In Omaha, Nebraska — a town known for its steaks, right smack dab in the middle of the country — there is a restaurant in which the owner prepares his own pastrami, bagels, and lox. The owner isn’t Jewish; most of the clientele isn’t either. But anyone who works there or has eaten there is convinced that the specialties at Ansel’s Pastrami and Bagels are as good as any in the iconic delis of the Big Apple.
Joel Marsh, the founder of Ansel’s, is a photographer by trade, born and raised in Omaha. On frequent trips to New York, he fell in love with the food there, specifically with the cured meats at Katz’s and Carnegie Deli, meat prepared in a way that he had never found in his hometown. He set out to learn how to make the delicious, smoky, highly seasoned, and moist pastrami that he enjoyed in New York.
Did he learn at the heels of the cooks in any of the New York delis? Nope. He just read a few cookbooks, searched online, and began a process of trial and error until he came up with a pastrami that tasted like what he had eaten in New York. Initially, he would invest the close to two weeks that it takes to make pastrami — 10 days to brine the meat followed by six hours of smoking and three hours of steaming — only to find that the batch was just no good. But he stayed at it.
Joel and his wife Krys Marsh opened Ansel’s in May 2018. The restaurant is in a small space, open only from 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. most days, but they have been so successful that they are increasing their hours to meet demand. Their pastrami is an international affair. While the process and the seasoning are Eastern European via New York, their beef comes from Piedmontese Italian cattle raised in Lincoln, Nebraska. He uses the brisket point — a beautifully marbled cut of beef — as the base of his pastrami and then he cures it with herbs and spices including coriander, black pepper, and garlic.
“People aren’t used to this style of meat here,” said Marsh. “But once they try it, they come back. We sell a lot of pastrami — probably about 150 pounds a week. New Yorkers who have come through and eaten it tell me it’s on the level of Katz’s deli.”
The pastrami sandwiches are served on house-made rye rolls with brown deli mustard. He also serves a pastrami Reuben that is topped with homemade sauerkraut, pickle relish, and red pepper aioli. He takes his Reuben seriously because natives of Omaha believe that the Reuben was created there, at the Blackstone Hotel, a three-block walk from Ansel’s.
His interest in Jewish food doesn’t stop with meat. He and Krys invested lots of time into developing a New York-style bagel with a great chew. They went so far as to ship New York water to Omaha, analyze it, and then recreate it with a mineral content similar to that found in New York. They offer a selection of bagels like you would find in New York — plain, sesame, everything, poppy, onion. Joel’s favorite is an everything bagel with plain cream cheese.
And if you want lox with your bagel, no problem. You can order house-made lox, brined with vodka, salt, herbs, and dill, at Ansel’s, too.
For what it’s worth, they are not the only pastrami game in town. Not long after Ansel’s opened, so, too, did Mayne Street Market. And at Swartz’s Deli, also new to the Omaha food scene, you can order latkes, bagels with schmear, chicken soup, chopped liver, corned beef, and, yes, pastrami.
So if you’re looking for good Jewish deli food, go west. You can find it in the heartland.