In Search of the Perfect Pastrami

How far would a displaced New Yorker go for the perfect pastrami sandwich?

Man eating a pastrami sandich

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It was a sunny Saturday in September 1979 and I was feeling pretty good. I had a great job in Washington, D.C. — a job that was so good it actually got me to leave New York City, the only place I’d ever lived. In a very short time I had gotten a raise, rented a nice condo, and bought a used car.

But that beautiful morning, I was missing something — I was craving that special treat that exists only in my hometown. I had found places in D.C. that served decent Chinese and pizza. But there’s one dish that was so special to the Big Apple that there was actually an annual contest where New Yorkers would passionately debate “who makes the best.” I could feel myself begin to salivate as I remembered the garlic, the spices, the thick slices, and the smell! Oh my …

I needed a pastrami sandwich then and there!

Not the kind of pastrami you might find in a supermarket. No. The real thing is made by hand for customers of New York’s finest delis — places that don’t exist outside the City. And that year, according to New York magazine, the very best pastrami in New York was found only at The Pastrami King in Queens. They were right. I knew where it was. I wanted it. And I wanted it now!

So while it was still morning, I drove to D.C.’s National Airport and boarded an Eastern Shuttle jet to New York’s LaGuardia Airport. The fare was $42, no reservation required. And the pre-9/11 check-in was seamless. The plane, less than half full, seemed to lift off even before I settled into my seat. Forty minutes later I was in a yellow cab heading to my ultimate destination. I explained my mission to the driver and he agreed to wait.

I could smell the garlic even as I jumped from the cab. Pastrami King was a street-level storefront on Queens Boulevard. Except for regulars, who were mainly overweight lawyers from the courthouse across the street, most of the patrons were New Yorkers who made ­pilgrimages from Manhattan, about 9 miles away.

“Two pounds of pastrami to go,” I ordered when it was my turn at the takeout counter. He wrapped each pound in wax paper and shoved the whole order into a brown paper bag, then handed it over to the cashier. She took my $23 without looking at me and gave back some change. I ran to the cab and hightailed it back to LaGuardia.

I gave the cab driver a good tip. As I walked through the terminal and onto the tarmac and boarded the flight back to D.C., the brown paper bag couldn’t contain the aroma emanating from the treasure within. “What’s that? Smells great!” the stewardess asked. “Want a taste?” I offered. She gave me a napkin from her cart and I let her take a piece. Once airborne, another stewardess returned with little plates and plastic utensils. I’m not quite sure how the word got out or how many passengers sampled some. Truth be told, I had a slice too. We landed with the whole plane smelling like a Jewish deli and half of my treasure gone.

Back at my apartment, I made a perfect sandwich. It cost roughly $140. And it was worth every penny.

Footnote: Of course so many things in this short piece no longer exist — you can’t jump on the NY-DC shuttle so easily, the word stewardess is no longer used in polite company, the National Airport is now named after Ronald Reagan, the airfare is a bit higher, and good luck finding a cabbie who will wait patiently for you. And while there’s no more Pastrami King on Queens Boulevard, I’m glad to know there are various branches still open in the New York suburbs.

Eric Seidman was born and raised in Brooklyn. He has won over 100 design awards as art director, design director, and creative director for national newspapers and magazines spanning more than 40 years. He retired in 2012.

This article is featured in the May/June 2022 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

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Comments

  1. Being from NYC, Katz’s Delicatessen is place. Great pastrami and corned beef

  2. If you’re from Brooklyn then you should know there’s still the Mill Basin deli….great pastrami sandwiches and corned beef……..

  3. I enjoyed the story too, and Bob’s well written comments. Dale, I guess your comment makes sense to you.

  4. This is quite an enjoyable feature from the new issue. It really sounds like you had a blast. and got a lot of bang for not too many bucks as something done that spontaneously! All of it. The simplicity of 1979 (now) seems unbelievable, and it is. The ease then of getting that pastrami sandwich back to the plane, NOT complicated? WHAT?!

    Being flirtatious with the stewardesses. I love it, but can’t do that anymore. We’d be arrested. I did so in 1990,’91, which still had ties to the earlier era of course, when lite fun was allowed. But that sandwich; my goodness Eric. It certainly hit a lot of spots, plus giving the plane the aroma of a Jewish deli. Mazeltov!

    One of these days I’m going to have to get over to either Weiler’s or Brent’s delicatessen and order one of those myself with chicken soup, of course. Mind you, this is Northwest Los Angeles (I know…), but I can pretend it’s New York, decades ago, living through you vicariously, if only in my dreams.

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