TAMPA — A neon pink sign advertising “Hot Pastrami” glows in the window. The storefront, a nondescript building neighboring a barbershop, has the word DELICATESSEN spelled out in large black and white lettering. Behind the window, an employee carves away at a thick block of smoked meat, the dark red slices falling away effortlessly from the blade.
Inside, the lunch rush is underway. Beyond a glass case displaying the likes of smoked salmon, chopped liver and whitefish salad, a small team of cooks is piling sandwiches high with corned beef, sauerkraut and Russian dressing. There are shelves lined with jars of pickled herring, matzo, kosher salt and copies of the New York Post. This isn’t Katz’s or Barney Greengrass, and we are not in New York. But one could almost be forgiven for thinking so, because Cass Street Deli, a new Jewish deli in Tampa’s North Hyde Park, does a pretty spot-on impression of the genre.
For owner Sean O’Brien, designs for a New York-inspired deli have been years in the making. Born in Connecticut to a Jewish mother and raised in the Tampa Bay area, O’Brien made frequent trips home to the East Coast, the visits always peppered with outings to Manhattan’s many delicatessens. Every time he returned home, however, he realized that finding the perfect pastrami sandwich was not easy.
A former music promoter who had never run a restaurant before, O’Brien reached out to friends Edward Shumard, who was part of the opening team at the Refinery in Seminole Heights, and Garrett Garcia. The trio decided to go into business together and, following a series of popups around town, they opened their brick-and-mortar location in June. The place is partly an homage to the East Coast deli tradition, partly a testament to the foods O’Brien grew up eating at home. The matzo ball soup is his mother’s recipe — chock-full of carrots, onions, chicken and plump matzo dumplings bobbing in the broth ($5) — as is the buttery coffee cake ($4).
Leading the kitchen is chef Suzanne Crouch, formerly of Ella’s Americana Folk Art Cafe, who is the mastermind behind Cass Street’s powerhouse pastrami: the result of a roughly two-week process that involves brining, air-drying, smoking and finally steaming a beef brisket until the end result is impossibly soft, fatty and melt-in-your-mouth.
Sandwiches can be ordered whole ($13 to $15) or half ($5 to $10) and really pack in the fillings; a half paired with a side or a cup of soup is plenty, unless you’re truly ravenous. From the hot sandwich selections, diners have their pick of pastrami, smoked turkey or corned beef, all of which are great when paired with the sweet and spicy mustard from Ba-Tampte, a New York delicatessen standard O’Brien swears by. The hot options can all be ordered as a Reuben ($15), and while corned beef is the traditional pick, the slick slices of smoked turkey are a surprise hit with the classic combo, which comes with melted Swiss cheese, sauerkraut and a creamy and tangy Russian dressing.
Bread is sourced from Jamison B. Breadhouse Bakes, meaning the quality of the sandwich meat is matched by equally superb bread. The seedless rye might be my favorite, a flavorful light brown loaf that doesn’t overpower the fillings yet is sturdy enough to stand up to them. That and the pumpernickel are both ideal with the whitefish salad, a mild and creamy spread made with smoked cod that gets a nice bite from celery and carries a citrusy dill flavor.
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Loaves of challah, also from Jamison B. Breadhouse, are good when used for sandwiches eaten in-house but don’t hold up too well when taken to-go, especially with heavier choices like the tuna ($11). That tuna is excellent on its own, flecked with parsley and plenty of red onions and celery for that requisite crunch. Sides include a sweet and vinegary beet salad laced with just a touch of orange and cumin, and a cucumber and onion medley, which is light and refreshing, dressed with little beyond white vinegar, salt and sugar.
For the most part, the kitchen takes a no-frills, New York approach. But there are a few locally inspired twists, like the Cass St. Dog made with a Wagyu frank sourced from local sausage hawkers Tambuzzo Sausage Company and piled high with relish and sauerkraut, or the tart guava rugelach, a dense and sweet treat. On weekends, the kitchen plays around with specials like pastrami omelets ($13) and challah French toast ($10), but the majority of Cass Street’s operation feels designed for a weekday lunch crowd. With just a handful of tables and a couple of counter seats, the place gets packed quickly, so planning ahead for a little wait is wise. That might be part of the grab-and-go appeal, and with fresh loaves of challah and rye for sale as well as all of the smoked meats available by the pound, it’s easy to see the allure.
Whether dining in or taking out, one would be remiss not to grab one of the cakelike black and white cookies or the chocolate babka displayed on the counter by the door. Like everything else at this deli, it’s a little taste of old New York, right here in Tampa.
What the ratings mean
1-2: Don’t waste your time
3-5: Fair, but could be better
6-8: Pretty darn good
9-10: What are you waiting for?
If you go
1331 W Cass St., Tampa; (813) 609-6316
Hours: 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday-Friday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday-Sunday
Prices: $6 to $15 sandwiches; $3 to $10 sides and baked goods
Recommended dishes: pastrami sandwich; smoked turkey Reuben; cucumber salad