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Deli Belly wasn’t supposed to be interesting

Growing East County sandwich brand brings its steamed ‘strami to La Mesa

The Double New Yorkers: a pile of steam pastrami with havarti, provolone, pickles, mustard, and thousand island on toasted rye.
The Double New Yorkers: a pile of steam pastrami with havarti, provolone, pickles, mustard, and thousand island on toasted rye.

There aren’t too many exciting things that can be said about sandwich shops these days. Most of them carry one of two or three deli meat suppliers — usually Boar’s Head or Dietz & Watson — and come up with a menu of sandwiches built off more or less the same assortment of cheese, condiment, and vegetable toppings. At times, the choice of bread makes a difference, but ultimately such shops have what we might call high floor, and a low ceiling. Meaning, it’s tough to make bad sandwiches with good deli meats, but they can only be good to a point.

Place

Deli Belly La Mesa

8396 Parkway Dr., La Mesa

Place

Deli Belly Rancho

1530 Jamacha Road, El Cajon

So, when I found myself ordering from a shop in La Mesa, called Deli Belly, which uses Boar’s head meats, I didn’t think too much about it. Until I ate the sandwich. Though hungry, I was in kind of a hurry, and didn’t expect to notice the simple nourishment I was shoveling into my gullet. But the steamed pastrami and corned beef on a toasted onion roll ($10) forced me to stop, take notice, and enjoy myself. More than I thought I would.

When I looked closer, I learned Deli belly is a growing chain of East County sandwich shops that started nearly eight years ago with a modest location on Jamacha Road, in the Rancho San Diego neighborhood of El Cajon. This La Mesa location was the latest to open — sometime around the New Year — but there’s a shop in Lakeside and another coming soon to Santee.

Deli Belly recently opened this new, larger outpost in La Mesa.

Given my enjoyment of that FA sandwich, as it was called, I can understand why the “New York style deli” brand has been growing. But I was still struggling to figure out what made my sandwich so good. I’ve had Boar’s Head pastrami before, but didn’t remember liking it this much. And that was the brisket cut pastrami; Deli Belly uses the — arguably less sexy — top round pastrami. Same with the corned beef.

Near as I could figure, two things put this sandwich over the top, the first being a thick serving of meat. Though very thin, the pastrami and corned beef slices were piled high. Higher than most California delis, which don’t seem to understand that these kinds of smoked and cured beef demand thick portions, so the spicy beef can continue to dominate despite the assertive flavors they’re usually pitted against: from the likes of pickles, mustard, sauerkraut, onion rolls or rye bread.

Pastrami and corned beef on a toasted onion roll

The second key to my sandwich was steamed meat. The great Jewish delis of New York and Los Angeles steam their pastramis to make them hot and tender on a sandwich, and while Deli Belly may not smoke its own pastrami, steaming that Boar’s Head gives it a bigger, more sultry profile than I thought you could get, off the rack.

I decided to check out the original, Rancho location, just to be sure I hadn’t imagined everything. This time I ordered from the $12, premium sandwich menu, selecting the Double New Yorker: steamed pastrami with both Havarti and provolone cheese, pickles, mustard, and thousand island dressing on toasted rye. Much closer to the celebrated New York sandwiches that inspired it, for this one, the pastrami was stacked even thicker, with no tomatoes or onions to get in its way. Another success!

Deli belly's small, original location in Rancho San Diego

And once again, steaming the pastrami made a big difference. Though I think, if I really try to put my finger on why Deli Belly has progressed to the point of growing East County brand, it’s even simpler than steamed meat. It’s just trying to get the best out of each sandwich.

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The Double New Yorkers: a pile of steam pastrami with havarti, provolone, pickles, mustard, and thousand island on toasted rye.
The Double New Yorkers: a pile of steam pastrami with havarti, provolone, pickles, mustard, and thousand island on toasted rye.

There aren’t too many exciting things that can be said about sandwich shops these days. Most of them carry one of two or three deli meat suppliers — usually Boar’s Head or Dietz & Watson — and come up with a menu of sandwiches built off more or less the same assortment of cheese, condiment, and vegetable toppings. At times, the choice of bread makes a difference, but ultimately such shops have what we might call high floor, and a low ceiling. Meaning, it’s tough to make bad sandwiches with good deli meats, but they can only be good to a point.

Place

Deli Belly La Mesa

8396 Parkway Dr., La Mesa

Place

Deli Belly Rancho

1530 Jamacha Road, El Cajon

So, when I found myself ordering from a shop in La Mesa, called Deli Belly, which uses Boar’s head meats, I didn’t think too much about it. Until I ate the sandwich. Though hungry, I was in kind of a hurry, and didn’t expect to notice the simple nourishment I was shoveling into my gullet. But the steamed pastrami and corned beef on a toasted onion roll ($10) forced me to stop, take notice, and enjoy myself. More than I thought I would.

When I looked closer, I learned Deli belly is a growing chain of East County sandwich shops that started nearly eight years ago with a modest location on Jamacha Road, in the Rancho San Diego neighborhood of El Cajon. This La Mesa location was the latest to open — sometime around the New Year — but there’s a shop in Lakeside and another coming soon to Santee.

Deli Belly recently opened this new, larger outpost in La Mesa.

Given my enjoyment of that FA sandwich, as it was called, I can understand why the “New York style deli” brand has been growing. But I was still struggling to figure out what made my sandwich so good. I’ve had Boar’s Head pastrami before, but didn’t remember liking it this much. And that was the brisket cut pastrami; Deli Belly uses the — arguably less sexy — top round pastrami. Same with the corned beef.

Near as I could figure, two things put this sandwich over the top, the first being a thick serving of meat. Though very thin, the pastrami and corned beef slices were piled high. Higher than most California delis, which don’t seem to understand that these kinds of smoked and cured beef demand thick portions, so the spicy beef can continue to dominate despite the assertive flavors they’re usually pitted against: from the likes of pickles, mustard, sauerkraut, onion rolls or rye bread.

Pastrami and corned beef on a toasted onion roll

The second key to my sandwich was steamed meat. The great Jewish delis of New York and Los Angeles steam their pastramis to make them hot and tender on a sandwich, and while Deli Belly may not smoke its own pastrami, steaming that Boar’s Head gives it a bigger, more sultry profile than I thought you could get, off the rack.

I decided to check out the original, Rancho location, just to be sure I hadn’t imagined everything. This time I ordered from the $12, premium sandwich menu, selecting the Double New Yorker: steamed pastrami with both Havarti and provolone cheese, pickles, mustard, and thousand island dressing on toasted rye. Much closer to the celebrated New York sandwiches that inspired it, for this one, the pastrami was stacked even thicker, with no tomatoes or onions to get in its way. Another success!

Deli belly's small, original location in Rancho San Diego

And once again, steaming the pastrami made a big difference. Though I think, if I really try to put my finger on why Deli Belly has progressed to the point of growing East County brand, it’s even simpler than steamed meat. It’s just trying to get the best out of each sandwich.

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4S Ranch Allied Gardens Alpine Baja Balboa Park Bankers Hill Barrio Logan Bay Ho Bay Park Black Mountain Ranch Blossom Valley Bonita Bonsall Borrego Springs Boulevard Campo Cardiff-by-the-Sea Carlsbad Carmel Mountain Carmel Valley Chollas View Chula Vista City College City Heights Clairemont College Area Coronado CSU San Marcos Cuyamaca College Del Cerro Del Mar Descanso Downtown San Diego Eastlake East Village El Cajon Emerald Hills Encanto Encinitas Escondido Fallbrook Fletcher Hills Golden Hill Grant Hill Grantville Grossmont College Guatay Harbor Island Hillcrest Imperial Beach Imperial Valley Jacumba Jamacha-Lomita Jamul Julian Kearny Mesa Kensington La Jolla Lakeside La Mesa Lemon Grove Leucadia Liberty Station Lincoln Acres Lincoln Park Linda Vista Little Italy Logan Heights Mesa College Midway District MiraCosta College Miramar Miramar College Mira Mesa Mission Beach Mission Hills Mission Valley Mountain View Mount Hope Mount Laguna National City Nestor Normal Heights North Park Oak Park Ocean Beach Oceanside Old Town Otay Mesa Pacific Beach Pala Palomar College Palomar Mountain Paradise Hills Pauma Valley Pine Valley Point Loma Point Loma Nazarene Potrero Poway Rainbow Ramona Rancho Bernardo Rancho Penasquitos Rancho San Diego Rancho Santa Fe Rolando San Carlos San Marcos San Onofre Santa Ysabel Santee San Ysidro Scripps Ranch SDSU Serra Mesa Shelltown Shelter Island Sherman Heights Skyline Solana Beach Sorrento Valley Southcrest South Park Southwestern College Spring Valley Stockton Talmadge Temecula Tierrasanta Tijuana UCSD University City University Heights USD Valencia Park Valley Center Vista Warner Springs
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