Katz’s Delicatessen – New York City, NY

Katz’s Delicatessen
205 East Houston Street
New York, NY 10002-1098
(212) 254-2246

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.

11 thoughts on “Katz’s Delicatessen – New York City, NY

    • Hey Ben,

      Yours is definitely more sizable. Funny thing is, I believe my photo is from early 2008, not my most recent trip. Do you remember how busy it was when you went? Im wondering if bigger sandwiches come when they have more time. Who knows. Regardless, I’ve never seen a sandwich your size in the last 2 years. Based on the quality alone, that might have been worth it 🙂

  1. I am glad you posted about Katz’s because I was thinking on going to this one as well; however, I ended up going to the *other* well known deli instead, i.e., Carnegie Deli. (Wait, is that in your queue as well?!).

    Looking at the picture of the sandwich, if it was $15, I will have to say it is… Disappointing. Sure, the meat might be great but for that price I would expect something more. A sauerkraut side? Some more pastrami or corned beef? Oh, well…

    • Hey KH,

      No,Carnegie is not in my queue. When i went many many years ago, I didn’t carry a camera – and i havent had the inkling to go back.
      As for expecting something more…i know what i was expecting – more pastrami! 🙂

      Looking forward to your CD post!

    • Hey John,

      For a classic deli, I would try Katz’s. Taste wise, their pastrami is fantastic. It’s really the value, and quantity that don’t agree with me. If i had never tried NYC Pastrami – i would go there. If i was going to be a frequent eater, considerations like budget and value would matter a lot more.

      A lot of people like Carnegie deli, or Stage, or 2nd Avenue Deli, and on a good day they can be very good. I think the thing is, there is always going to be inconsistency with pastrami. Too many variables that are difficult, if not impossible to control.

      As for goto places, i think places outside of Manhattan are the best bet if you don’t want to go to Katz’s. Harold’s in Edison is run by an old Carnegie guy – they hand cut, and the pastrami, while the quality is just a bit lower than Katz’s, more than makes up for it in quantity 🙂 The value is right. There are several well regarded places in Brooklyn as well – a place many consider the last bastion of good Jewish delis. Consider Essex for corned beef(which i believe has moved from Coney island, but im not sure), or Jay and Lloyds, or Mill Basin for pastrami.

  2. My visit to Katz was a bit underwhelming as well. No I did not have the same reaction as Meg Ryan, not even close. However, I do like Carnegie Deli. More meat for the price. It may not be the best meat, but it’s pretty good and valuewise, I think it’s fair. Their cheesecake is killer.

  3. Great post, and somewhat timely as I just caught a rerun of Tony Bourdain’s Disappearing Manhattan where he stops in. It’s interesting to see everyone’s thoughts in the comments as well, as it adds a lot. So much to think about when it comes to NY deli’s it seems.

    • Absolutely – the funny thing is, by the time someone else visits, it’ll all have changed again. NYC definitely is a fast-paced kind of place. Hard to keep up unless you live there.

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