Pastrami Meets The Patty in Utah
"I've never liked pastrami," Ms. Rutland said as she sat in sight of a granite-framed fireplace at the flagship of the Crown Burgers chain. A homemaker from nearby West Jordan, Utah, she was in town to watch her son dance the Lindy hop at a Mormon Church pageant. "And I still don't like pastrami, but I like pastrami burgers. They're something else."
The American hamburger is a many splendored and spangled dish. And nowhere, perhaps, is the burger more spangled than in Salt Lake City.
Here, Crown Burgers and various imitators have, over the last three decades, convinced the citizens of Utah that it is perfectly normal to wedge a quarter pound of thin-sliced pastrami between a cheese-draped charbroiled beef patty and a sesame seed bun, slathered with a Thousand-Island-like sauce and dressed with sliced tomatoes, shaved lettuce and onions.
Salt Lake City's detractors, perhaps making too much of the conservative influence of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, portray the town as culturally and gastronomically staid. The pastrami burger challenges such notions.
(Not all of those portraits are painted by outlanders. In a recent issue of Salt Lake Magazine, Mary Brown Malouf tallied the "Utah Locavore 100." Though her roster ranged from puaka tuna, a Tongan dish, to Navajo fry bread, she pegged Jell-O at the top.)
Popularized by Crown Burgers, which has seven Salt Lake City locations owned by members of the same family, the pastrami burger is omnipresent. Apollo Burgers serves a version. So does Astro Burgers, Olympus Burger, Yanni's Greek Express and a dozen or more similar quick-service restaurants.
Many of those businesses have roots in Salt Lake City's Greek community. (Greek influence is so strong in the local restaurant industry that Mandarin, a Chinese restaurant, serves baklava.)
This marriage of a ground beef patty and slices of spiced and smoked beef navel is, however, less a product of a particular ethnic group or nationality than of honest American fusion.
Southern California is probably where the pastrami burger began.
At the Hat in Alhambra, Calif., a Los Angeles suburb, burgers and pastrami have shared the same menu since the 1950s. In more recent years, pastrami-gorged burritos have emerged as Los Angeles staples.
Writing in The Los Angeles Weekly, Jonathan Gold described the presence of pastrami on Los Angeles burger house menus as an "atavistic souvenir of the decades when Chicanos and Jews both lived along Brooklyn Avenue in Boyle Heights."
Manuel Katsanevas, 70, a founder of the Crown Burgers on North Temple Street, confirms the California origin tales. In the 1960s, while working in California, his late brother, James, learned to build pastrami burgers from a Los Angeles man of Turkish descent.
"But I don't like to admit that," Manuel Katsanevas said, referring to a long history of strife between Turks and Greeks.
No matter where pastrami burgers began, and no matter their contemporary California mutations, they have found the widest acceptance in Salt Lake City, where the undisputed king of the category is Crown Burgers.
The roots of Crown date to 1907, when the Greek currant crop failed. The attendant loss of income compelled many Greeks to immigrate to the United States. Michael Katsanevas, a native of the village of Kampous, in the White Mountains of Crete, found work not long after his 1909 arrival at a Utah asbestos kiln.
Service in World War I won him American citizenship. By around 1920, he opened a Salt Lake City coffeehouse, Anekti Karthia, which translates to "Open Heart" in Greek.
In the decades that followed, the elder Katsanevas returned to his home village before settling, in 1948, in Salt Lake City. Over time, most of his 11 children entered the restaurant business.
By the mid-1960s, the Katsanevas clan was running the Athenian, a supper club where Liberace was a regular.
"We had bouzouki music and belly dancing and steak and lobster," recalled Manuel Katsanevas, a son of Michael Katsanevas. "We were trying to go both ways, American and Greek," he added, citing the era when "Zorba the Greek" was a popular movie and musical.
Nick Katsanevas, a brother of Manuel Katsanevas, Rula Katzourakis, his sister, and John Katzourakis, her husband, opened the first Crown Burgers in 1978. It was a humble fast-food restaurant on the fringe of downtown.
Pastrami burgers were on the menu, courtesy of another sibling, James Katsanevas. (In the early 1970s, he founded Minos Burgers in Anaheim, Calif., where he adopted the pastrami burger he learned from the Turk and rechristened it the Zorba.)
But the full formula was not yet in play. The Crown that Salt Lake City embraces today did not emerge until 1982, when Manuel Katsanevas opened the Crown Burgers on North Temple and, in an effort to distinguish the enterprise, engaged an interior designer, Ken deCondé.
"I remember saying ‘If you're going to be the best, well, you should look the best,' " said Mr. deCondé, who made his name catering to Salt Lake City's carriage trade. "So we hung French and Belgian tapestries. And we pulled chandeliers from the old Claridge hotel in Paris. That cuckoo clock at the Highland Avenue location, we got that out of the Black Forest in Germany."
As for the pheasants, poised on the mantle at the North Temple location, Mr. deCondé said that he bought those from a Salt Lake City rare bird dealer, who worked in tandem with a local taxidermist. (He did not, however, claim the drive-through windows and blinking rides-of-the-midways signs that flank each restaurant.)
"You have to admit that when you sit in one of the Crown Burgers, you're eating a burger in a grand place," said Mr. deCondé, referring to the four Crown Burgers locations he designed as, alternately, "elegant outdoor pavilions" and "luxurious hunt lodges."
Recently, a different pastrami burger camp has developed in Salt Lake City.
While traditionalists still follow the Crown formula for building a burger, and offer a nod to their design ethic, too, revisionists now take their cues, counterintuitively, from traditional delicatessen culture. They replace the Crown's slice of American cheese with some form of Swiss, and swab the bun with mustard instead of that pinkish Thousand Island analogue as if such adjustments might bring the pastrami burger in line with some deli norm.
Among the purveyors of this style are Wienerschnitzel, a California-based hot dog chain that tweaks the paradigm with a pretzel-knobbed bun. Meanwhile, Arctic Circle, a Utah-based fast-food group, touts a pastrami-and-Swiss-topped black Angus burger.
Even Carl's Jr., a California-based national chain, has offered a limited-edition pastrami burger intermittently since 2004. In a press release written to herald their pastrami burger, Carl's Jr. calls this phenomenon "meat as a condiment."
In Salt Lake City, pastrami is not a mere condiment, applied sparingly, in the manner of a couple of bacon slices or a spot of mayonnaise. It's as integral to the burger as the patty itself. (Greek-owned restaurants here understand how meat complements meat. Several of them top gyros with so-called red sauce, a meat sauce comparable to the filling in a traditional Greek pastitsio.)
But the pastrami burger is not the sole evidence that Salt Lake City restaurants have made the burger their own.
At the Cotton Bottom Inn, a bungalow bar - named either for the puffy snow that skiers love or the white tuft on the backside of the Bugs Bunny likeness that graces the sign - the specialty, since the late 1950s, has been a garlic burger, spiced with what tastes like a healthy snort of granulated garlic, served on a sub roll.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, as Harley riders revved their engines in the parking lot and the stereo blared Tom Petty's greatest hits, Syri Frazier of Ogden played video poker and bit into a garlic burger.
"My mother ate them right here," Ms. Frazier said. "I was raised on Cotton Bottom garlic burgers. Now you can get them at the Porcupine and the Busy Bee. Woody's Drive-In does one, too. Doesn't matter, this is still the place to go."
Stacy Boyce, the bartender, pointed out that Helen Chlepas, her grandmother, was the originator of the garlic burger.
She was not related to the Katsanevas clan, but Ms. Chlepas was, of course, Greek.