The pastrami sandwiches at Tommy’s are massive, glorious gut bombs
I’ve never had the pastrami at Katz’s or the Carnegie Deli. I haven’t even made the freeway pilgrimage to Langer’s in LA for what Jonathan Gold has called “the best pastrami sandwich in America.” Instead, it’s always been the Hat, the San Gabriel Valley pastrami institution that migrated south across the OC border a few years ago with outlets in Brea and Lake Forest.
And in what the Hat dubbed the Pastrami Dip, I found what I’ve come to recognize as a pastrami sandwich: frilly strands of salty meat, striped with fat, soaked in au jus, crammed like a springy mass with pickles and mustard and stuffed into a French roll. Half a sandwich was enough to redline the fat and sodium sensors in my brain. The other half made a great breakfast and lunch thereafter.
So great were these gut bombs, I barely noticed that right here in our midst, another pastrami empire was being built. From the day Tommy Pastrami began piling sliced meat onto bread in 2005 at their first Santa Ana location, their success was a lock. Franchising was inevitable. A year later, a Huntington Beach store opened; then La Habra, then Irvine.
Recently, the nicest-looking Tommy franchise debuted across from the Ronald Reagan Federal Building, next to Jason’s Downtown and Bistro 400. Like its neighbors, this new Tommy Pastrami flaunts the old building’s vintage brick walls. But unlike the other locales, this one has a full bar and a posh dining room. And on Saturday nights, a DJ spins tracks on a turntable.
The sandwiches remain the same: massive and glorious, like their Reuben. Sauerkraut and a slathering of Russian dressing fatten up what is already a teetering stack of pastrami, layered tall in neat folds of crimson, rimmed with onyx black. No matter how you decide to handle it, some will slip out and escape the grip of the bread. The sauce and kraut are flavor agents, but also lubricants.
These aren’t issues you’ll have with the regular pastrami sandwich, but there’s still its formidable girth. They offer the Lite for $5.95, which almost no one orders. Then there are the Original and the Jumbo, for $2 and $4 more, respectively. Both are huge.
My suggestion is to opt for the Original over the Jumbo. It’s plenty of meat, and the amount between the two sizes seems to vary only incrementally from store to store, and from sandwich to sandwich. The difference is unnoticeable, like comparing the heights of the Chrysler Building and the Empire State from street level. Looking up, both will seem equally tall.
But one thing is certain: This is a different beast from the Hat’s pastrami. The meat is laid in neat and prim slices, and it isn’t nearly as fatty. And although I’ve never actually had one in the Big Apple, it seems as close to a proper New York deli sandwich as you can get without booking a ticket to JFK.
Their rye is homemade, with a crumb as moist as cake, and a sturdy, crackled crust that snaps. The pastrami is salty, but not overly so. Every sandwich comes with a crunchy, mutant-sized whole pickle, split lengthwise, and a plastic thimble of Ba-Tempte brand deli mustard for spreading.
Tommy’s brisket sandwich is saddled with a dipping bowl of au jus made from real beef drippings (not bouillon cubes) or BBQ sauce. Take the former, and you’ll find a succulent French dip to rival that other LA sandwich legend, Philippe’s. Although this newest store doesn’t yet offer it, the chain also infringes upon other sandwich territories with its Philly cheese steak and Italian meatball. Both are smothered in cheese.
But it’s in the Jewish deli standards that Tommy Pastrami really thrives. The potato salad is perfect, the corned beef is as pink as ham, the matzo balls are bloated to gargantuan proportions, and if you catch them at the right time, they’ll have chopped liver.
They even do knish, the donut-and-mashed-potato hybrid that I’d never tried until I had it at Tommy’s. It can never claim the soft spot I have for the Hat’s chili cheese fries, but . . . wait a second . . . I just checked the menu: Tommy Pastrami offers that, too.
Tommy Pastrami New York Deli, 410 W. Fourth St., Santa Ana, (714) 541-1777; www.tommypastraminydeli.com. Sandwiches, $5.95-$13.75. Full bar. Check website for other locations and hours.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.