Every Sunday at LA's outdoor food market Smorgasburg, you'll find two longtime friends hand-carving jiggling slabs of melt-in-your-mouth, pit-smoked pastrami inside their little Ugly Drum tent. They'll pile the fatty pieces up high on toasted, seeded rye bread that has been slathered with a spicy whole-grain mustard.
And every now and then, a New Yorker standing in line will start whispering that the pastrami looks like it's made out of brisket, not the navel cut that old-school delicatessens use for their sandwiches. Co-owner Joe Marcos says that some pastrami purists will seem skeptical at first. "But then whenever someone tries it, they're like, 'Whoa, this is amazing!'"
The pastrami from Ugly Drum is indeed a special one, a pastrami that can't be pigeonholed. This "hybrid pastrami," as co-owner Erik Black calls it, is an homage to the greats. It's a love letter to his favorite pastrami from LA's Langer's, has the heavy rub that is characteristic of what you'll find at New York City's Katz's, made with brisket like in Montreal's smoked meat, and has the intense smokiness of Texas barbecue. What you get is a succulent and deeply smoky pastrami that has quickly joined the ranks of some of the best in LA. Ugly Drum's brisket isn't boiled or steamed like at other pastrami joints, but if you can't handle the fact that the rosy meat isn't made in the traditional way, then you're missing out on something unique.
Ugly Drum is a passion project for Black and Marcos, who have been friends since they met 15 years ago while cutting their teeth at seminal LA restaurant Campanile. They later worked in different kitchens in the fine dining scene, from the lauded Mozza restaurants, where they learned patience in making their own cured meats and charcuterie, to The Spice Table. Nowadays, Marcos has moved on to become a restaurant consultant, and Black is the accountant for Bludso's BBQ. Making pastrami is a labor of love for these guys because Ugly Drum is a side project that they do on their days off.
On a Saturday afternoon, I meet the pair at the commissary that Bludso's BBQ uses for catering as well as an office space where Black does his bookkeeping for the restaurant. This is where the pastrami-making magic happens. In one day, they will smoke anywhere from eight to 12 of these briskets that they get delivered from Brandt Beef, a family-run ranch just a couple hours east of San Diego. The laborious process starts with Black trimming down the fat from a 12-pound slab of brisket, slimming it down to 8 pounds. Marcos boils a concentrated mixture of curing salt, bay leaves, whole cloves of garlic, mustard seeds, celery seeds, sugar, dill seeds, and chile pods, and then throws in chunks of ice to cool it down. The brisket then gets brined in the mixture for two weeks. Every day while Black is working in the office, he'll swing by the kitchen and flip the briskets over. When they're ready, they'll rub the briskets with spices that are pretty similar to the ingredients in the brine. Black once bought the rub from Montreal's Schwartz's online and tried to clone the recipe, and says the mixture is also pretty similar to the steak rub they use at Bludso's. Right after rubbing in the coarse seasonings, Black tosses them into a giant Ole Hickory smoker over smoldering pecan, oak, and applewood. After 12 to 14 hours in the smoker, these babies are transported to Smorgasburg and are ready to be served.
This craft of making pastrami isn't just learned overnight; Black's had a longtime obsession with the decadent meat. "Erik was eating it all the time, every weekend," Marcos says. "At Mozza, I'd be like, 'What did you do on your day off?' and he'd be like, 'Yeah, I was at Langer's.' Every week! And I was like, 'Erik, you better lay off that Langer's.'"
To Black's credit, he says he was younger then and could handle the cholesterol. For him, the pastrami sandwich was just the "ultimate sandwich." "There was something really nice about going [to Langer's] after working in fine dining. . . going into this older-school service and deli that had been around for then 60 years," Black says.
He used to see the now late owner Albert J. Langer, who was in his 90s at the time, often sitting in the corner of the restaurant. Langer had been serving pastrami since he was a teen, and Black felt that after all this "fussy fine dining stuff" that he was doing during his working hours, it was really pleasant for him to go in and "have this thing that was probably being done the same exact way for the past 60 years."
When a friend of Black's suggested he check out Texas BBQ, Black traveled to the Lone Star State and drove around to Lockhart, eventually falling in love with Smitty's Market. "Then I came back [to LA] from that and I was like, 'I need to make pastrami,'" Black says.
Black and Marcos launched Ugly Drum in 2013 to do occasional pop-ups at Mendocino Farms and the now-closed Spice Table. They named their business after the Ugly Drum Smoker that Black constructed out of a 55-gallon barrel drum and spare parts at home, something he learned by watching YouTube videos. The duo originally tried to sell three things: house-made hot dogs, pastrami sandwiches, and papaya slushies—as a nod to Gray's Papaya in New York. It was a labor-intensive process to hand-make the links, but "no one ordered the hot dog," Marcos recalls, laughing. When customers had to choose between links and pastrami, they almost always went for the pastrami. Black and Marcos decided to give people what they wanted—and the rest is history.
When asked if LA or NYC has the better pastrami, Marcos will immediately say "LA," and point out Langer's specifically. But Marcos adds that he might be biased because he's from LA. Black's answer is a little more in-between: "LA because I fell in love with pastrami here at Langer's. But it's a tough decision. Katz's is so close in quality, has a longer unbroken tradition, makes their own pastrami (Langer's buys from RC Provisions), and most importantly, Katz's service model is perfection and is what I based our Smorgasburg tent on."
To Black, he wanted to replicate the experience that guests would get from Katz's Delicatessen—the way you would get to order straight from the deli guy, give him a tip so you could get a little sample, and be able to tell the person making the sandwich if you wanted the meat fattier or leaner. When Black and Marcos would work in fine-dining restaurants, they would never get to have face time with customers. With Ugly Drum, they are involved in every step of the way, from the ordering to the transaction to the art of making a sandwich. "It's more personal," Black says. The meat is cut to order; so is the rye bread, which comes from the same Fred's Bakery that supplies Langer's. Only one sandwich is made at a time and guests wait patiently in line, getting to ask Black and Marcos questions about the pastrami as they go. And just like at Katz's, sometimes at their tent, guests will be able to pair their pastrami sandwiches with chilled cans of Dr. Brown's herbaceous Cel-Rey soda.
Black does point that LA has a very distinct pastrami culture that is different from the East Coast. He refers to a bevy of fast-food burger joints like The Hat, that will sell pastrami sliced thin and stuffed in French rolls with pickles and mustard, or even accompanied by cheese on top of fries. Black also gives credit to LA's unique pastrami scene to Wexler's Deli, which has quickly become a favorite in the city ever since Micah Wexler opened his house-smoked pastrami stall in Downtown's Grand Central Market, and recently expanded to a full brick-and-mortar in Santa Monica.
For now, Black and Marcos are happy to just do Sundays at Smorgasburg. They aren't looking to open a brick-and-mortar, and explain how the economics of pastrami make it tricky to sell only that. After all, their 12-pound slab of meat ends up becoming four pounds by the time it's smoked. For now, they'll keep slinging about 100 to 200 sandwiches each weekend as their passion project. They're also going back to their roots and bringing back their house-made hot dogs to their little stand, resurrected in the form of crispy corn dogs.