklyner. Almass, nicknamed “AKA David” by his friends and colleagues, owned the business for over 30 years before selling it to Gazali, Fuad Hassan, and another Yemeni man, who prefers to stay anonymous, who are still running the shop.
There were conditions, though: mainly, they had to keep the same recipes. It’s a promise they’ve stuck to, changing nothing. The Jewish deli continues to change hands, taking on new forms, while sacrificing nothing.
Now, Hassan is venturing out on his own to East Williamsburg. Last month, he took over a small but popular Lebanese restaurant, Wafa’s Express, which earned a “Critic’s Pick” designation in 2017 from the New York Times. He works alongside his son, Waseem, and former Wafa’s employee, Alla.
Under the tentative name of “Pastrami Masters,” the new spot now offers nearly everything from the original David’s, aside from breakfast, along with Wafa’s classics like shawarma. In the kitchen, trays of steaming pastrami, blackened by copious spices, look like old wood reduced to coal. Slice into it, though, and the bright pink interior gleams with juices and fat. The tender meat slices clean and, piled on rye with nothing more than yellow mustard (“the traditional way,” Hassan calls it), is a beautiful mess.
The pastrami at Pastrami Masters is all made by Hassan. While he may occasionally return to his old stomping grounds at David’s to fill in for an absent worker, Pastrami Masters is his new baby, and currently receives all of his attention.
Hassan learned everything he knows about pastrami and brisket from his partners when he first came on board in 2015 at David’s.
Just like at David’s, he orders pre-brined brisket from a meat wholesaler, seasoned to their specifications. Brining in-house would require energy and production space the small business cannot currently support, but they put their mark on it by seasoning it once more – mostly with coriander, salt, pepper, and allspice.
The meat then steams for four to six hours and becomes pastrami. The brisket, on the other hand, enjoys a long, leisurely stint in the oven.
“You have to get it 100%,” Hassan said. “You can’t undercook it, you can’t overcook it.” Though, he said, laughing, “I like it overcooked a little.” That’s when the crust gets a bit charred, which some people prefer.
Hassan planned to keep the shop simply with David’s menu, but was inspired by Wafa’s food and kept it available. Hassan presides over the pastrami, brisket, and other David’s menu items, while Alla takes care of the Lebanese menu.
Customers who know pastrami will come in for it expressly. “Especially when they know that we’re from David’s,” Hassan said. “That’s automatic.” Customers coming in for Wafa’s food get a sample of brisket or pastrami to try.
It’s a surprising juxtaposition, but the way Hassan describes it, it makes perfect sense. In some ways, it reminds him of the food he grew up on.
“Middle Eastern food has that taste of effort and love put into it,” he said. And, though Hassan fell in love with pastrami the first time he tasted it while living for a bit in California, he knew instantly that the stuff he tried at David’s was unique.
“We believe that we’re actually better than Katz’s,” Hassan said.
While Pastrami Masters has yet to rebrand from the old Wafa’s space, customers can walk in and order from David’s menu, as well as from Wafa’s menu. The restaurant is located at 812 Grand Street in East Williamsburg, between Bushwick Avenue and Humboldt Street.
Hours: Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday 12 p.m. to 8 p.m. They hope to roll out David’s breakfast menu in the coming weeks.