Is 2nd Ave Deli's Pastrami Sandwich Still Worth It at $30?
Plus, reviews of Bangkok Supper Club, April Bloomfield's Sailor, Ceibo in Adams Morgan, and Khushbu Shah's favorite restaurant chain dishes
Free Food is a column that tracks some of the biggest stories in food, with a focus on features, op-eds, and reviews. Consider subscribing to unlock full access to The LO Times, including reviews and cheat sheets like The Splurge List and Best New Restaurants, So Far.
Another pastrami sandwich gets price hiked to $30!
This Gentile food critic found himself on the Upper East Side for a bat mitvah on Saturday, and let me just say I’m still thinking about the luncheon spread at the temple!
The hosts offered us piles of braised beef with pineapple, golden spiced taquitos, never-ending focaccia with olives, chubby lamb sliders, heaps of mini lahmajeen (Sephardic meat pies), devil dogs, and other delicacies. To be sure: The bonds of community, faith, and friendship trump the need for culinary assessments at these type of life events. But when times are tough, as they are for so many right now, the humble and generous act of feeding people (with extremely delicious food!) can convey so much joy.
The services were great too. But that’s above my pay grade.
Now as luck would have it, the temple was a short bike ride away from one of New York’s most famous Jewish delis — the UES outpost of 2nd Ave — so I dropped by afterward to reassess the pricey pastrami sandwiches. Spoiler: The (kosher) meat is still quite good. In fact, I find it absolutely mesmerizing.
But let’s spend a minute or two thinking about what that sandwich costs. Last October, the pastrami commanded a steep $25. Since then, it’s jumped up in price twice, with the latest hike pushing things up by over $1.50 to $27.50.
Add on tax, and you’re at $30 — an increasingly common price for this staple.
Spiced meat mavens shouldn’t be surprised by the hike. Pastrami comes from beef — as much as I like to pretend it’s harvested from the bellies of crimson pastramasaurses, magical beasts that feed on black pepper, coriander, and nitrites. And so it goes that beef prices are rising across the country, due to droughts in the Western U.S. and rising input costs.
But competitive pricing moves also play a role in what you pay.
Just as high profile sushi spots raise prices when other omakase joints do the same, New York delis tend to adjust their menus when other prominent purveyors push things up. Katz’s jumped up by $1.50 in the summer to $27.45, so now we have a corresponding move by 2nd Ave Deli to almost exactly the same level, $27.50. What a coincidence!
So how is the pastrami? Almost the polar opposite of what you’d find at Katz’s or Hometown ($28), where the butchers cut the meat thick — as if it’s Texas barbecue brisket.
2nd Ave isn’t the only venue to do a thin cut, but somehow the meat feels thinnest of all here. Each slice weighs as much as a tissue. You don’t chew as much as it disintegrates on the tongue like prosciutto. It releases a sweet, beefy musk and packs a restrained level of smoke. The pastrami is more buttery than peppery, and the rye is robust (better than the bread at Katz’s).
And while this is far from a low-sodium affair, the salts feel pleasantly restrained. My body doesn’t demand a liter of water in the hours after.
As I’ve said before, I wish these historic delis offered half sandwiches or reduced portion sizes, because this is a tough price for such a signature New York dish, something cherished by tourists and locals alike. My beloved S&P (in the old Eisenberg’s space) still charges just $16 and the meat there boasts pristine notes of coriander and pepper. Alas, it’s only open for lunch.
So yeah. We are moving further into the $30 pastrami era.
The other week I reviewed a few dishes from Bangkok Supper Club, the polished Meatpacking follow up to Fish Cheeks by Jennifer Saesue, Chat Suansilphong, and chef Max Wittawat. I liked it a lot! And so did Pete Wells of the New York Times! What I love about the writeup is how Wells gives marquee billing to an ingredient that doesn’t always occupy center stage: rice.
“He works rice as if it were dough, bringing out textures that run the gamut from soothingly chewy to airily crisp,” Wells writes. He goes on, a few paragraphs later:
Another disc of sticky rice gets a completely different treatment. Flattened like a pupusa and griddled to a dark gold, it’s nutty and peppery, with crisp surfaces and a murmur of Sichuan peppercorn, as intriguing as it is hard to place. The rice cake is meant as the setting for an artfully arranged lobster composition, but may upstage it.
During my Eater days, I made a particular point of reviewing chains, due to their (mostly) low prices, national accessibility, troubling policies, and outright deliciousness. Ignoring some of the biggest chain developments from a critical perspective felt like a movie reviewer forgoing a summer blockbuster.
In her new Tap is Fine Substack, Khushbu Shah writes about her love of chains and some of her favorite dishes, including tofu lettuce wraps at P.F. Chang’s, McGriddles, at McDonald’s, and the thin crust pizza at Domino’s, which I also have a soft spot for. Click through for the full read, but here’s my favorite graph:
I love that chains are the common denominator of restaurants: most people have access to them and most people can afford to eat at them. There is something really powerful about that, and it feels insane to dismiss this when covering the food world. Chains are also a bedrock of innovation when it comes to both food and technology (see the Doritos Locos Taco and Starbucks Rewards App). And you know an ingredient has really made it in the American culinary lexicon when you start seeing it on chain menus!
Sailor is probably the city’s toughest table at the moment — I was quoted, like, a four hour wait a month or so ago, and ended up elsewhere. To get a reservation, “you need to be very lucky, very famous, or very quick-fingered,” Helen Rosner of the New Yorker writes. But here are a few lines from the key graph:
She is one of the greatest cooks of her generation, and one of the most under-heralded; in a still viciously sexist business, she is the rare woman who made it to the very top. She is also a chef who, by many accounts, turned her eye away from the monstrous misdeeds of the men who employed her and a person who, after those men slunk away out of the public eye, retreating to the comfort of their money and their summer homes, had to keep working. What makes Sailor a success, besides the quality of its fare, is that it doesn’t feel like Bloomfield is making a play for redemption, or taking a shot at glory. It feels like she’s doing what she always wanted to be doing: cooking fantastic food…
New York’s most famous Uruguayan-born chef is Ignacio Mattos. He runs Corner Bar, Altro Paradiso, and Estela. But in our nation’s capital, where I once worked in restaurants — literally while Tom Sietsema was reviewing them (I know what it’s like to be on the other side, lol) — there’s now an Adams Morgan spot that tips its hat to Estela in a very cool way. So here’s Sietsema on Ceibo, a South American restaurant by Montevideo natives Juan Olivera, and his brother, Manuel Olivera:
The chorizo dumplings, though, are an original, an idea Juan says was inspired by the ricotta dumplings at Estela in New York and a dish of sausage and wine served with mashed potatoes from his grandmother. The hybrid of two happy memories finds four little pillows stuffed with paprika-seasoned pork sausage and cabbage in a shallow pool of clear broth: dashi tinged with pancetta.
You have not truly lived until you have sampled Singapore chile crab. Here’s Elaine Zhao on the speciality at Orchid House in Colindale:
This legendary dish is a household name: the regal crab sits on a raised throne, surrounded by a moat of the most deliciously sweet and complex sauce, with a hint of sourness and a slight chilli kick adding extraordinary depth of flavour. As with any crab experience, though, to quote Britney Spears, you “better work, bitch” – as its high shell-to-meat ratio means it’s not for lazy eaters. The deep-fried buns are an essential accompaniment, with their crispy exterior providing a satisfying crunch. Once inside, the soft, doughy interior lends the perfect canvas to mop up the sauce…
Two days a week, chef Benchawan Jabthong Painter and Graham Painter run a 14-course tasting menu spot in Houston. Graham is a member of the Choctaw tribe and also runs the modernist Eculent restaurant. Jabthong was born in Thailand and leads a venue called Street to Kitchen. But here, at Th Prsrv, they highlight their ancestral cuisines through indigenous, ancestral lenses.
Alison Cook of the Houston Chronicle has a review from earlier in November:
The food pingpongs from one side of the globe to the other, making for an experience that makes up in provocativeness what it lacks in coherence. Months later, I still think Chef G’ s heady wild mushroom dish, gaeng hed, seasoned with a wild leaf called pak wan, red ant eggs and Chinda chiles — its circa 1700 place on the dinner’s timeline reflecting the arrival of chiles in Thailand, via Portuguese traders. For diners who associate Thai food with blazing heat levels, it’s a revealing moment.
Michael Nagrant, author of The Hunger Substack, does some heavy lifting by polling 48 chefs (and a few owners) about the greatest Chicago chefs of all time. Charlie Trotter and Grand Achatz receive the most votes out of the top four, but click through for the full analysis, with a few surprises on the longer list.
Among those surprises are Laurent Gras, late of the seafood-centric L2O. Here’s Nathan Kim, chef de cuisine at Obelix, on Gras:
Laurent Gras - one of Chicagos most under appreciated and maybe misunderstood chefs. Perhaps the most skilled chef to work in this city ever. His interplay of French roots with a deep reverence of Japanese produce and technique at the highest level was truly something special to witness. L2O receiving 3 stars then him resigning the next day is still burned into my memory. Chicago wasn’t fully ready for what he had to offer.
Shout out to Lockhart Steele, Josh Albertson, and contributor Kat Odell for this lovely compilation of Found’s easily digestible restaurant reviews from the past year. Click through for columns on Raf’s, Ichimura, and Cafe Carmellini.
One of those incidents rose to the level of international attention last week when a former Obama Administration official was arrested for harassing a halal cart vendor on the Upper East Side.
In multiple (disturbing) videos on social media — one has received nearly 45 million views — Stuart Seldowitz made disparaging comments about Islam to vendor Mohammed Hussein. He also threatened that the Egyptian intelligence service would "get your parents.” The individual previously worked at the State Department’s Office of Israel and Palestinian Affairs. Click through for the full Eater NY report, which includes a link to a Daily Beast story where Seldowitz said “the vendor touched things off by expressing his support for Hamas.”
Lines of supporters queued up to patronize Hussein’s Q Halal Cart Grill in the aftermath, the Guardian reported. I was not there myself but I have no doubt that he continued to do what he surely does every day: cook, and feed people.
Subscribe to The LO Times for full access to reviews, “best of” lists, and roundups of your favorite national food media columns.