Salt beef, like New York-style corned beef, is a Jewish deli meat made from beef briskets cured in brine. The salt breaks down the tough brisket meat while letting its flavours emerge. Salt beef ought not be an exercise in aerobic mastication, as some London purveyors would have you believe, nor should it be stringy and dry. (The residual salt is already enough to build a two-pint thirst.) In a proper sandwich the meat surrenders instantly to the chew, melting in the mouth and flooding it with flavor.
When sourcing briskets that have already been cured, as most (but not all) London salt beef bars do, meat texture comes down to cooking, conditioning and carving. First, the cured briskets should be patiently simmered for several hours. Second, the meat should be kept hot, wet and tender in a hot bath or steamer to within minutes of the time it is trimmed and carved – preferably hand-carved. Prolonged exposure to heat lamps will demoisturize the beef as surely as it would your skin.
I also think it’s important to have a crusty rye bread with enough density and chew to support the meat, an opinion not shared by the salt beef bars who seem to prefer thin slices from fluffy ryes better suited to afternoon tea. When you hold a sandwich you can feel the contours of the fillings through the flimsy bread. This is layer-upon-layer of sweaty brisket we’re talking about, not a single neat row of thinly sliced cucumber.
1. B&K Salt Beef Bar
You don’t have to be Jewish to get the most out of this nonkosher deli, but it does help to know how to kibbitz. If John Georgiou, one of the Greek-Cypriot co-owners, is assembling your sandwich, be sure to stand close to the counter and tell him you think his brother Michael is more generous with the pristine house-cured salt beef. If Michael is wielding the carver’s knife and fork, advise him that John’s portions are a lot bigger. If you aren’t sure which brother is which, just make it known that nobody piles on the meat like Dina, John’s wife. Then, when one of the Georgious wraps up a sandwich too large to fit in anyone’s mouth whose name isn’t Lily Allen, ask for two extra slices of rye and have yourself two SBs for the price of one from one of the last salt beef bars left in London that brines its own briskets.
11 Lanson House, HA8
2. Selfridges Brass Rail
The department store location is upmarket and so is the price: At £7.50 it’s the lone sandwich in the London top 5 that can’t be had for under a fiver. All the same, I love the fact that even after the recent move and refurnishing the Brass Rail salt beef bar has retaining its authenticity. It’s a London institution. Knowing regulars jockey for position on the queue, sitting back as an untested carver allocates the scrappier bits to others and pushing forward as an old hand cuts into pristine parts of a juicy new brisket. (Novelist Howard Jacobson wrote brilliantly about this moral minefield in this opinion piece for the Independent). That no two servings are exactly the same might be a greater source of anxiety were it not for another given: a Selfridges salt beef is never worse than extremely good. Now, if they would only upgrade the limp rye bread…
Selfridges Ground Floor, 400 Oxford Street, W1
3. Salt Beef Bar
Not one for uncertainty, Chris Christopoulou named his son Chris and raised him to take his place at the salt beef bar called The Salt Beef Bar. The unambiguous name of this eatery in North West London did not, however, deter a man in a tracksuit from popping in and asking about vegetarian options. Chris Christopoulou the Younger must have figured he was about to outdo his father and become the first in his family to sell a mustard and gherkin sandwich. But the Adidas bloke walked out and Chris resumed what he does best: carefully trimming the briskets and carving the sort of pristinely pink slices of salt beef that make carnivores giddy. If only the rye bread were not so lacking in substance.
2 Monkville Parade, Finchley Road, NW11
4. De Gustibus at Borough Market
When the old hall of London’sBorough Market was shut to facilitate construction of a new Thameslink train line into London Bridge station, the baker De Gustibus was one of four traders suddenly forced to give up their stalls. The bakery moved its sandwich carving table to the pavement outside its shop (see map), thereby shortening the interminable walk from the Borough High Street exit of the Underground to my beloved hot salt beef by some 25 meters. De Gustibus cures its own briskets for two weeks, using a brine that is not as acutely salty as it typically is for salt beef. This allows the pickling spices and beefy flavour to break through with every bite. And though I remain a traditionalist in my choice of bread for Jewish deli sandwiches, this baker’s crusty ciabatta serves as a more protective handle for salt beef than the limp ryes of London. The DG sandwich table was operating on Fridays and Saturdays but it’s current status is uncertain.
Borough Market, 8 Southwark Street, SE1
5. Toss-Up between Gaby’s and Birley
The recent closing of Nosh Bar has opened up the fifth position of this list. As of this moment it’s a tossup between Gaby’s in Leicester Square and Birley Salt Beef Bar in Canary Wharf. A taste comparison is in the works.