Steamy hot, moist and tender, perfumed by spice and smoke, pastrami is the most voluptuous of delicatessen meats. Tasty examples can be found in almost any American city with a population of Romanian-ancestored Jews; but for the very best, for pastrami to make you plotz with pleasure, there is only one place to go: Katz’s in New York. The granddaddy of Pastrami Palaces – since 1888 – Katz’s boasts a sign outside that advertises Wurst Fabric (an Americanization of a Yiddish term for “homemade sausage”) and one inside that advises, “Send a salami to your boy in the army.”
Here is an only-in-New-York experience! Brash, big, and noisy, it is a course in customer assertiveness. Although table service is available, what makes Katz’s unique is a one-on-one encounter with a counterman. Take a ticket as you enter, approach the counter and tell one of the gents with a carving knife exactly what you want. (Hint: don’t ask for your pastrami on white bread with mayonnaise.) Motherly brisket, corned beef, turkey, knoblewurst, chopped liver, tongue, and cheese steaks are all available, as are first-rate Kosher hot dogs, but we can never resist that pastrami. A Katz’s pastrami sandwich is three-quarters of a pound of meat severed into pieces so chunky that the word slice seems too lightweight to describe them. Each brick-red, glistening hunk is rimmed black, redolent of garlic, smoke, and pickling spices, as savory as food can be.
One of Katz’s lesser-known pleasures is breakfast. The usual eggs, pancakes and French toast are available; connoisseurs come for a Katz’s omelet, which is an unfolded, open-face circle of eggs in which nestle a heap of salami, corned beef, balogna, or pastrami.
I’ve been living in New York City for almost 13 years and Katz’s Delicatessen is one of my most favorite places to eat. My first visit was in 2008, when I hosted a small group of Roadfooders for a hot dog tour. About a year later, fellow Roadfooder, The Travelin’ Man, was dismayed to find out that I had yet to try a pastrami sandwich from Katz’s and I was fortunate enough to have he and RFer, Wanderingjew as my wingmen for that trip into uncharted territory. I never knew pastrami could be so rich and full-flavored. I was hooked.
Many years and numerous sandwiches later, I still find myself craving a pastrami on rye with mustard. While I do enjoy some of the other delis in the Big Apple, they lack those thick cuts of brisket, corned beef and pastrami and Katz’s also has the added bonus of customers being able to stand at the counter and engage with the guy doing the slicing and making the sandwiches. Tip him a $1 or $2 and ask for a taste of whatever meat you want to try. I’ve never been particularly wowed with their corned beef, so I’m glad I can sample it first.
On a visit with a friend from my hometown, we tried the pastrami reuben and it was just perfect. They don’t grill the bread but this was a perfect combination of peppery, steamy pastrami, briny sauerkraut, melty Swiss and sweet, pickly Russian dressing. A joyous mess to eat and a multi-napkin affair, for sure.
On a more recent visit, The Travelin’ Man clued me in to the brisket on a club roll (with a side of brown gravy). I had never heard of a club roll before but it was so pillowy soft and fresh, the brisket was incredibly tender and that gravy, spooned on each bite, was just wonderful.
Katz’s has been around for over 125 years and while I love the food, it’s about so much more than that. It’s about the communal dining experience of being crammed in so close to other diners, the ticket system they use, the clinking of glasses and china as the waiters and bussers come around, the seemingly endless array of photos on the walls of the famous and not-so famous who have passed, chowed down here over the many decades and the element of surprise from “The Jim Gaffigan Show” taping there regularly to an improve group re-enacting (en masse) the famous “scene” from “When Harry Met Sally”. Just try to imagine 20 couples playing that out all at once!
I hope they are around for another 125 years.