My man TD works in the television industry in New York City, a job not nearly as glamorous as it sounds. He works in the locations department and lately his job has consisted of scouting the seedier corners of Long Island looking for “something Vegas-y” for an upcoming shoot.
While wasting gas and paying exorbitant bridge tolls these past few weeks, he’ll invariably call me and ask, “Where should I go to lunch?” And so I’ve been having a vicarious gastronomic tour of the foods I ate when I grew up: pizza, bagels, sandwiches, fresh seafood.
Then he called me from the road in Merrick, NY. “How’s this place Pastrami King?” he asked. “Go,” I said. “Go right now.” Pastrami King also serves tongue, corned beef and dozens of other NY deli specialties, but it is of course known for its pastrami sandwiches, piled high with pounds of thin-sliced bliss.
Pastrami is a cut of beef which is brined, seasoned, smoked and steamed to give it a unique texture before it meets the deli slicer. It’s different from corned beef in that corned beef is not smoked, but neither one is exactly standard fare here in the triad, where I was sitting with a pastrami jones bigger than any I’ve ever experienced.
Heading to First Carolina Deli was a no-brainer. First Carolina has embraced the New York deli ethos for more than 20 years over on Spring Garden Street. They’ve got corned beef. They’ve got cappicola. They’ve got salmon. They’ve got herring.
And you bet your ass they’ve got some pastrami back there. First Carolina uses Boar’s Head brand meats, pretty much top of the line as far as commercial deli meats go, surpassed only by small-batch, in-house versions. The menu includes a long list of traditional deli fare: sandwiches like the Super Turk (turkey and Swiss on a Kaiser with Russian dressing), the Knickerbocker (knockwurst, Swiss and sauerkraut
with mustard on pumpernickel) and the Italian Sailor (pastrami, pepperoni and Swiss on rye with mustard). But the meat I craved does its best, I think, on a sandwich known as the Rachel, a version of the Reuben using pastrami, Swiss and sauerkraut with Russian dressing on rye.
I order it, and inquire about the soup. advertised as turkey noodle. “Got anything else?” I wanted to know. “That’s it, honey,” my sassy server said. “One a day. Like a vitamin.” I ordered some, and it came out in a small Styrofoam cup, hot enough that even the most stringent of delicatessen imprimaturs would not in good conscience be able to send it back.
The sandwich itself came out moments later, stacked neatly with a pickle on the side. The amount of meat in the sandwich was nothing close to what one would get in a traditional New York deli, where the portions — and prices — border on the absurd, but it was a perfectly appropriate amount of meat for a Carolina noontime repast.
First Carolina also carries other products relevant to New York delicatessen culture: New York-style cheesecake, creamier and more dense than its less cosmopolitan brethren; Snapple soft drinks, made famous by New York shock-jock Howard Stern; and Dr. Brown’s sodas, the most unusual flavor of which is a celery-flavored version called Cel- Ray.
So you don’t necessarily need to be in New York to have the New York deli experience. And next time TD calls at lunchtime, I’ll ask him if he can find any good barbecue on Long Island, a question to which I already know the answer.
First Carolina Deli 1635 Spring Garden St. Greensboro
The Carolina Deli uses Boar’s Head products, just about as good as you can get without making the pastrami yourself, served here on a Rachel sandwich, with Swiss, slaw and Russian dressing on rye. (photo by Brian Clarey)