Food Review: At Sam LaGrassa’s — Corned Beef, The Essence of Jewish Goodness
The best corned beef in the Boston area by far is, get this, at an Italian lunch joint in Downtown Crossing, Sam LaGrassa’s.
By Gerald Peary
When I moved to the Boston area in 1978, I came with a Chosen People question: “Where can you get good deli?” Perhaps the query should have been, “Where can you get good anything?” This was a provincial place that had exactly one Legal Seafood, where the only barbecue was found at Bob the Chef’s, where the rich hid from the rest of us at Locke-Ober, where an extremely exciting night on the town was getting Italian in the North End or ordering scrod and “chowda” at Jimmy’s Harborside.
But back to deli. In 1978, Boston had this on many a menu: something called “pastromi,” with an “o.” I think it was Irish-American of origin, a waterlogged indigent relative of chipped beef. “O” for odious. Not Jewish in the slightest. However,even then, there was Rubin’s in Brookline, good but not great, and the old reliable S&S in Inman Square: splendid coleslaw (still my favorite in Boston) but, emptied from a plastic bag, processed corned beef and pastrami. (I’m definitely grateful for S&S’s keeping tongue on its menu, but why must it be so fatty?)
Ten years into my Beantown stay, 1988, Cambridge looked to be the promised land. A consortium of lawyers announced a New York-style deli on Winthrop Street in Harvard Square. Unfortunately, the consortium was led by that blowhard, Harvard Law prof, Alan Dershowitz. When that delicatessen, Mavens, failed miserably, with the lousiest of food, I was of split consciousness. I mourned that you couldn’t get a good corned beef sandwich in Cambridge (you still can’t!) But I didn’t mind seeing Dershowitz, all that Harvard hubris and rightist Zionism, take a public tumble.
But corned beef! More than whitefish, more than kreplach, more than matzo ball soup, that’s my Hebraic favorite.
Which leads me to Boston today. And corned beef. I can make do with what’s served at Michael’s in Coolidge Corner, the Zaftig’s in Framingham (NOT the Zaftig’s in Coolidge Corner), and at Johnny’s in Newton Village. All decent. But the best corned beef by far is, get this, at an Italian lunch joint in Downtown Crossing, Sam LaGrassa’s. at 44 Province Street where it intersects with Bromfield. Incredibly, there’s this lovely soft, tender corned beef, not mushy, just that right pink color (like pornography, you know it when you see it), and, hardest of all, perfect, perfect pickling. It’s served on OK rye bread with caraway seeds, and with tart mustard. And obviously, importantly, cooked for many hours on the premises.
Are you familiar with LaGrassa’s? The old cliché about the “well-kept secret” has never seemed more accurate. There are long, long lines at lunch, happy eaters packed into every seat. And yet, in 35 years in Boston, I’ve never heard anyone mention it. And it’s been around since 1968, when Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin still walked this fair earth!
(I wonder if the Globe or the late Boston Phoenix ever weighed in about LaGrassa’s. There are no faded food-review clippings in the window from Boston publications, only a small notice of the wonderfulness of its sandwiches…from somewhere in New Zealand!)
LaGrassa’s sells lots and lots of Rumanian pastrami, which looks Eastern Europe authentic. But all this Jewish goodness is a mystery, as this is the most goyish of restaurants. The hefty guy sitting next to me at lunch, perhaps a Massachusetts legislator, seems a typical customer, gobbling a sandwich which, without meaning to, blasphemes Kosher dietary laws: pressed pastrami with Swiss cheese and barbecue sauce! I’m a secular Jew and find this funny. On the other hand, LaGrassa’s could satisfy my secular longings by importing, like a true New York deli, some Dr. Brown’s Cel-ray Tonic soda to wash down the wondrous corned beef.
Gerald Peary is a professor at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of 9 books on cinema, writer-director of the documentary For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess.