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

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.

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.

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.

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!

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.