For the best pastrami in Arizona, you need to drive north. Here's why it's worth the trek
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For me, the toughest thing about a short trip to Flagstaff is figuring out how many of my favorite restaurants I can squeeze in and which ones I’ll have to skip until the next time. It’s a stressful, heartbreaking undertaking every time, but the one place I never miss — and I mean never — is Proper Meats + Provisions.
It’s a whole-animal butcher shop selling humanely, sustainably, locally-raised meats as well as the occasional oddball curated product not commonly found in your average butcher shop. And I’ll admit, everything in those cases looks beautiful, but that’s not why I’m there. Not for the impressively marbled steaks or house-made sausages or duck or local cheeses or artisanal pastas or ready-made sauces for take-home. Nope.
It’s a sandwich I want and a sandwich I get because I know that the meat inside it will always be fantastic.
There are many great sandwiches, but one reigns supreme
The warm pastrami is the first Proper sandwich I fell in love with back in 2014 when owner Paul Moir opened the butcher shop in a small space on the south end of San Francisco Street. It was a best seller then and remains so today even though the menu has more than doubled to over 20 options since the shop moved to bigger digs on Route 66 in 2018.
Oh, I’ve strayed over the years. I’ve had dalliances with the banh mi, the fried chicken po’boy, the patty melt, the breakfast sandwich and the tuna, which, by the way, is one of my favorite tuna sandwiches on this earth. As a FOMO sufferer, I can’t help myself.
But I always come back to the warm pastrami because it’s one of the best pastrami sandwiches I’ve ever eaten. The combo is not unusual — pastrami, Swiss cheese, caramelized onions, dill pickle and Carolina mustard on rye, but it all comes together in such a meaty, melty, satisfying way.
What makes the pastrami the best in the state (and possibly anywhere)
Pastrami takes forever to make, and Moir’s crew begins the process by throwing all-natural, hormone-free brisket in a house-made brine, then letting it sit for seven to 10 days.
Brisket, Moir says, is fattier than the top round some delis use, and it’s the fat in brisket that keeps the meat moist and flavorful. “This isn’t a health food sandwich,” he reminds me.
He’s a little cagey about what goes in the brine, calling it a “special blend” and leaving it at that. I don’t blame him. When you’re making what many call the best brisket this side of Katz’s Deli in Manhattan, you’re smart to play it close to the vest.
We can assume, given the meat’s spicy-sweet, peppery flavor and heavenly aromatics that it has the usual ingredients — coriander, black pepper, mustard seeds, fennel seeds, garlic — and maybe a few extras.
After it’s been brined, the meat is smoked over hardwood for 10-12 hours, which gives it that ambrosial crust called “bark.” Then it’s steamed to add back a little moisture. When the meat cools down, it’s sliced for sandwiches.
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It wouldn't be right without rye
Moir buys his rye bread from Wheat Montana, a Montana-based company that grows the wheat, mills the wheat and bakes the bread. It’s good stuff — earthy and a little sour. It’s also sliced a bit thicker to support this hefty sandwich.
Slathered with butter before it hits the griddle, it comes out browned, crunchy and faintly greasy. The pastrami has been warmed on the griddle too, and when the sandwich arrives, it glistens with fat and juices as the Swiss cheese gently oozes out the edges of the bread.
As Moir himself points out, Proper’s sandwich doesn’t look like the typical pastrami sandwich found in iconic Jewish delis. In short, it’s not “piled four inches high on rye with spicy mustard.” If anything, the griddled bread and melted Swiss cheese make it more like a Reuben — piled with pastrami instead of corned beef. It’s Reuben-esque and Rubenesque, you might say.
Caramelized onions make a sweet, earthy substitute for the sauerkraut that’s typically found on a Reuben and the tang in this sandwich comes from puckery dill pickle strips.
And then there’s the house-made Carolina mustard, which is honey-sweet and a little sour with just a whisper of heat.
A perfectly simple pairing
The sandwich comes on a utilitarian metal tray with a pile of ultra-crunchy, thick-cut potato chips, also made in-house. They’re the perfect accompaniment.
It’s a hearty, calorie-laden sandwich, but now is not the time to worry about your diet. There’s a certain euphoria that comes from eating the whole thing when it’s hot and oozy, the crunch of the bread ceding to the soft chew of that smoky, aromatic pastrami.
I suppose it’s a good thing that Flagstaff is two hours away.
Details: Pastrami sandwich ($16.95) at Proper Meats and Provisions, 110 E. Route 66, Flagstaff. 928-774-9001, propermeats.com.