Recently, I had 4 days off where I would be doing various great pleasurable things which I jokingly called “My 4 Days of Awesomeness”. By the 4th day, they had included a trip to Leeds to see The Deep Blue Sea (read about it here), a particularly brilliant day in Londinium which included a trip to Dinner by Heston Blumenthal (read about that here) followed by a trip to #meateasy which is always great. To round off the 4 Days of Awesomeness, I was going to Popstrami – A pop up NYC deli in Birmingham. Honestly, it wasn’t a weekend for vegetarians..
Popstrami is the brainchild of 2 geniuses Nick Loman and Tom Baker (from Loaf). Nick, being a home-curing enthusiast suggested to Tom that they should get together and pay homage to the delis of NYC like Katz’s – Nick would do all the meats and Tom could use his baking skills for the bread and sauerkraut for a pop up deli – Hence Popstrami. Right from the moment I heard about this venture, I was excited about it – What carnivore wouldn’t be excited at the thought of fresh pastrami or salt beef with (again) fresh rye bread? Initially, popstrami was going to be held on the day I was away in London and given how I was going to #meateasy afterwards, there wasn’t any possibility of going there by the time we got back to Birmingham, so we had to rope in other friends and ask if they would go to get takeaway (then meet me when I got back for the handover). However, Serendipity herself was smiling upon me as not only did they move Popstrami to another venue – They changed it to the following day which meant that I could go – w00p!
Come Popstrami Day, I had to go for a dim sum lunch with The Mothership beforehand and given I was still full from the night before, I didn’t eat very much, especially as I was looking to save room for this sandwich. I had told various friends about this and one of them even got there at 11.05am (they didn’t open until 11.30!), all other friends I knew that were going were taking their time – It was a Sunday after all. So, I make my way over to Bournville and agree to meet Rich outside the venue. Rich, like myself, was still suffering a little bit from the night before but not enough to put us off going to Popstrami – Takes a lot more to deny us meat!
Walking down the Mary Vale Rd to Leverton and Halls deli & coffee shop (where Popstrami had taken over for the day), I could see a group of about 30 people in the distance – Could that really be the queue? As we got closer, it was apparent that it was indeed a queue out the door to the place and at the end of the queue? Only another couple of friends of ours, Jon and Jacky, along with their young son. We join them and as it was only 2pm, it wasn’t too long before we had others behind us in the queue.
I have to admit, it was great to see so many people out for Popstrami – This and #meateasy are great examples of the power of social media and the Internet. Although I have no doubt that it took everyone by surprise just *how* many people there were. Reading Nick’s blog in the lead-up to Popstrami, I know that he was worried that there wouldn’t be enough demand for the meat sandwiches. I’m sure his heart must have sung a bit when he saw the amount of people who turned up.
The queue itself moved quite slowly but we were kept entertained by Noah, and with the occasional handouts of the salmon pastrami with cream cheese on bread nibbles. I believe it was Noah’s first time trying a cured salmon and he obviously liked it – The only time he was still was when he was staring intently at the newly replenished tray of salmon pastrami nibbles that were brought out. We joked about it, but the kid has good (if expensive) taste..
So we queued and queued, waited a bit more, then queued patiently again until a guy came out and looked rather apologetic in announcing “Erm, we’re running out of meat.” Immediately, we all look at each other in horror as the guy continued: “Erm, we should have enough for about 30 sandwiches.. So perhaps hope that people in front of you don’t do a big order?” He then said something but turned away from us so we couldn’t hear what he said, then he retreated back to the apparent safety of indoors (presumably to avoid a possibly raging mob situation in light of his announcement). A group of people in front of us left and being the ignorant bunch that we are, we all stayed – There was to be no denying us any meat unless you actually showed us there was none left. I must admit that I was partly surprised because I had read how Nick had been curing away a LOT of meat, but I knew that it would have meant that Popstrami had been a humongous success which pleased me no end. Conversely, I also realised that it would have meant that the few of them working and helping out must have been working non-stop pretty much since they opened the doors at 11.30am. Getting that extra sandwich for Becky may be difficult, but at no point did it turn ugly – Everyone was there because they wanted to be and they all wanted to be rewarded with the promise of tasty fresh cured meat sandwiches. Still, we had Noah to keep us entertained..
As we were queuing (and we queued for 2 hours – told you we were ignorant), we noticed that the queue wasn’t a steady flow, it was very much stop, move about 6 places then stop again but as we got closer, we found that the smells wafting through the air were enough to convince us that we were making the right decision in staying behind. Of course, it was making us more hungry than ever and trust me, I may have been pretty full when I joined the queue but by the time I got to the doorway of the shop, I was hungry again! Once we got into the shop, it became apparent why the queue was so start/stop; They couldn’t get the meat out quickly enough to meet demand. It was pretty much a case of every time they bring out some meat, it’s sliced up and used straight away. We were told a few times that “There’s plenty of meat, just waiting for it to steam” which was in direct contrast to what we were told earlier, but as we were 2nd in the queue by then, we didn’t care – Just let us have some meat!
There was a slab of pastrami being sliced as we got to the front of the queue and before you knew it, it was all gone into sandwiches for people whom were waiting in the room next door eating in, then it was another wait for the next bit of meat to be ready. Seriously, it was getting to the point where we were about to buy normal deli items to eat just to stave off the hunger pains, but we resisted and in the greater scheme of things, 10 or 30 minutes isn’t that bad when you’ve been waiting for so long.
Then, without any ceremony a small hunk of pastrami was brought out and promptly sliced up. It may have been a small piece, resulting in smaller slices but it was then apparent that there was going to be enough for sandwiches for us. In my momentary panic/daze as everything moved so quickly I ordered 2 sandwiches (1 for Becky T as I promised I would) and I was in such a daze that they could have asked me if I wanted mealworms with the sandwich and I probably would have said yes. As it turns out, I got a pastrami on rye AND a reuben both with extra sauerkraut and half-sour pickles on the side. The sandwiches were paid for and I was handed my 2 foil-wrapped bundles of (what I hoped to be) deliciousness.
I had a bit of a delay getting home (it took me 90 mins to get home instead of about an hour), but I was determined to that I would enjoy the sandwich fully in the comfort of my home (as opposed to eating it at the bus stop) so by the time I *did* get home, I was absolutely ravenous. Opening up one of the bundles, any thoughts that they weren’t very big were quickly extinguished once I caught a whiff of the deliciousness inside; it was the smell of gorgeously cured meat (yunno, a meaty smell) with the pickle smell from the sauerkraut, combined with the pungency of the mustard, the dill from the pickles and the savoury deepness from the rye bread. One bite into it and it was clear that this sandwich was worth every minute of waiting for; you’ve got all the smells I’ve just described with the tender slices of salty pastrami combined with the crunch of the sauerkraut and pickles, all binded by the melted cheese (I warmed up the Reuben before eating) and it was all brought together with the rye bread. I’ve seriously not had such a nice sandwich in a long time, I savoured every bite and didn’t want it to end.
So there were a few hiccups along the way but I think there were a lot of lessons to be learned for next time perhaps, but this was the first time that anything like this has ever happened in Birmingham and there really was no tangible way for the organisers to gauge how many people would go. The sheer number of people who turned up shows that there is a market out here in Birmingham for a decent NYC-style deli sandwich – Especially one where everything is as fresh as it was here. Perhaps they could be more communicative next time in letting people know what the delay was – Although, props for handing out free samples of the salmon pastrami to those waiting. It’s easy to forget that nobody involved does this as a day job – This was a group of enthusiasts who got together to create this wonderful pop-up deli and all involved must be congratulated and applauded for even daring to dream of such a thing, let alone actually bringing it to life. There may have been issues with consistency – The brisket before was larger than the piece used for my sandwiches which made it look a bit like I got the scraggy ends. However, this was the only sandwich I’ve ever queued so long for – And it was absolutely delicious, easily one of the best sandwiches I’ve had in a very, very long time and I’d queue just as long again if it meant I got to eat some more pastrami. If it looked like I got the scraggy ends, then give me more because they were bloomin’ tasty! I hope that Nick and Tom have learnt a lot from this experience and do another Popstrami – I’ll just make sure I’m there earlier next time, and perhaps ask if I could have a whole brisket just for myself.
You can view the full set of pictures on My Flickr