Rolled Beef: “The Giant Panda of Deli Meats”

Rolled Beef: “The Giant Panda of Deli Meats”

I learned a great deal about the late Nathan Kornmehl from the many testimonials that were sent to the memorial page of this blog. By all accounts, he was a generous, kind man, someone who didn’t let the tremendous adversity he experienced make him angry or bitter.

Nathan and Frances Kornmehl in front of their kosher butcher shop in Buffalo. Was it the last place in upstate New York to sell rolled beef?

Nathan and Frances Kornmehl in front of their kosher butcher shop in Buffalo. Was it the last place in upstate New York to sell rolled beef?

I also learned that his kosher butcher shop was the source of the best rolled beef in Buffalo, New York. It might well have been the source of the last rolled beef in Buffalo.

Which brings me to some essential questions:

  • What the heck is rolled beef?
  • Where can you find it?
  • Why on earth did I not know about it?

I will attempt to address these essential issues separately.

What the Heck Is Rolled Beef?

According to Nathan’s daughter-in-law, Jill Leibman Kornmehl, this was a much discussed subject among the mourners, with no consensus reached. Typical of the comments is one from Nathan’s nephew David Lilien: “It was delicious, and a great childhood memory. I seem to think that it was closer to corned beef, and not as spicy as pastrami.”

Touching, but not precise enough.

So I turned to Google.

A story on NPR on the death of real Jewish delis calls it “the rare truffle of the Jewish meat,” and claims that knowing about it is “like the secret deli handshake.”

Intriguing — but not informational.

The most definitive — and I suspect funniest — article I found on the topic is on the World of Mouth blog, and is the aptly titled: Rolled Beef, an Endangered Deli Meat.

So just what is rolled beef? I was never quite sure, so I did some research to augment my own impressions. First of all, it’s a cold cut. It’s served cold, as opposed to pastrami and corned beef, which are best hot. It’s cured in a way similar to them, seasoned with black pepper and garlic and who knows what else. The meat, when sliced, has a relatively smooth finish, with a nice fat to meat ratio. A whole rolled beef has a circumference larger than most salamis and smaller than most mortadellas (pardon the treyf; it’s only for the size comparison; this you should allow). It has a red color from the curing not unlike pastrami. You might say it’s like a cross between a pastrami and a salami. You might also liken it to a Jewish version of pancetta or perhaps capicola (treyf again–feh!).

A story in New York magazine, which dubs rolled beef “the giant panda of deli meats: all but impossible to find in its native habitat,” says that “the only difference in deli parlance between rolled beef and pastrami is the rolling and the temperature at which it’s served (the former cold, the latter hot).”

But a commenter on a Chowhound thread on rolled beef wrote, “it uses some of the same spices [as pastrami] but has its own spicing.” Which is pretty much what Nathan’s nephew, David, said.

There may be even less consensus on the cut of meat used.

One commenter on the Chowhound thread wrote:  “Some producers used brisket (which was, literally, rolled up); others used different forequarter cuts.” But the New York magazine article claimed to use “navels, the fatty belly cut used to make pastrami.”

So, the only thing we can agree on is that it’s served cold and made from beef that’s been spiced and rolled.

Where Can You Find Rolled Beef?

As you might suspect from the use of terms like “endangered,” it isn’t easy to find rolled beef.

It is available at the Second Avenue Deli as the filling for the most expensive sandwich ($24.95 as opposed to $16.95 for pastrami; sliced steak, the second most expensive, is $22.95). It costs $40.95 a pound, this time tied with tongue for the “most expensive” title.

You can also find it at Dickson’s Farmstand Meats, the boutique butcher at Chelsea Market where, as the New York magazine article on the topic notes, it often goes under the alias of pastrami. It may also come with apricot chutney. The deception — and the chutney –  are just wrong. I can’t sanction this version.

Anyway, neither option is particularly useful to me here in Arizona.

No, I needed a place that delivers and, through the helpful folks at Chowhound, discovered that Ben’s deli, in Rego Park, Queens, air ships rolled beef.

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I called Ben’s and was told that the rolled beef costs $24.95 a pound — compared to the Second Avenue Deli, a bargain. But here’s the rub: Overnight shipping — the only kind that makes sense — could cost more than twice as much, maybe $60.

I would like to sample rolled beef but not at $85 or more.

Which leads me to, in my mind, the most important question.

Why Have I Never Heard of It — or Tried It — Before?

I grew up in the deli-rich Flatbush and Midwood sections of Brooklyn, and lived in equally deli-friendly Manhattan for 14 years before I moved to Arizona.  I hung out with a deli-loving cohort. We ate pastrami, salami, corned beef, hot dogs, knishes… even tongue, but I don’t recall ever hearing about rolled beef, much less sampling it.

How is this possible?

I have no answer. I put it the question to Sharon and Marilyn, my childhood friends and fellow deli noshers: Did you ever eat rolled beef?

And to the general public. Have any of you out there tried rolled beef? What do you think: Is it just another version of pastrami? And can you still find it near you? If so, do you or any of your friends or relatives have plans to fly to Tucson?

Update: The picture I originally posted next to the title, of a pastrami sandwich, has been replaced by one of rolled beef, provided by Ben’s deli. Thank you!

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27 Responses to Rolled Beef: “The Giant Panda of Deli Meats”

  1. Leo says:

    Childhood flashback, I just think you described a “broodje pekelvlees” – the Dutch name. It is not pastrami, but very similar. A popular variation in Holland is a “broofje half-om” which is a sandwich half “pekelvlees” (rolled beef?) and liver. That’s also jewish inspired right?

    Anyway, I live in Denmark now and pretty pissed I can’t get any (unless we visit home and then it is on my list of must haves).

    • Edie Jarolim Edie Jarolim says:

      Interesting! I have even less idea of the version in Holland than I do of the kind in New York, but from the picture you posted on Facebook that looks very promising. Maybe another international meat maven will know: There are some Kornmehl family members in Holland — perhaps I can find out from them.

  2. marilyn says:

    Now I am intrigued! I will ask Lynne and her father, Sol. He’s a deli maven of sorts – will come into Brooklyn to go to the Canarsie Deli. I wish you knew about rolled beef before – we could have had it when we went to the 2nd Ave Deli. You know, considering the price of shipping it, maybe it’s worth flying into NY for a meal!!

    • Edie Jarolim Edie Jarolim says:

      I was thinking the same thing, Marilyn. I would have ordered the rolled beef sandwich — even at $24.95 — had I known. Let me know what Lynne says. In the meantime, I wrote Ben’s and asked them to send a picture (if not rolled beef)….

  3. Some day I’ll have to tell you about my deli-trauma when I made my first visit to NYC at age 19.
    I assume in your assiduous research, you talked directly to some of the butchers in Tucson?
    Vera Marie Badertscher recently posted..Cheap CA- Oregon Hotel Guide for Road TripMy Profile

    • Edie Jarolim Edie Jarolim says:

      No, I checked the menu of the 5th street deli; no rolled beef. There are no other kosher butchers, I’m afraid.

      I will look forward to your deli-trauma story!

  4. Abe Hirsch says:

    I think it is/was a trussed up specially cured brisket that could be put in the meat slicer like a salami.

  5. Martha says:

    Never had it. Never heard of it. No one I queried (New Yorkers in their 60s) knew of it either. Strange.

    • Edie Jarolim Edie Jarolim says:

      Very strange, indeed. If anyone would know, it would be you. But at least you can go to the 2nd Avenue Deli and try it. If you’re inclined to buy a $25 sandwich…

  6. It is strange. The concept you have discussed in this blog is so interesting.

  7. Thanks for the shout out to Word of Mouth. Sarge’s had rolled beef on the menu before they closed due to fire. Hopefully it will be back when they reopen. Their price was about half of what 2nd Avenue Deli charges.

  8. ELIOT WORONOFF says:

    I USED TO BUY ROLLED BEEF AT THE G & G DELI. IN DORCHESTER MASS. IN THE 3Os AND 40s
    I,M GOING TO ASK BEN,S IN BOCA RATON IF THEY CAN GET IT FROM N.Y.

  9. Sarge’s Deli has just reopened today, but the website isn’t back up. Hopefully the rolled beef will be back.

    • Edie Jarolim Edie Jarolim says:

      This is very exciting! I will be in New York next week…

      • deb zelcer says:

        my dad had wilmack studio down the street from kornmehls, where I was introduced to rolled beef by our friend mr. kornmehl. a fellow buffalonian sent me this blog in answer to my question, “what the heck is rolled beef”?!

        hey I do great tours of grand central terminal for the municipal art society. join in if you have the time; I am giving the Thursday 12 30 pm tour. no samples of rolled beef tho.

  10. You are leaving out a very important part of the history of rolled beef. Browns kosher meat market 725 kenmore in buffalo ny roughly mid1940,s through 1980. Sherwood brown and his brother Bernie made rolled beef every week and we had rolled beef sandwiches at the bills games a tradition.

    • Edie Jarolim Edie Jarolim says:

      All information about the history of rolled beef is welcome — thank you for adding to it. I am wondering why more people know about rolled beef in Buffalo than know about it in New York City! My friends and I from Brooklyn — and those from the other boroughs that I consulted — never heard of it. But I am planning to change that soon…

  11. DianaID says:

    I ate rolled beef at Irving’s Deli in Brighton Beach throughout my childhood. (I was also fond of tongue and like both of them better than pastrami or brisket.) Irving’s closed in the 1980s sometime and while I had seen it from time to time elsewhere, I haven’t had it in a long while and miss it.

    Vividly remembering this, it was a beef that was a rolled roast, more like roast beef, with seasoning that were similar to but a bit less spicy than pastrami It was sliced very thin, or as thin as they could without it falling apart because it wasn’t the best cut of meat and could be tough. It made a great sandwich on rye.

    It is sort of ironic that it is so expensive a the Second Avenue Deli since it was more or less an inexpensive luncheon meat, but I will give it a try too.

    • Edie Jarolim Edie Jarolim says:

      Diana, thanks for writing. I used to go to Brighton Beach Baths every summer when I was a kid but never went to Irving’s — and never had rolled beef. I will write more about this soon but I got some solid information from the owner of Ben’s Deli in Rego Park and he said it was the end piece of a pastrami rolled up and tied. I also learned that all the rolled beef in New York delis these days comes from a single source in Brooklyn. So if you don’t mind schlepping to Queens, I would suggest you go to Ben’s where it is half the price than at the Second Avenue Deli and where it is available more frequently.

  12. Larry Marx says:

    Hi everyone. I used to live in Washington Heights, upper Manhattan, NYC. I read your “rolled beef’ and instantly remembered my Dad buying “roulade” at the kosher butcher in the neighborhood called Bloch and Falk”. This meat was veal slices with chopped veal and onion mix on the inside. The veal was tightly rolled around the mixture and tied with rope. My Dad would put it in the oven as you would cook a roast. When the meat was done, he would cut slices. It was delicious.

  13. Harlan says:

    Just to let you know that in Rego Park Queens there is Ben’s Best Deli. Thankfully, this deli has never been connected to Ben’s Deli located in the NYC area. Ben’s Best Deli has great Rolled Beef. I just had some the other night. From what I can tell Rolled Beef is available at 3 delis in NYC. Besides Ben’s Best it can be had at the 2nd Ave Deli, as well as Sarge’s Deli, both in Manhattan. Sarge’s is not Kosher but Kosher style. Ben’s Deli is a chain. Ben’s Best is owned by Jay Parker. So many great dishes at Ben’s Best. It was even on Diner’s, Drive-In, and Dives.

    Also check out: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PY-9ItpIUlY

    • Edie Jarolim Edie Jarolim says:

      Harlan, thank you so much for writing. As it happens, when I was in New York in March I went to Ben’s Best in Rego Park — and had the rolled beef. I interviewed Jay, who sent me to the source of all rolled beef in New York… a butcher shop in Williamsburg. But I will be writing about that soon! It sometimes takes a while for my experiences to get to the page.

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