If you’re looking for the best pastrami in L.A., don’t go to a deli or a mid-century roadside stand. Instead, head to a parking lot in the Alameda Produce Market on a Sunday morning. As you enter the gates of weekly pop-up food circus Smorgasburg L.A., hang a hard right and look for the line at the Ugly Drum stall. At the front of that line, a man standing over a steaming slab of meat with a giant knife in his hand will look up to take your order. If you are a regular customer (or friendly enough) he will hand you a nugget of pastrami while he slices your order. You bite into this glistening morsel and boom! Smoked. Meat. Nirvana.
Fatty and salty, sweet and peppery, smoky and just plain meaty—there’s so much going on in your mouth that you can’t quite process it. The sinful melt of the fat, the spicy kick of the rub, and the beefy taste of the meat smother your taste buds in a bear hug. A pile of meat on a slice of bread with a dab of mustard—how could anything so simple taste so good?
The man with the knife is named Erik Black, and his Ugly Drum pastrami is both a total accident and the result of years of practice and innovation.
After studying fine art in college and working in a few galleries, Erik Black decided to go into cooking instead. He came up in the high-end kitchens of Los Angeles, working at Campanile, Mozza, and Spice Table. On his days off, Black would sit at Langer’s deli, happily eating pastrami and watching them carve slices by hand. After a trip to experience the legendary barbecue joints of Texas (what he calls his “barbecue death march”), Black got serious about the process of smoking meat. Black calls Ugly Drum a “happy accident” (the name comes from the smoker Black originally used). He started the pop up in 2013 as a Texas BBQ operation focused on sausages and hot dogs, selling some homemade pastrami as an afterthought. While the hot dogs did not initially take off, people began showing up in search of his unique pastrami. His stall eventually became a staple of Smorgasburg, where the people line up every Sunday from opening to close.
Black is an affable guy in his mid-40s, slim with black glasses and a baseball cap from a local meat company—he looks as if he could be Moby’s highly carnivorous younger brother. During the week, he works at Bludso’s Bar & ‘Cue. Ugly Drum is his Sundays-only side gig that allows him to indulge in his passion. Black makes all of his pastrami himself, using the Bludso’s smokers during off hours to smoke several hundred pounds of meat per week. Other than Smorgasburg, Ugly Drum pastrami shows up around L.A. in the Reuben bagel at the food truck Yeasty Boys, the breakfast burrito at Cofax Coffee and the pastrami burger at Golden State. But to appreciate the unadulterated original, you have to wait in line at the parking lot.
Black is a passionate craftsman and he’s kind enough to give me a master class in pastrami. “Making pastrami is an art and a science,” he said. “It’s part alchemy.” He’s generous in sharing his recipes and techniques but he points out that experience in making pastrami is far more important than any recipes.
“I get into the pursuit of perfection because every time you do it you learn something,” Black says. “But sometimes it’s a lot less of what I do and [more of] creating the right conditions for something to happen.”
On a basic level, pastrami is just a smoked corned beef. But the details, the techniques and the quality and cut of the meat have a huge impact on the end result.
The dirty little secret of the modern pastrami world is that very little of it is made in-house at your favorite deli. There are a handful of factories in America that crank out most of the pastrami that you’ve likely ever eaten. Most delis get a big hunk of pastrami made from the naval cut of the cow and they boil the hell out of it to tenderize it.
What Black does is different—a reimagining of what pastrami should be. He uses the fattier brisket cut of the cow, wet brines it in spices for days to cure it and then slow smokes it over hard wood. It’s a hybrid of pastrami and barbecue and it has taken him a lot of trial and error to get it just right.
I wanted to try out Black’s techniques at home, but rather than copy the Ugly Drum recipe, I decided to season the meat with a Chinese-inspired blend of spices and aromatics. Instead of the more traditional dill and coriander, my version contains shiitake mushrooms, ginger, anise, and Sichuan peppercorns. I used similar flavors (along with Chinese mustard and five spice powder) for the rub and smoked the brisket over pecan wood for ten hours. When I remove it from my smoker, the bark is black and savory and the smell is incredible.
The following Sunday, as I wait in the usual line at Ugly Drum, clutching my vacuum-sealed pastrami under one arm like a meaty football, I feel like an apprentice nervously waiting for an audience with the master craftsman. I trade Black some of my pastrami for his. Trying them side-by-side, there is a textural difference. Ugly Drum’s version is closer to a corned beef whereas my effort leans more toward brisket While the Ugly Drum pastrami is sublime, my first try—shockingly—is not too far behind. Black e-mails me his feedback that night: “Fantastic job on the pastrami! Really a great showing. I did pick up on the sweet spice notes of cinnamon and five spice.” Coming from the master, it’s high praise.
Smorgasburg L.A., 787 S Alameda St., downtown; Sundays, 10 a.m.-4 p.m., uglydrum.com.
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