Spots on my list of places to review come about in all sorts of ways. In the case of Sammy's L.A. Pastrami & Burgers, it was an enthusiastic owner.
We'd included Sammy's in a story on the best french fries in Las Vegas, which prompted the owner's call. His East Tropicana Avenue location had table seating (one of our requirements), he assured, and so was added to what always is a very long list. These many months later, I finally got there.
And, well, let's just say Sammy's isn't dressed to impress. It's in a tiny building -- a former ice-cream shop, if memory serves -- next to a shuttered dry cleaner. Outside, a collection of mismatched tables and chairs was strewn carelessly about a patio. Inside wasn't much better, with stained carpet, four slightly sticky (and in some places peeling) tables and a slightly smoky odor in the warm air -- warm because the place is lined on both sides with big windows, and the shades in them are no match for our intense summer sun.
Maybe it was my awareness that times are awfully tough for small restaurants and that redecorating is an unaffordable luxury for many these days. Maybe it was the enthusiasm of the signs hanging about the place or the menu that was extensive but sensibly built on classic sandwiches. Whatever it was, the place had a whiff of promise among the stale grease.
We were tempted by some of the more exotic offerings, such as The Three Squares Fry ($14.99), which is a pound of fries with a half-pound each of pastrami and grilled rib-eye, plus chili, cheddar, grilled onions, bacon, jalapenos and three fried eggs, which prompted the thought that the owners' fathers must be cardiologists who need the business. I, however, wanted to see how they did with the standards, and so it would be a small L.A. Pastrami ($6.99; $8.99 for large) and a large Italian Beef (the same). And it was when the pastrami was served that we knew we had a winner.
I can't remember ever actually having pastrami in L.A. so I can't vouch for the authenticity, but I do have 3 a.m. cravings for a spot in Naples, Fla., called Pastrami Dan's. Dan's dates at least to the late '70s, when it was run by an older couple, Dan and Rose Somethingitalian. Their son, Young Dan (who is himself probably a grandfather), now owns the place and still turns out the sandwiches that set the standard for me: slightly crusty Italian rolls with a swipe of spicy brown mustard, some pickles, a little meat juice -- or "jus" -- and a big tangly mound of thinly sliced, oh-so-tender, oh-so-flavorful pastrami (and, in my case, a little mayo, which is why Young Dan remembers me after all these years, so if you stop in, mention that, and no, don't try to talk me out of it).
Sammy's pastrami? "Oh my gosh, that looks like Dan's" came from across the table, and it was indeed very nearly the equal of the best pastrami sandwich on the planet (although this time, I skipped the mayonnaise). The bun was maybe a little on the soft side, but the pastrami was fantastic -- tender and juicy and everything I'm looking for from pastrami.
The Italian beef was a triumph as well, the beef fresh-tasting and juicy, the peppers and onions perfectly sauteed, a little cup of jus on the side in case we needed more moisture. Melted provolone was 79 cents extra and well worth it.
And the fries: Of the five varieties of regular fries available we chose the medium ($3.99; small is $2.99 and large $4.99) and the medium was quite large, the fries impossibly crisp, cloaked in just enough garlic, lots of parsley and some cheese.
We also had a starter, the mini corn dogs (regular size $4.29, large $6.29), which apparently were the standard frozen stuff but a lot better than most in that the cornbread coating was thin and crisp.
And a handmade lemonade ($1.99, $2.99 or $3.99), which I actually found a little on the sweet side. You can't win them all.
Sammy's is a counter-service kind of place. The very affable guy behind the counter served us, but if it was busy, I imagine you fetch it yourself.
So here's some advice: By all means, stop by Sammy's for a pastrami or Italian beef, a burger or a dog, and some crisp fries.
But maybe you should use the drive-through.
Las Vegas Review-Journal reviews are done anonymously at Review-Journal expense. Contact Heidi Knapp Rinella at 383-0474 or e-mail her at hrinella@ reviewjournal.com.