Oh, Brothers'

Jeff Burstein and the crew that aims to put pastrami back on the Twin Cities map
Michael Dvorak
50 S. Sixth St., Skyway Level, Minneapolis

I was at the St. Paul winter farmers' market a few weeks ago (that's the meat-and-dairy-heavy farmers' market that takes place Saturday mornings, March 30 and April 13, until the regular market begins April 27), and a farmer got to explaining to me that he's been experimenting with beef bacon, because did I know that lots of people, like Jewish people for instance, can't eat bacon from pigs?

"Why, how interesting," I murmured and noted the relevant details in my notebook, the relevant details being: Where the hell am I?

One morning about six weeks later I sat up in bed, the other level of what was so weird about that exchange finally clear in my mind: No one needs beef bacon--that's why God created pastrami! Pastrami--the cured, spiced, smoked, fatty cut of beef--is a meat that lives in that hallowed circle of comfort-food riches, like carnitas, confit, and bacon.

Oh, I wish my mind worked more quickly, because then I could have taken that farmer down into the digital and marble canyonlands of downtown Minneapolis, where pastrami is making a strong showing, along with its sister muses from the land of New York Delicatessen, like corned beef, brisket, rye bread, and pickles. That delicatessen thing, it's a strong passion, and it actually seems to have been huge in Minneapolis at one time.

In fact, Brothers' Deli owner Jeff Burstein, whom I spoke to on the phone for this piece, says that there were once 16 Brothers' restaurants, run by Burstein's father and uncle, Len and Sam. It all started in the 1920s, when Mike and Dora Burstein (the grandparents of Jeff, father of Len and Sam) started serving food in a private Jewish club, then went public with Mike's Café, a kosher-style restaurant that was located next to First Avenue back when the nightclub was a bus depot. By the 1980s there were 16 Brotherses around the metro, and they were famous for their bakery goods.

According to Jeff Burstein, the restaurants were quite a hive of accomplishment: In about 1965, the president of McDonald's visited and was so impressed with the Burstein family applesauce doughnuts that he flew the brothers out to San Bernardino to the Ray Kroc ranch, where the two were offered stewardship of some bakeries that were affiliated with McDonald's at the time.

Then, in 1968, Len Burstein invented the box lunch. "He loved his work, my dad," remembers Burstein. "He'd walk in once a week and say, 'I've got an idea!' Then we'd take the discussion to the dinner table and talk it over. One day I'm a kid, I'm sitting on the couch, he comes in: 'I've got an idea! What we'll do is, put a brownie, a pickle, a sandwich, and potato salad in there.' The next week we got the boxes printed. He knew downtown people wanted lunch fast, in and out quick as possible."

I think these are good stories. The one about McDonald's almost causes dizzying cultural vertigo when you look out the new Brothers' window and see current McDonald's-controlled darling Chipotle Grill; the one about box lunches makes me think of the Wright Brothers, tinkering with their bold invention, while a half-century later the Burstein Brothers tinkered with theirs: "No, what are you, crazy? You can't put a pickle and a brownie in there! The whole thing'll blow sky-high!" Well doggum it, who'd a thunk...

By 1983 the original Burstein boys were in declining health, and so the Brothers' chain was sold. Five years later it was shut down entirely, decimating pastrami availability in the Twin Cities. Jeff Burstein doesn't like to talk about it. "It was horrible for the family," he says. "Horrible, horrible. The restaurants had been such a source of pride for so long. Well, what can you say? It was hard."

In 1993 Jeff Burstein decided that he'd start a new deli from scratch. He went and apprenticed at the Carnegie Deli in New York, and the rest is history. Last fall he moved his operation to the new Dorsey building, near Sixth Street South and Nicollet Mall, and went about serving the best pastrami and corned-beef sandwiches in town. What does that mean? Well, it's just that some people have a bone-deep passion and interest in a good sandwich, and they pursue the perfection of it with a talent and attention to detail that everyone else is too lazy or sane to approach.

What Burstein does for his pastrami and corned beef is that he imports it all from a kosher butcher in the Bronx, ordering only the best fatty cuts of corned beef. "I learned that at the Carnegie," says Burstein. "The first day I was there I heard the counter man shouting on the phone: 'Send me your fattest corned beef!' That's where all the flavor is. If it's not fat enough, it's not juicy enough. Then we trim the fat off to serve, so it tastes lean and strong, but juicy." They take that good corned beef, then re-pickle it with their own garlic and pickling spice, to get just the right flavor. They keep it hot in steam trays, and by the time you get it, it's potent, soft, full of cloves and garlic, and just smells spectacular. That minutely attended meat is served on bread Burstein orders from a secret source in New York, getting in frozen parbaked loaves and baking them every day.

I can't think of any other sandwich in the Twin Cities that has been sourced with such attention. Put a Dr. Brown's soda on your tray and carry it to one of the tables where half-sour pickles wait in large Mason jars and pickled beets hide in small ones, and a little sort of heaven awaits. Personally, I think Brothers' corned beef these days is better than the stuff at such New York temples as the Second Avenue Deli, and I'm not afraid to say it in print, even though I know I'm going to be defending that opinion weekly until the end of time. (The sandwiches cost $4.95 for a normal size, and $8.95 for a gargantuan one.)

There are also H&H bagels, imported from New York and certainly the best in town, and good sweet-and-sour borscht, fresh roast turkey, and well-cooked brisket. But the most important thing to know about is the intuitive sense, the bone-deep passion, and the real talent for pastrami and corned beef that animate this otherwise boring, brightly lighted spot. Bring glasses for the encyclopedic, small-type menu stenciled on one far-off wall. I went there knowing exactly what I wanted, and I got flustered and overwhelmed and unable to pull together an order with the pressure of the line behind me and counter person expectant before me.

The place doesn't feel like anywhere at all: white walls, stainless-steel cases and counters in a line, generic posters, and a shelf with a few geometric, artsy jars of antipasto that look like they got lost on their way to D'Amico & Sons. All the thought here goes into the bread and beef, and none into the aesthetics or the needs of bodies in rooms or on food lines. If, once you finally score a tray and carry it to a table by the window, you look across the skyway to the jam-packed Chipotle Grill, with its clear signage, indecision-relieving lack of choices, comforting design, and efficient food- and people-moving, you might be brought to the strange new psychic place where I found myself: respect and gratitude for restaurant consultants.

And yet Brothers' has been reasonably crowded on all my visits; I guess there are enough people downtown who appreciate substance over style. When I talked to Burstein for this article, he told me that so far, business has been good: "In six months, we'll see if maybe we're going to open another Brothers', maybe in a neighborhood where it's more of a dinner thing, too." Is this the second step on the great ramp-up to another grand Brothers' count of 16 restaurants? Who knows. Maybe we'll even get one in farm country: I'll never forget the time I was in the Stag's Head in Red Wing, where they also had H&H bagels, and a farmer came in, caked from the knees down with mud, threw down his crusty gloves, and ordered a garlic bagel and a latte. On the one hand, there's cultural experience, and on the other hand, you can never underestimate the power of good taste.

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Brothers Delicatessen

50 S. 6th St.
Minneapolis, MN 55402


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