Pastrami Porn

The Brothers Delicatessen
607 Marquette Ave., Firstar Bank Building, skyway level, Minneapolis; 341-8007

It was a dark and stormy morning when I herded the family into the minivan. I had gotten some notions into my head. Reading will do that to you, and I was reading the worst sort of things--food porn. Magazines full of big, glossy close-ups of luscious porterhouse steaks glistening under their heavy-crusted lids, pouty nectarine tarts winking from their sauce-woozy beds, indecent shots of pate en croute. I was hopped up on gastro-lasciviousness, with nowhere to turn but deeper into my addiction.

That's where Mom came in.

She had the minivan, and a working knowledge of inner Queens--a rare quality in a mom, or a New Yorker. (It's pretty obvious that the majority of New Yorkers--that is, people from Manhattan, Brooklyn, Staten Island, the Bronx, greater Long Island, and the whole of the rest of the state--are more familiar with Paris and London than they are with Queens. And no, driving to and from LaGuardia doesn't count.) But mom was born and bred in Queens, and she knows things about the BQE, the LIE, and the Cross-Bronx expressway that effete third-generation Manhattanites like me can only dream of. To tell the truth, I know more about Kazakhstan then I do about Kew Gardens, and Kew Gardens was where we were headed.

How to describe Kew Gardens? Imagine 1920s-vintage four- to 10-story apartment buildings, stacked neat as blocks for blocks, all filled with middle-class families--Dominicans, Koreans, Hasidic Jews, and African Americans side-by-side in invisible harmony. (Queens, believe it or not, has nearly 3 million residents packed into a parcel of land that's roughly 12 by 26 miles. It's most famous as Archie Bunker's home, though L.L. Cool J and Run D.M.C. hail from the borough as well.)

Kew Gardens isn't the sort of place tourists go; sightseeing there would be akin to sightseeing in Brooklyn Park. But smack dab in its middle is a little restaurant called Pastrami King, a place the gastro-porn crowd knows by name and legend. As Veronica Lake is to blond starlets, as Gabriel is the rest of the angels, so is Pastrami King pastrami to the rest of the world's pastrami. Or so I had read. It was hard for me to even imagine. What could heavenly times 10 be like? Would the floors be littered with swooning patrons?

Pastrami is a Balkan-born preparation of beef, usually deckle or brisket, which has been, over the course of several weeks, salted, spiced, cured, spiced again with cracked black pepper, smoked, steamed, cooled, gently reheated with steam, and served thinly sliced. Or at least that's what it's supposed to be, and that's what it is in most New York delicatessens. (The stuff you get at most supermarket chains is about as much like pastrami as a tin-whistle is like a trumpet.) Pastrami at its best has a rich, salty, silky, spicy depth, and in some ways reminds me of a chocolate truffle filling, in that the flavor is just that intense and consistent throughout.

Mom zigged and zagged the minivan, cutting off taxicabs, shooting laterally through dozens of lanes in the blink of an eye, swooping around knots of traffic, stretching the letter of the law at every corner--because she had to. Driving in Queens is something like high-stakes bumper cars, probably because so many drivers there learned to drive in other countries, or perhaps because, as in the rest of New York, the cops consider the prosecution of traffic violations beneath their dignity. We arrived just as the first dirty raindrops fell. Inside, in a room with wood-grain tables, comfortless chairs, and mirrored walls we all ordered pastrami sandwiches. I was frantic with anticipation.

Finally, the painted-eyebrow waitress returned with the heaping platter of sandwiches, which were incredibly fatty, soaking wet, and pretty gross. My mom wouldn't finish hers. I ate mine, and got a stomachache. But I learned some things, for example that Queens is really a much more interesting place than I had thought, and that only fools trust glossy food-smut rags. (Want to see for yourself? Call Pastrami King at (718) 263-1717 and they'll Fed-Ex you pastrami at $15 a pound.)

I also learned to be satisfied with the earthly incarnation of pastrami sandwiches, and not to lust after their mythical prefiguration. Which is why you'll often find me at Brothers' Delicatessen--they've got the best pastrami sandwich in town, and it's a formidable object. Served in two sizes (the ordinary-sized version is $4.45, the mammoth New York Style $7.95), they are a little oasis of deli-joy in the skyways. Brothers also has an excellent matzo ball soup ($2.25 cup/$3.25 bowl), a rich broth studded with big chicken pieces and crowned with orange-sized, cloud-light matzo balls. The meaty sweet-and-sour borscht ($2.25/$3.25) is equally wonderful. The potted brisket, corned beef, and roast-turkey sandwiches are all tops in their classes--real foods served simply, not the over-processed, homogenized, bland packages that usually pass as sandwiches. Brothers' Reuben ($5.45) is also world-class, since the corned beef is actually flown in from New York's Carnegie Deli; it's meaty, salty, with highlights of bay leaf and pepper. (Most sandwiches are available in the aforementioned two sizes.)

Bread isn't taken lightly here either. Options like caraway rye, black Russian rye, whole wheat or a light, sweet egg-bread--or even big, chewy H&H bagels flown in from New York--help create sandwiches that make working in an office building worthwhile.

Which brings us to the best part of the story. Brothers' is tucked away up there, right across from the Norwest Center, and while there is a street entrance (take the elevator or stairs to the second floor from 607 Marquette) it's really only known to the most competent skyway surfers. Not only does this mean that you're sure to get your fabulous sandwich on its no-frills styrofoam plate in a matter of seconds--there's not a snowball's chance in Mallorca that any adjective-crazed food-porn industrialist will ever find it.

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