Los Angeles now has its very own Sunday-only Smorgasburg (the original Smorgasburg used to be the exclusive domain of Brooklyn), a collection of food vendors doling out various prepared dishes, from $20 Connecticut-style lobster rolls on griddled Pepperidge Farm buns to $8 Instagram-ready gelatin “cakes” in the middle of downtown's open-air Alameda Produce Market. Among the 50 or so stalls, one in particular has an enticing effect on the senses of passers-by. Ugly Drum, with its sweet, pit-smoked barbecue pastrami, is hard to miss.
Pastrami fans may remember Ugly Drum's pop-up series at the now-defunct Spice Table, and at Mendocino Farms, a few years ago. At the latter, owners Erik Black and Joe Marcos created a pastrami, coleslaw and cheese sandwich that any L.A. fresser recognized as an homage to this city's pastrami king, Langer's.
According to Black, the curious name of the stand, Ugly Drum, stems from the name given to a home-constructed barbecue smoker built from a 55-gallon steel drum. Of course, now that it's a commercial operation, Ugly Drum smokes the prime beef brisket (rather than the more deli-traditional navel) in the smoker from Bludso's BBQ on La Brea, pursuing a flavor that is thoroughly suffused with smoke. Before going into the smoker, the beef is rubbed with spices such as garlic, black pepper, coriander seed, mustard seed, bay leaf, caraway seed, chile flakes, oregano and, of course, salt and sugar. The brisket is cooked for more than 12 hours with pecan, oak and apple wood. At the earlier pop-ups, Ugly Drum was working on a tight time frame, but now the brisket is brined for a full two weeks. It's quite the labor-intensive, time-consuming, painstaking labor of love, but the end result is worth it.
At the stand, Black hand-slices each pastrami sandwich to order, carefully slicing against the grain of the hefty slab to keep the precious layers of prized marbling intact. Marcos tends the cash register and serves papaya smoothies (a complementary pairing in the vein of New York's Gray's Papaya). [Ed. note: The smoothie is off the menu for the time being.] Only half-sandwiches are served; if you'd like a whole sandwich, you will need to order two halves, though the amount of meat on each half is more than generous. Sandwiches are slicked with grainy mustard to alleviate the richness of the pastrami. (Over the course of four visits, the high quality of the pastrami was dependably and remarkably consistent.)
The pastrami is smoky, salty and peppery. One small complaint is that the rye bread is somewhat lackluster and consequently does not quite reach the heights of the paradigmatic double-seeded corn rye found at Langer's Deli in MacArthur Park.
Black and Marcos are both veterans of some of the city's favorite restaurants, including Campanile, Spice Table and Mozza. Marcos recently assisted in the opening of the critically lauded Cassia, while Black helps make spicy beef hot links at Bludso's. According to Black, their pastrami is a unique mix of Jewish deli pastrami, Montreal smoked meat and Texas barbecue brisket. And this city loves a hybrid.