A Meaty Medley: The Best Pastrami Burgers

Take a bite out of this tantalizing blend of food traditions.

By: Jennifer Ball

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Glory on the Grill

Picture it, burger lovers: A mound of pastrami is piled high on a beef patty to create a meaty masterpiece. The pastrami burger has become a popular dish with good reason (meat, meat and more meat), but no one knows for sure where this inventive creation got its start. First, there’s the hamburger. With possible roots in Mongolia and Germany, the dish eventually appeared in the United States, where it became the sandwich Americans love today. Then there’s the pastrami, which has ties to Texas and New York by way of Eastern Europe, including origins in Romania, Turkey, Czechoslovakia and Russia. How the two dishes became entangled once they took root in the United States is yet another oft-debated story. What all pastrami burger aficionados can agree on, though, is that the fusion of these two dishes has made for a decidedly delicious creation. Read on to find out where to score craveworthy spins on the meaty classic.

Crown Burgers: Salt Lake City, Utah

You can’t talk about pastrami burgers without acknowledging the influences of Salt Lake City, Utah, where the dish is a statewide phenomenon. Crown Burgers, which began serving a Greek-influenced version of the sandwich in 1978, is frequently credited with popularizing the dish across the state and inspiring imitators around the country. The multi-locale operation continues to draw the crowds with its signature Crown Burger. To make this meaty creation, a quarter-pound of charbroiled beef is nestled on a sesame seed bun, then decked with lettuce, tomato, onion and homemade Thousand Island dressing. A pile of thinly sliced, spice-laden pastrami makes for a flavorful finish. “I think the reason why [the Crown Burger] is so good is because we use a very tender cut of meat and marinate it in a bath of juices and spices,” says Crown Burgers General Manager Dean Maroudas. “This gives it a nice flavor that compliments the burger and the Thousand Island dressing.”

Hodad’s: San Diego

The Guido Burger, a tasty tribute to Guy Fieri, is a gourmand’s dream. This elevated rendition of the pastrami burger strays from the traditional version, starting with the fact that it’s built on a griddle-toasted bun. The toasty bread stands up well to the one-third-pound burger patty, which is sprinkled with seasoned salt, grilled and then topped with melted swiss, a generous heap of seared pastrami and a layer of caramelized onions. Hodad’s also forgoes the traditional Utah fry sauce (a Thousand-Island style condiment made of mayonnaise and ketchup); the bottom half of the bun is smothered in ketchup and layered with kosher dill pickles, while the top half is slathered in spicy brown mustard. Once assembled, this burger is impossibly large — but decidedly delicious.

The Oinkster: Los Angeles

Order The Royale at Chef Andre Guerrero’s The Oinkster and you’ll receive a towering creation composed of a Thousand Island-smeared sesame seed bun, one-third-pound of Nebraska Angus beef, melted American or sharp cheddar cheese, bacon, chili, pickles, onions, tomato and lettuce. Tucked into the middle of this tantalizing dish is the restaurant’s true star: The Oinkster’s house-cured pastrami. This tender meat is cured for two weeks in a secret spice rub, then smoked over applewood for several hours to give it a subtly sweet flavor.

Drama Burger: Tampa

Drama Burger co-owner Manfredas Bajelis says his restaurant’s pastrami burger is a blend of Lithuanian and American traditions. For instance, Bajelis and his team turned to Lithuania as the inspiration for the burger’s signature pastrami, due to the country’s “deep roots in curing and smoking meats,” he notes. Drama’s pastrami starts with a thinly sliced beef brisket and takes nine days to prepare: seven days of curing in traditional Lithuanian seasonings, several hours of cold smoking and two days of low-temperature boiling. When the perfect taste and texture is finally achieved, a 2.2-ounce heap of pastrami is draped over an Angus beef patty that’s crowned with red onions, pickles, lettuce, homemade mayo and mustard. More adventurous eaters may want to switch out the signature pastrami for Drama’s duck pastrami option, which is also available as a burger topping.

The Hat: Alhambra, California

Open since the 1950s, this Southern California burger chain has long been known as the home of “World Famous Pastrami.” Whether the title was bestowed or self-declared is unclear, but customers with a craving for pastrami flock to the restaurant regardless. The Hat’s pastrami — unlike the hand-cut, marbled beef found on the East Coast —stands apart for its gloriously salty, wafer-thin qualities. The Hat’s popular pastrami burger stars a quarter-pound patty that sits enticingly on a sesame seed bun slathered with Thousand Island dressing and stacked with shredded lettuce, tomato, pickles and onions. The patty is blanketed in melted American cheese, then buried in a mound of shredded pastrami so large that it’s impossible to hold the entire sandwich — even with two hands.

2nd Ave Deli: New York

2nd Ave Deli, one of the few fully kosher delis left in Manhattan, is well-known for its marbled, paper-thin pastrami and Jewish soul food. The spot interprets the pastrami burger through a decidedly New York lens. Known as The Pastrami Burger Deluxe, this satisfying creation features a grilled patty made from a custom blend of beef. Crowned with pastrami, lettuce, tomato and onion, the patty comes served on a lightly toasted challah roll. 2nd Ave skips the fry sauce popular in the Western version of the burger, instead serving the sandwich with a side of coleslaw and french fries.

Apollo Burger: Salt Lake City, Utah

Since opening the doors of its first restaurant in 1984, Apollo Burger has served its eponymous pastrami burger using ingredients sourced from family-owned Utah businesses and delivered fresh daily to each of its various locales. The Apollo’s Greek pastrami is made with a proprietary blend of spices and cured in a bath of special seasonings before being stacked atop a one-third-pound patty. The flame-broiled patty, which is smothered in melted American cheese, comes perched on crisp layers of lettuce, onions and tomatoes — all held together by a cornmeal bun. Once built, the burger is then dressed in Apollo Sauce — a twist on Utah’s popular fry sauce.

Brooklyn Diner: New York

Brooklyn Diner takes its award-winning cheeseburger to the next level by adding hand-carved hot pastrami to the dish. The diner’s pastrami is meticulously prepared via a lengthy process that involves curing the meat for seven days, smoking it for four hours over white hickory (which ensures a distinctive smoky flavor) and finally steaming it for another four hours. The thick slices of pastrami are then draped over the burger. But wait, there’s more! The whole lot is garnished with Tillamook cheddar, tomato, lettuce and a rich aioli to create the Cheese Burger with Hot Pastrami.

Haven Burgers: Mesa, Arizona

Mesa locals rave about Haven Burgers, a small but bustling joint. This tiny spot delivers big on flavor with its namesake pastrami burger, which comes slicked with Thousand Island dressing. The burger’s sesame bun can barely contain its satisfying combination of fillings: a charbroiled burger patty, pastrami, lettuce, tomato and sliced onion. If you still have room after devouring this meaty sandwich, patrons recommend finishing off your meal with a side of the much-loved zucchini fries.

Sammy’s L.A. Pastrami and Burgers: Las Vegas

The standard pastrami burger at Sammy’s L.A. Pastrami and Burgers is a behemoth, containing a quarter-pound patty made of Angus beef and a freshly sliced mound of pastrami weighing in at a whopping half-pound. Each made-to-order sandwich begins at the flat top grill, with an Angus patty and a pile of pastrami covered in provolone. Once the cheese melts and the meat crisps lightly around the edges, the ingredients are piled high on a toasted bun and garnished with mustard and pickles. If you’re feeling extra famished, the Fully Loaded Pastrami Burger adds an additional quarter-pound Angus patty — as well as bacon and egg — to your sandwich. According to co-owner Brian Atkinson, Sammy’s sells more than 3,000 pounds of pastrami each month. “We have our pastrami made just for our restaurants, using our own recipe,” says Atkinson. “It is a cured, smoked beef navel that literally melts in your mouth.”

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