Utah Field Guide: The Pastrami Burger

It’s a melting pot, they always say of America—immigrants crossing seas (and these days, guarded borders) to meld tradition and culture into an increasingly complicated stew, now simmering into its third century. So how is it that one of Utah’s best examples of the great American experiment is a quarter-pound patty of char-grilled hamburger topped with a wad of thin-sliced pastrami?

The Pastrami Burger is quite the genealogical riddle. The mind boggles when you discover its Utah prominence can be laid at the feet of a Greek immigrant who learned to make it from a Turk in California, where Hebrew delicatessen food had found its way into a few burger stands.

Utah’s community of Greek immigrants has deep roots. Following the western mining boom that came with the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, these settlers arrived in Utah beginning in the late 1890s. A Greektown sprang up near where the rail spur entered the city, and by 1911, it was one of SLC’s liveliest districts, lined with coffeehouses and saloons, and filled with merchants selling olive oil, figs, octopus and dates. 

Greektown is no more. Its most lasting physical remnant is the Greek Orthodox Church on 300 West. But the immigrants had children, and those children opened burger joints, with mythical names like Apollo Burger and Olympus Burgers and not-so-mythical names like B&D Burgers and, the most royal of all, Crown Burgers.

It was Crown Burgers’ founder Manuel Katsanevas from whose head, like Athena from Zeus’, sprang the Pastrami Burger, fully formed and ready for battle. Katsanevas learned of the mythical pairing of pastrami and burger from his late brother James, who had picked up the combo in California, from the aforementioned anonymous Turk. But Katsanevas doesn’t like to admit that. Turks and Greeks don’t get along as well as pastrami and ground beef.

The resultant creation is served at almost every Greek originated burger spot. In the Socratic tradition, the essential burger is the logos and each restaurant imparts its particular impression. At the Apollo it is dubbed the Apollo Burger. At Olympus Burgers they call it the Olympus Burger. At Crown Burgers it is the Crown Burger, and so forth. The combination and the unique whole it creates informs them all. The paprika-spicy pastrami melds with the smoky char-grilled beef to create a pile of salty flavor, designed, it seems, by the old gods to make your mouth water. In Utah, it’s all Greek to us.

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Jeremy Pugh
Jeremy Pughhttps://www.saltlakemagazine.com/
Jeremy Pugh is Salt Lake magazine's Editor. He covers culture, history, the outdoors and whatever needs a look. Jeremy is also the author of the book "100 Things to Do in Salt Lake City Before You Die" and the co-author of the history, culture and urban legend guidebook "Secret Salt Lake."

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