Order in food from Pastrami Masters and be prepared for an unusual culinary mash-up. Despite its name, you can get lots more than pastrami. It’s an only-in-New-York kind of place, owned by Yemenite Muslim immigrants who sell Jewish deli and Lebanese cuisine out of one tiny location.
Fuad Hassan, Farouq, and Riadh Gazali opened this multicultural, 13-seat restaurant in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn in November 2019. They took over a Lebanese eatery, Wafa’s Express, and kept Wafa’s food on the menu. They then brought in deli meats from David’s Brisket House, a Bedford-Stuyvesant landmark that they also owned.
Depending on which part of the menu you’re looking at, you could get tabouli with your lamb shwarma, or spicy mustard on your pastrami on rye. Thirsty? Dr. Brown’s black cherry soda is the #1 seller. “People love it with the deli,” said Farouq. But guava juice is on the menu, too.
David’s Brisket House was founded by a couple of Jewish guys about 70 years ago. They then sold it to two partners, a Yemenite Jew and a Yemenite Muslim. When they retired, the restaurant changed hands several times until it was bought by Hassan and the Gazalis in 2011.
Eight years later, these men decided to expand into Williamsburg by opening Pastrami Masters. The menu was originally to be based on David’s Brisket House’s offerings. But it made sense to incorporate Wafa’s menu because there was demand for it in the neighborhood — thus the name and the unusual menu.
The restaurant is not kosher, so you can get a corned beef sandwich topped with Russian dressing, sauerkraut, and Swiss cheese, but you won’t find any pork on the menu. Or alcohol.
Farouq, who came to New York from Yemen when he was 13, loves the pastrami. He also loves the Reuben and the lamb shwarma. “Pastrami on rye is our number one seller,” said Farouq. Does anyone order baba ganoosh on the side of their pastrami? “Rarely,” said Farouq. “If you want pastrami, you order pastrami. And if you want Lebanese food, you order Lebanese.” Sometimes a customer may order a brisket or pastrami sandwich together with falafel or hummus.
Pastrami Masters did really well for a while. Pete Wells, restaurant critic of The New York Times, reviewed it four months after they opened, and gave them a star. The review ran on March 11, 2020, mere days before New York City shut down due to the pandemic. They are struggling now, working with a skeleton crew of a couple of Gazali family members and Wafa, the Lebanese chef. They are trying to pay their expenses and push on.
Is Wafa Christian or Muslim? “I have no idea,” said Farouq. “I never asked her.” Are the customers Jewish or Israeli? “I have no idea,” said Farouq. “We serve everybody, and we don’t ask people where they’re from. We get a little bit of everybody from the neighborhood, and they’re drawn by the good food.” Good food, said Farouq, “speaks the loudest.”