The meat of the matter

The bread is important, as is the side pickle – but no matter how you slice it, meat is the star ingredient in any great deli sandwich

The jumbo corned beef sandwich, with a side of coleslaw, from Jack’s Deli.

The jumbo corned beef sandwich, with a side of coleslaw, from Jack’s Deli.

Story by Jonah L. Rosenblum
Photography by Michael C. Butz

Before former Cleveland Browns offensive lineman Mitchell Schwartz left town, the Jewish pigskin player did an informal question and answer session on Twitter with his fans.

One asked the classic Cleveland question: Corky & Lenny’s or Jack’s Deli?

That might be the Jewish deli question most frequently asked in Greater Cleveland, but there’s far more to deli sandwiches than battling over corned beef.

After speaking with purveyors of pastrami and connoisseurs of corned beef from Corky & Lenny’s in Woodmere and Jack’s Deli in University Heights and Chicago Deli in Solon (also popular in the Jewish community), it’s clear that making a deli sandwich is as much about a craft as a cook.

Gary Lebowitz, Jack’s Deli co-owner, takes pride in a kid who wants the deli man to make his sandwich rather than his mom. He takes pride in people who “walk into my restaurant and they want Gary to make their sandwich.”

“A sandwich is made with TLC (tender loving care),” Lebowitz says. “It’s made with pride.”

It’s also made with quality ingredients.

Take corned beef, a point of pride at nearly every deli.

“You have to start out with a quality corned beef,” Lebowitz says. “Ours is home cooked, sliced on our slicers. There’s nothing old in our restaurant. We’re constantly turning out beautiful corned beef.”

Corned beef isn’t easily made. Corky & Lenny’s deli man Craig Kupchik says every piece is cooked fresh – from early in the morning until 8 at night. The meat is cured elsewhere, but with Corky & Lenny’s special blend of seasoning, with the blend injected into the meat via 1,000 miniature needles. The meat is then cured for seven to 11 days. Also critical with corned beef is steaming.

“It keeps the corned beef nice and smooth instead of falling apart,” Chicago Deli owner George Hamway says. “It’s easier to slice that way. It keeps it nice and tender and moist.”

With corned beef, diners face a critical choice, even if many aren’t aware of it. They can ask for their corned beef to be served “juicy” or “fatty,” or in a health-conscious age, they can go “lean.” Regardless of health, many choose the juicier shoulder cut, known in the business as the deckle.

“Most of the old-timers all like a juicy corned beef sandwich with the fat,” Lebowitz says. “It seems like the new generation is more into the extra lean stuff.”

“The marbling of the meat gives it the taste and tenderness and the flavor,” Kupchik adds.

Same with the pastrami, although Lebowitz says 99 percent of customers opt for the fatty Romanian hot pastrami over a leaner cut.

Pastrami is another art, according to Kupchik, who talked about how the cow stomach is smoked and peppered with plentiful coriander. Trucked in from New York, the pastrami is steamed upon arrival in Cleveland, thus softening the meat, opening its pores and allowing the spices “to reveal themselves.”

Freshness is front and center at area delis.

Kupchik says that when he occasionally runs out of chicken or tuna salad, customers will ask why he didn’t make more. There’s a simple reason.

“I’m about freshness,” Kupchik says.

Unlike other cuisines, which blend in new and exotic ingredients, the world of deli sandwiches remains tradition-based. The egg salad at Corky & Lenny’s, well, “people like egg salad because it’s made out of eggs and mayo.” The chicken salad will have a little spice to it. The tuna salad – “we don’t muck it up, we keep it very simple,” Kupchik says – is tuna, eggs and mayonnaise.

“For 56 years, that’s all we’ve done,” Kupchik says. “If they want to add something to it, I’ll gladly help them, but normally we keep our things basic because that’s the way people like them.”

The homemade turkey at Chicago Deli gets a few ingredients added in, Hamway says, but nothing crazy – mainly a mixture of butter, pepper and salt. The chopped liver is baked with onion, salt and pepper, then chopped with hard-boiled eggs and topped with a bit of olive oil.

“It’s a Jewish delicacy,” Hamway says. “People like it with caramelized onions and chopped eggs – that’s what chopped liver is all about.”

Even the mustard is kept simple. The local delis stock every kind imaginable – Bertman Original Ball Park, Stadium, Dijon and honey. Still, many go for simple yellow mustard when it comes to their deli sandwiches.

The one thing that bonds every sandwich, whether it’s a juicy corned beef or a smoked turkey, is the bread – and that too is critical. All three shops pointed to their bread provider with pride. (All three utilize Pincus Bakery in University Heights, while Jack’s also uses Davis Bakery and Deli in Woodmere.) All three cited the crunch their customers should taste upon taking a bite. Kupchik talked about caraway seeds and the importance of not slicing the bread while hot, which can “mangle” it.

“The first thing that your lips go into, your teeth go into, in a sandwich is the bread,” Lebowitz says.

And who can forget the pickle?

“It’s an accompaniment,” Kupchik says. “It’s like having a soda with ice or ice cream with chocolate sauce or turkey sandwich with mayo.”

“The pickle’s got to be good,” Lebowitz adds. “It’s got to be crunchy and good.” js

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