The chalkboard menu at The Shellmore rarely runs longer than seven or eight items. Typically, the handwritten list includes a couple of oyster varietals, a selection of domestic cheeses and a dish or two from chef Eric Milley’s classically influenced repertoire, such as country pate or steak tartare.
With so few choices to consider, it’s astounding that patrons of the I’On restaurant could miss anything on the list. But on a Thursday in late October, many diners were so engrossed in parsing the possibilities of Caesar salad, shellfish chowder and smoked pork loin with butternut squash and braised greens that their eyes failed to settle on a tiny marking scored close to the board’s bottom corner: #PT.
Milley’s fans knew what the hashtag meant, though, just as they caught his drift when he circulated the phrase “pickled tofu” on social media. It’s Pastrami Time.
“Until recently, I wouldn’t even put it on the board,” says Milley, who resorted to code because there’s never enough brined, cured and smoked meat on hand to satisfy all of the customers who want it. It takes him about two weeks to turn 15 pounds of brisket into seven pounds of pastrami. “It’s so much time and so much space.”
Still, Milley has stuck with the pastrami program, in part because diner response has been ferocious.
“I started tinkering with it just to see if I could do it, and gave it out to people who were coming,” he says. “A couple of people who had it were longtime New York residents, and they were like, ‘We went to Katz’s once or twice a month, and this is better. Way better.’”
Perhaps the luscious waggle of fat and salty richness that distinguish Milley’s pastrami explain its popularity. But Milley also has tapped into mounting local interest in the preparation, stemming from a growing awareness of Texas barbecue traditions and the desire of chefs and eaters to find alternatives to bacon.
“I love pork as much as the next person,” says Josh Keeler of 492, who at Two Boroughs Larder put pancetta in his clams and scrapple on his breakfast sandwiches. “But all the food in this city, for a very long time, was very, very pork heavy.”
Contemporary Charleston eaters cottoned to smoked brisket before they came around to pastrami, at least according to Keeler, who wrote the menus at Two Boroughs: Savoy cabbage and potato soup, for example, sold better when Keeler told them there was brisket in it. (From a culinary standpoint, the terms are close to interchangeable.)
Putting pastrami in a Southern context wasn’t just a Lowcountry preoccupation. The urge to establish the meat treatment’s regional rightness may have reached its apex in 2016, when Texas Monthly barbecue editor Daniel Vaughn unveiled his theory that Texas butchers introduced pastrami to New York City.
Barbecue scholar Robert Moss, who co-hosts The Post and Courier’s podcast The Winnow, swiftly debunked Vaughn’s claims: “I would be delighted to claim pastrami as a legacy of the long, proud Southern tradition of slow-smoking meats,” Moss wrote in a Serious Eats column. “But, unfortunately, I can't: The historical record simply doesn't hold up.”
Most likely, pastrami is derived from a Romanian preservation method that involved salt, garlic and spices. By the late 1890s, New York City groceries owned by Eastern European immigrants were offering pastrami alongside other pickled and smoked delicacies.
Within decades, towering pastrami sandwiches had emerged as “a hallmark of New York,” with special significance to its Jewish residents, Ted Merwin writes in “Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli.” Indeed, Merwin argues that by giving Jews a nonreligious way to express their cultural identity, the pastrami sandwich “helped to fuel the meteoric rise of Jews in our society.”
In some cases, those 20th-century trajectories led to Charleston, with lifelong Northeasterners retiring to the area and bringing their pastrami affections with them. Those former Katz’s regulars at The Shellmore are gradually becoming more rule than exception. But Keeler also credits pitmaster John Lewis of Lewis Barbecue with schooling local eaters in Texas-style brisket, preventing chefs from throwing around the phrase “smoked brisket” when they’re putting out something that tastes of coriander and black peppercorns.
“His method is very consistent; it’s very spot-on,” Keeler says. “It’s what made a name for him. To compete with that could be stupid of me: We’re dealing with a completely different product. I definitely don’t smoke it as long: It’s designed to be sliced and still hold together.”
As Lewis’ chef de cuisine, Philip Powers has a deep understanding of what’s required to produce Texas barbecue. But he’s also experimented with brining beef for pastrami, a centerpiece of his occasional Jewish deli pop-up; Powers last summer launched the Pigeonhole project with Juan Luis’ former chef Ray England.
Powers initially submerged briskets for three days before smoking and cooking them. He’s since abandoned the full-on brining for days on end in favor of vacuum pulsing, which is an adaptation of an industrial technique. By subjecting the brisket to short blasts in a vacuum sealer, he can fully infuse the meat with flavor in 12 hours. “You get more of a fresh texture,” he claims.
Keeler compresses the time needed to make pastrami by starting with corned beef, which is already cured and rosy. “The pink color is almost hammy,” Keeler says approvingly. His crew uses a brining solution salted to 15 percent of the brisket’s weight, followed by an unsalted soak.
“Every single time, we just weigh it,” Keeler says. “That makes it very straightforward.”
For chefs who can’t control every variable in an understaffed kitchen, a recipe that borders on science is highly appealing. Still, Milley says the unknowns that come with smoking meat are what keep pastrami fun.
“Smoking is kind of a wild card, especially for me,” says Milley, who puts a bit of sugar in his brine. “My smoker is small and outdoors and things get temperamental with wood and humidity. You’re at the mercy of nature, which keeps it from becoming repetitive.”
Once the pastrami is ready, its applications are endless. Although Powers tends to serve his pastrami sandwiched between bread, and Milley presents pastrami on a plate, other chefs around town have begun reaching for pastrami whenever a hit of salt and smoke is in order.
At Tu, pastrami surfaces in a scallion pancake. At Husk, pastrami mayonnaise stands in for the egg yolk that conventionally graces steak tartare. And Keeler has tossed pastrami into braising pans with leafy greens, in addition to putting pastrami on rye for 492’s weekly deli-themed Sunday brunch.
“Right now, we use it in place of bacon on the burger,” Keeler says. “We’re just trying to get away from using a ton of bacon all the time: It’s a change to the flavor profile.”