Katz’s Deli: Carnivore’s Dream Lives up to the Legend

by

“This is not a restaurant for vegetarians”, said my friend Mark Lewis as we sat entranced by the overflowing Pastrami and Brisket sandwiches glistening with fat before us. It’s 12:30pm on a Friday and I’m eating at Katz’s Deli for the very first time. Yes, NYC Food Guy has finally arrived at what is arguably NYC’s last remaining monument to kosher style deli (kosher style, not kosher), and not a moment too soon; rumors of Katz’s imminent extinction have been buzzing for the last few years. After today’s meal, however, I’ve experienced the greatness and I will return, but more for the Brisket & Vanilla Egg Cream than the Pastrami.

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For more amazing sandwiches and burgers click the links.

I’ve been talking about going to Katz’s for at least the last 3 years. It seems like everyone I know or meet; family, friends, taxi drivers, all strongly endorse the legendary deli which has graced the Lower East Side since 1888.

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There were several thwarted attempts at making the move. The closest I came to the famous receive a ticket, order your food, have your ticket marked, eat and pay experience was a trip to another carnivore castle, Hill Country, for Texas BBQ served in Katz’s fashion: Hunks of smoked meat pulled straight from big metal steamers, sliced by hand, never machine, into hearty slices of delciousness.

That’s part of the old school magic professed at Katz’s, especially by co-owner Alan Dell, who worked the room like a pro wearing a Katz’s Deli T-shirt and a pencil in his ear. He stopped at every table to hobnob with the tourists and devout patrons alike.

When he arrived at our table I talked to him briefly about the recent discussion at the Museum of the City of New York titled “Jewish Cuisine and the Evolution of the Jewish Deli” and about the legitimacy of Ben’s Best, a kosher deli NYC Food Guy grew up on which has been doling out great pastrami on Queens Boulevard since 1945. Dell called Ben’s Best the real deal while calling Ben’s Deli, a suspiciously similar-named chain of kosher delis in Long Island, an impostor.

The old school vibe didn’t end there; Neon beer signs reflect their bright light off the wood paneled walls, the Formica tables, and the blades of the aproned counter guys. Take a look at the scene I encountered upon entering Katz’s:

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The scene we encountered upon arrival was comparable to something out of Jack London’s “Call of the Wild.” Wide-eyed and ravenous people mulling in scattered lines, hungry for sliced meat and ready to pounce at the slightest line infraction, truly survival of the fittest. Fortunately, Mark knew each cutter had his own line and we headed to the shortest (A sign behind the counter overtly depicted this concept). We had preordained the substitution of rye bread with club roll ($1.00 extra), and after a brief meeting of the minds, we decided on Pastrami ($14.45 on rye) and Brisket ($13.95 on rye).

While Mark went to retrieve an order of hot, potatoey, and crisp Steak fries ($4.25), I nearly keeled over while eating a sample of the brisket. I’m not big on fatty meat, and I know the argument against Katz’s brisket is just that, but this was something else unlike anything I had ever tasted. It was moist and tender and made me feel like I was eating something an army of grandmothers had prepared in the back of the deli.

Samples are requisite at Katz’s depending on what you order. Word on the street is that if you tip your slicer, you’ll get a bigger sample. I can’t say if that’s true, but I tipped at the end and I did notice a lot more pickles on my plate than the table next to us. Score one for the NYC Food Guy.

After ordering a Hot Dog ($2.95) and a Dr. Brown’s Black Cherry Soda ($2.25) (expensive for a can of soda, I realize, but it’s part of the experience) this is what we were left with:

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Mark gave his standard “All right, take the pictures … quickly” comment and then it was time to dig in. I went for the Brisket first:

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Wow, just wow. I knew as soon as I bit into this that I’d be saving it for last. I didn’t care how good the pastrami could be, this was some delicious brisket:

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Moist, tender, and delicate with salty fat that melts in your mouth.

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Truly, it needed no sauce or bread, but the Russian dressing…..

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….overflowing with pieces of chopped pickle, was very intriguing so I tasted some before spreading it onto the brisket. The Russian was thin, but sweet like candy, and unlike any other Russian dressing I had ever tasted. It didn’t really enhance the brisket but when I spread some spicy mustard and Russian on, it was pretty delicious; still, the brisket was amazing enough to stand on its own and that was how I went the rest of the way.

Now it was time to delve into the famous Pastrami.

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Upon first bite, I was surprised to find the balance of flavor pointed in the direction of the beef alone. Most kosher pastrami I’ve eaten derives much of its flavor from the combined efforts of the peppery, spiced skin and the tender beef. I decided it was time to add some spicy mustard, an essential for any pastrami sandwich:

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Look at the stripes of fat intertwined with the strings of beef making up each individual slice of pastrami. The fat didn’t overpower and unlike most fatty, machine-cut kosher pastrami I’ve eaten, it didn’t require you to reach for the floss afterwards, despite its appearance below:

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Here’s a different angle where the spiced part of the pastrami is visible:

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The Pastrami is the most heralded and celebrated part of Katz’s but in all honesty, I was not impressed. Growing up eating in real kosher delis, I’ve grown accustomed to eating pastrami with a flavor that strikes a balance between the spicy skin and the beef. While Katz’s pastrami was indeed delicious, it didn’t deliver the classic flavor that I’m used to. As a result, I’d sooner order a brisket sandwich upon next visit.

The all-beef hot dog also fell victim to the fault of its faux kosher-ness. I’m a strong advocate of the concept that Hebrew National hot dogs are the best. Although I’d probably go with a Nathan’s Chili Cheese Dog before a plain Hebrew National, there’s something about the spicing of the Hebrew National that I haven’t found accurately replicated. The natural casing on the Katz’s dog was on point, however, delivering just the right amount of crunch.

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Now on to the greatest discovery of the entire meal. I decided to take out two orders of the Chicken Noodle Soup ($4.65 for one), one for me and one for a friend who wasn’t feeling well. While I waited patiently for my turn near the 10 beer taps ($4.10 to $8.00 for one) including brews such as Shmaltz’s Coney Island Lager and Brooklyn Brewery’s Katz’s Ale….

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I noticed a sign that said “New York Egg Creams” and offered Vanilla & Chocolate varieties ($3.25 for small, $3.95 large). I immediately ordered a small Vanilla, wary of disappointment after the debacle at Vynl, but after inserting my straw into the wax-coated cup, I was transported to a world of coffee-shops past. The taste of vanilla syrup and bubbly seltzer electrified my tastes buds and made me think about the egg creams my mom would buy me when I was a little kid. The flavor was evocative, if not an exact replica, of the quintessential coffee shop egg cream. Now I know my search for NYC’s best egg cream has just begun, but I can’t imagine many being better than this. I might have to add this to my post-Georgia’s Eastside BBQ dessert run.

————–

Amidst the ever changing landscape of the Lower East Side, Katz’s has remained throughout it all. It’s obvious that the key to success among most of the cities longest-running eateries is consistently delivering on a simple concept; this is the key to Katz’s. The tickets ($50 fee if you lose yours), the counter guys with their big knives, the fight for tables (there’s actually waiter service in the back) and a spot in line; It’s organized chaos and it embodies a certain old school New York City charm that’s become endangered, something Katz’s has perfected to a degree that cannot be duplicated.

Katz’s Delicatessen

205 E. Houston St.

New York, NY 10001

(212) 254-2246

Toll free: 1-800-4-HOTDOG

Hours:

Sunday 8AM – 10:45PM

Monday – Tuesday 8AM – 9:45PM

Wednesday – Thursday 8AM – 10:45PM

Friday – Saturday 8AM – 2:45AM

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24 Responses to “Katz’s Deli: Carnivore’s Dream Lives up to the Legend”

  1. Lizzie Says:

    not gonna lie, after i read this i definitely dreamed about pastrami and brisket.

  2. The NYC Food Guy Says:

    That makes two of us, this stuff is pretty out of control. Kind of surprising that a place with such a touristy reputation as of late is still doling out food that impresses. It’s refreshing. Try the egg cream for dessert if you go.

  3. BehgoBehgo Says:

    OMFG…!!!!
    the brisket and pastrami sandwiches… these are the times when I totally wished I lived in NewYork -_____-
    this post is literally the epitome of carnivorous food porn!! i want!!

  4. Matt from Idaho Says:

    I live in Idaho and on my last visit the NYC I went to Katz Deli. I have not been able to get those pastrami sandwiches out of my head ever since. Were going back in April and I don’t care what we do as long as I can go back to Katz!

  5. The NYC Food Guy Says:

    Matt-

    Smart move. Katz’s is the NY mecca for kosher style deli. Let us know how it is when you get back there.

    If we were going to take a trip Idaho what would be absolutely have to eat?

    Thanks for the feedback.

  6. Matt from Idaho Says:

    NYC Food Guy-

    One of my personal favorites is Basque food. Boise and the surrounding area have a large Basque population and the traditional food is excellent. My personal favorite is “Bar Gernika” for the croqetas, solomo sandwich and beer(s) followed by a rice pudding. Also a little more formal option is “Leku Ona” which is outstanding. When my pocket book is fat and I feel like I deserve something really good I go to the “Milky Way” for beef cheeks and potatoes. I would not flippantly say this NYC Food Guy but it would be worth the trip to Boise just for that. It is so good it just melts in your mouth like the best pot roast you have ever had only better!

    Come in the summer and we will take you on the river. Idaho has the best white water rafting in the world. With white water rafting comes the “Dutch Oven” cooking. That is a whole other topic.

    I will let you know how my trip to Katz goes in April. Take care and best wishes from Idaho.

    Matt

  7. Doctor Dyspepsia Says:

    Food Guy, with all respect, you don’t know bupkis (and if you don’t know what “bupkis” is, you REALLY don’t know bupkis. Brisket is nice for a nice kid like you, and you seem to love brisket. But real men, and especially manly cognoscenti of the oeuvre, eat pastrami. If the pastrami’s too strong, dilute it 50:50 with some corned beef for a savory combo. But brisket? A nice second course, if you’re still hungry. Or even if you’re not.

    And another thing. Just because the flavor of the Katz’s pastrami isn’t what you’re “used to”, and therefore fails to please you, consider this: maybe what you’re used to is inferior pastrami. You’re surely not a connoisseur of the classical kosher deli genre, witness the ketchup on the hot dog depicted above. Chilling. Mustard standard, sauerkraut optional in a deli, period.

    But the review was a nice try. Keep up the good work, and maybe you’ll get it right next time. And good for you, too: you got to go to Katz’s and I didn’t. Next time, have the pastrami with an open mind. Just mustard. Some cole slaw on top is good, too. And no more ketchup on your hot dog, OK?

    The Doctor.

  8. The NYC Food Guy Says:

    Doctor Dyspepsia,

    Hold your horses. Have you eaten Pastrami at Ben’s Best or Ben’s Deli or even Kensington Deli in Great Neck? I’ll admit, I’m biased, but you can’t even mention Katz’s in the same sentence with the rest of those actually Kosher pastramis. Not because it’s a knock on Katz’s but because Katz’s is a completely different beast. And beast it is. It’s slices are hand cut and monstrous. The other places I mentioned, thin, machine-cut, and piled gluttonously high.

    Katz’s was good, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not what I’m used to, which I admit, so it took a hit in my book. I have less experience with brisket sandwiches, and this one floored me. I put spicy mustard on but would by all means avoid the generic slaw at Katz’s. Give me something that has flavor and is not just runny mayo water with cabbage, and then I’ll consider.

    Hot Dogs, we differ. We obviously come from different generations and as I’ve stated in the past, I love conidments. That being said, if I had to choose ketchup or mustard, I’d go with spicy mustard hands down. But I don’t have to choose and I love both, so I don’t deprive myself and I put it all together. Sauerkraut is good too but I don’t love it, maybe its something you develop a taste for, something I can look forward to when I’m of an age when I’m afflicted with dyspepsia. Either way, it takes away from the spicy hot dog flavor which I love. So sorry doc, i’ll continue with ketchup and mustard on the dogs.

    Maybe we should orgainze another trip to Katz’s… NYC Food Guy vs The Doctor, and see how everything is when it’s put to the test.
    How do you feel about that? Maybe King of Ketchup will join us and sprout love for the king of all condiments.

  9. Doctor Dyspepsia Says:

    As you surely know by now, I’ve been to the Kensington more times than you could imagine. In fact, the impending Passover-related hiatus in their deli-distributing enterprise is giving me withdrawal symptoms in advance. Yes, Kensington is the best deli I know of on LI- haven’t been to Ben’s Best, but I intend to on your recommendation. Nevertheless, I still maintain that Katz’s is superior- hand-cut and monstrous? Got a problem with that? The thin-sliced variety is great, but as long as I still have my teeth, I’m OK with hand slicing.

    No comment on the slaw, don’t remember.

    On the hot dogs, if that’s what you like, go for it, this is America. Maybe it IS a generational thing, but if you want to renounce the faith of your fathers (and yes, the Hebrews wandering the desert put mustard on their matzoh when they ate their hot dogs, hold the ketchup, please), who am I to say you shouldn’t? Freedom of sandwiches is what made this country great. I may disagree with your choice of condiments, but I will defend to the death your right to choose them.

    God bless America.

  10. The NYC Food Guy Says:

    Doc-

    I agree, our forefathers definitely had Freedom of Sandwich in mind as a founding tenet for this great country. Glad to see some liberties still exist in their original form. I’m going to have to have Katz’s again and maybe you, me, and King of Ketchup can make a run to Ben’s Best one day to see what it’s all about. I guess there was no room for bottles of Heinz on the backs of the In-exodus Jews. All about the Gulden’s.

  11. Doctor Dyspepsia Says:

    Sounds like a plan: Ben’s Best with KofK (not to be confused with KFC). Let the fressing commence! I’ll have two: Pastrami/CB combo, THEN a brisket, made a la Food Guy. Potato pancake on the side?

    Do they serve beer? I’ll bring the prescription-strength reflux remedies.

    The Doctor.

  12. hmmm Says:

    WOW this honestly sounds like some sort of homo-errotic film you guys are about to produce, direct, and star in.

    Disgusting.

  13. The NYC Food Guy Says:

    Doc-

    I don’t know if they serve beer. It’s all about the Dr Browns. Wiggles is next door so we can get some lap dances after and since hmmm has his/her mind on men, I guess they don’t need to come along for a solid deli run.

    I haven’t been to Ben’s best in years though I’ve read good reviews over the years. It was formative in my early deli years, however, just a brief trip down Queens Boulevard.

    Here’s a great write up from Ed Levine about the Best Jewish Delis. I can only disagree with Artie’s though because in all honesty, the hot dogs weren’t great, the fries were eh, and the pastrami was just okay.

    Here’s a great article on Pastrami from the Times back in 2003.

    And here’s the best deli blog there is.

  14. wiggles sucks Says:

    wiggles sucks!!!!!!!!!!

  15. katz Says:

    is absolutely amazing

  16. NYC Food Guy Recommends… Cheap Late Night Eats « NYC Food Guy Says:

    […] that information in hand, look at that ridiculous photo (it’s two sandwiches) and read my review and you’ll understand why you must go there now, especially if you haven’t been yet. […]

  17. Matt from Idaho Says:

    Just got back from Manhattan. I made it to Katz despite the fact my wife wanted nothing to do with it, so I took my friend. It was even better than I remembered and the subway ride from uptown made it seem like quite the adventure for a couple of Idaho boys. Needless to say my friend was equally satisfied and impressed. The pickles & 24 oz Budweiser’s were a nice bonus too. I got a t-shirt so I could spread the word back at home. Till next time!

  18. The NYC Food Guy Says:

    Matt-

    Glad to hear you made it to the Kosher style deli Mecca. 24 ounce buds are always a bonus! Dude that is a hell of a subway ride, I live on the UWS and have made it many times. The thing about NY, as you know, is it’s always an adventure.

    Where else did you eat while you were here? What are your go to stops when you visit?

    Thanks for the post.

  19. Dr. Dyspepsia Says:

    Just came back from a lunch run. Crowded, but not unbearable. One dining companion and I shared one CB/pastrami combo on rye with mustard and slaw, and one brisket on a roll with Russian. Both OUTSTANDING. Another had extra lean CB on a roll. It was OK, and better than most delis, but to me, if you’re going to Katz’s, leave your worries about mortality at the door and go for the fatty stuff.

    Katz’s is truly in a class by itself. Best meat, and give the meat cutter a few bucks, and he will keep you in sample slices as he prepares your order. It is the clear winner of the best deli I have eaten in anywhere and ever. May be my choice for the Last Meal. Who knows? And if fat is bad for you, next time it may just be that.

    Of course, I await a Ben’s Best comparison adventure.

  20. SAL Says:

    I HAD A GREAT PASTRAMI SANWICH AT YOU WON’T BELIEVE IT;

    ALBANY MEDICAL CENTER CAFETERIA. SMOKED JUST RIGHT, IT WAS THE PLATE WITH THE DECKEL ATTACHED. FATTY, JUICY. ROCKLAND BAKERY RYE, COLE SLAW AND A PICKLE.

  21. Dr. Dyspepsia Says:

    Sal, with respect, it’s hard to believe. Great pastrami at Albany Medical Center Cafeteria? Seriously? Are you a resident, so hungry you will eat anything? Or perhaps a mental patient, there for an outpatient follow-up visit? But your description indicates that you still have your faculties, so I must conclude that perhaps the cafeteria got lucky and intercepted an order meant to go elsewhere.

    So Food Guy, wanna go to Albany instead of Ben’s for the next deli adventure?

    The Doctor (who has eaten in hospital cafeterias, and knows that “great pastrami” is next to impossible).

  22. The NYC Food Guy Says:

    Sal,

    I don’t even know what to say. Is that a serious comment?

    Doc,

    See you in Albany. If we really went there it’d be all about Bombers Burritos. You know that place Sal?

  23. Lance Uppercut Says:

    Ketchup on a frankfurter . . . what are you like six years old?

    That gaffe alone voids the entire article.

  24. Dr. Dyspepsia Says:

    Lance, see the dialogue starting April 13. I agree, ketchup on a hot dog is ridiculous, but Food Guy likes what Food Guy likes. Makes the rest of the article suspect, but overall, I agree that Katz’s is superior deli.

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