Oh, man. Missed all the danged happy hours. Yomping around the lower Gaslamp Quarter. It’s Thursday night, around nine. Popped in to Candelas on Third. They have a happy hour, but chicken wings are $14, spring mix salad with shrimp goes for $16. Man, if that’s happy hour…
So, now I’m crossing Third at J.
Huh. Notice this quiet, short, J Street block is cordoned off with temporary barriers and cones. Couple of food trucks parked by the curb. Outside the Crêpes Bonaparte truck, guy’s just closing the side flap. The one behind is still lights a-blazing, though. King Kong, Buster Keaton, Babe Ruth, and the Brooklyn Bridge are plastered along its yellow side. “New York Deli on Rye,” reads their sign.
“You’ve come to the right place,” says this grizzle-bearded guy at the truck’s high counter. “You’ll never get a better pastrami on rye, New York–style.”
He says that half an hour ago this section of J, between Third and Fourth avenues, was buzzing with food trucks. “Happens every Thursday afternoon. A bunch of us gather here and open up. It’s quite a scene.”
On the side of the truck it says “Finally, Great Deli Comes to San Diego.”
But how do I know they’re gen-u-wine New Yorkers here? Part proof of the pudding is painted on the truck: “Have a Nosh Day,” it says.
Nosh. Where else but the Big Apple do you hear food called “nosh”?
Whatever. I can see these guys are starting to close, too. Hear the cook scraping the hot plate.
I scan the menu on the wall: Grilled Reuben (“pastrami or corned beef or turkey — Swiss, sauerkraut and Russian dressing on rye”) is $9.95, “The Beast (grilled, same price)” is roast beef, with honey/orange horseradish, port wine onion marmalade and cheddar on “artisan bread.” They even have a total collision of cultures: a corned-beef-hash burrito with chipotle, and pico de gallo ($8.33).
And I see they do a soup and half-sandwich combo for $9.95.
“What’s the most New York thing on the menu?” I ask the guy, Rich Huarte.
“The grilled Reuben on rye,” he says. “You won’t get better, right Mark?”
The cook behind him nods.
So I go for that, and invest another two bucks for “Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray. “It’s what every New Yorker gets with their Reuben,” says Rich. “It’s a celery soda. Real celery. They’ve been making it since 1864.”
Twelve bucks. Ain’t the cheapest. But when Rich hands it down and I open up and take a chomp...oh, wow. It comes steaming-hot, lush, salty-sweet, this thick wad of sliced pastrami with a big surround of sauerkraut, bulging out from between crunchy-edged, flavor-soaked, golden toasted rye. I’ve never been a great pastrami fan, but this combo is seriously delicious.
“The bread’s from Bread and Cie,” Rich says. “That slightly sweet taste is the Russian dressing. It’s like 1000 Island when 1000 Island wants to grow up. My partner and I cure and smoke the pastrami ourselves. The beef should be from the animal’s navel area, the ‘plate,’ because it holds up to the smoking and keeps its moistness. It should be fatty, hot, tender. It should have been steamed. I’m fanatical about getting this right.”
“We’re competing with people’s memories,” says Mark, from the kitchen. “New Yorkers refuse to believe you can get a decent Reuben in places like California. We had one ex–New Yorker ordered the Reuben. He kept saying, ‘It can’t be…it can’t be…’ There were tears in his eyes. He left a $10 tip.”
“Of course, the flavor’s a little different out here,” says Rich. “Here we put a Hungarian rub on the meat. The paprika is sweeter, there’s less pepper. Usually juniper is my thing. And New York–style has lots of black pepper. I spent 25 years in New York. I lived two blocks from Katz’s Delicatessen. And near 2nd Avenue Deli. They’re both famous. This was where I learned to love pastrami and respect the real delicatessen culture. My partner, Jay Margolin — my friend for 30 years — is the same. We make four or five of our own mustards, horseradish, the dressings… So, how is it?”
I can only nod. We’re standing by the truck in its pool of light. The noise and lights of Fourth Avenue are only yards away but here it’s no traffic, no noise. I’m listening and chomping and slurping the celery soda. (Refreshing! You can really taste the celery.)
“I couldn’t boil an egg until I was 30,” says Rich. “I had been in the multi-cultural world, teaching English to foreign students. Family company. My dad had worked for Berlitz. I traveled, and then I switched and went to culinary school when I was 40. I worked for fine-dining till we started this a couple of months ago.”
Turns out pastrami’s just another kind of beef salted to preserve it. Developed in the days before refrigerators. Just as cheese was invented as a way to preserve milk. Imagine if they’d had fridges back then. No pastramis, no cheeses!
“This food is important to me,” says Rich, as I pack the second half of my sandwich. “Delicatessens are important to me. I think of myself as a Delivangelist. Pastrami, Reubens, latkes, blintzes were the comfort food the Jews brought to New York from Eastern Europe. I’m Catholic, but this is my New York food.”
They’re packing up. “Things are a little sensitive now,” says Rich. “Some restaurants around here are saying us food trucks are taking business from them. I think it’s helping them, because we draw people. If you come earlier next time, you’ll start to see what the whole point of what we do: conviviality. That’s what it’s all about.”
We shake hands.
“Have a nosh night,” he says.
- The Place: New York on Rye food truck, at sites around the county, including J between Third and Fourth, Downtown, Thursday afternoons, 760-650-6960
- Prices: Grilled pastrami Reuben, $9.95; “The Beast” (roast beef, honey/orange horseradish, port wine onion marmalade, cheddar); corned-beef-hash burrito, chipotle, pico de gallo, $8.33; soup and half-sandwich combo, $9.95