205 East Houston Street
New York, NY 10002-1098
I’m a little suspicious of places that call themselves the best. The boast never seems to ring true, and more often than not, it’s a testament to ego, or the past, more than it is to what’s true today.
However, when 90% of the people who live in, or visit New York, say Katz’s is the best pastrami sandwich in New York, you have to take notice. New York is known for its pastrami, and to be the best in New York…well, as they like to think, it means you are the best anywhere.
Katz’s Deli has been around since 1888. Located on the Lower East Side, it’s part of an interesting chain of old school, high quality establishments that dot East Houston Street – Russ & Daughters, and Yonah Shimmel’s Knish Bakery are located nearby as well. The building definitely is a distinctive landmark on the south side of E. Houston – but if you don’t notice the signage, you’ll notice the lineups out the door.
Upon entering the premises, you will find very little has changed in the decor, and the menus for the past 60 years. There is typically two types of service – in theory, there is table service, but for a true Katz’s experience, take a ticket, and head to the deli counter to order your own sandwich. When you finally end up with sandwich in hand, you’ll need to pounce on one of the self serve tables that seem to free up every 20 seconds.
Sandwiches are made at the deli counter – certain dishes can be ordered from the back counter just before the washrooms. While most people are here to order pastrami, Katz’s has a very large selection of Jewish deli items, of varying reputation. The tongue, corned beef, hot dogs, and salami all have their fans, and detractors.
However, for me, pastrami is the true test of Katz’s Deli. When you finally reach the front of a long line, a cutter stands before you waiting to take your order. Katz’s Deli is one of the few delis in Manhattan that still cut by hand – which results in thicker, less consistent pieces, but with a little more control over the grain, and the shape of each cut.
There is a lot of mythology around the cutter and his tip jar. Many people argue that tipping the cutter a dollar before he makes your sandwich will result in a free sample, and more meat in your sandwich, and more pickles on the side. In my experience, tipping is inconsequential. It fails to net any advantage at all, as I always get a free sample anyway. In fact, the smallest sandwich i got was when i tipped the most. Some correlation!
The landmark Pastrami Sandwich – $14.95, which definitely rings in at the high end of the price scale in town. Sandwiched between two pieces of Jewish rye, with yellow mustard, this is a classic sandwich.Brined, seasoned, smoked, and then steamed prior to cutting, pastrami provides a great complexity of textures, flavour, and umami. The serving size, however, is definitely extremely skimpy for the price. The sandwiches have been getting smaller, while the prices get more expensive. A bad combination in my books.
Quantity aside, the Katz’s pastrami sandwich is certainly an excellent representation of pastrami. While their consistency seems to be up and down, likely due to sheer volume, on a good day, the quality of the pastrami at Katz’s is as good as it gets. Flavourful, without being overly salty. Lean cut, but loaded with fat flavour and juices. Fantastic texture – handcut not too thin, which would draw out a lot of the juices and moisture, but not too thick, which makes the sandwich unwieldly and difficult to eat – far too chewy and tough. The cuts are pretty much spot on.
Of course, the side of Kosher pickles is pretty standard. If you like Kosher pickles, you’ll enjoy these. If you don’t, you’re not missing much.
I have to say though, as good as the quality of Katz’s pastrami can be, between the lineups, inconsistency, quantity, and price, Katz’s Delicatessen is not my goto deli in New York. They are an institution that on any given day serves top quality pastrami, but the drawbacks are not worth the hassle in my books. There are other delis that serve nearly as good pastrami, with fewer lineups, better consistency, cheaper prices, and a lot more quantity. If you’ve never tried NYC pastrami, this is worthwhile. It’s nice to set a benchmark to compare all other pastrami sandwiches to. But i’ll keep heading elsewhere. I’ve experienced Katz’s enough times already. For serious Katz lovers who disagree with my assessment – think of it as one fewer person in line. Win win for everyone.