Saturday, December 23, 2006
Katz's Deli: New York's Best Sandwich
If New York has one single unique food experience it would have to be the New York Delicatessen. Real, old fashioned deli food is fast going down the same road as the dinosaurs as people defect to fast food places or more upscale trendy restaurants, and even in New York itself it has become hard to find an honest corned beef sandwich or pastrami on rye worthy of the name. And so we are back to Katz’s. Katz’s is the original, the Ur-deli, the navel of a world sliced from steaming pastrami. Katz’s is the last dinosaur standing on the block. Sure, there are other delicatessens in the New York area, sure, it isn’t really the last, but with the closing of the Second Avenue Deli last year, there aren’t too many other places with as much history serving cured meats on rye bread around anymore. The Carnegie Deli serves a pricier uptown crowd, as does Pastrami King, but these upper Manhattan delis are sort of a Walt Disney’s Deli World of nostalgia: pay your twenty dollars, stand in line, and imagine that you are on the lower east side again. In Teaneck, where my parents live, there are dozens of more-kosher-than-thou delicatessens to the square mile, and none of them serve a decent corned beef sandwich. When the only legit competition is in Montreal, then the only response is to go to the source: Katz’s Deli, Houston Street, in the old Bowery section of the lower east side. Everything about Katz’s is unique – including the method of ordering and paying. You take a ticket, have the counterman mark your ticket, and they don’t let you out until you surrender that ticket. You order from one of the countermen – guys who are invariably from the Dominican Republic, although Mexicans are now filtering in. Previously the lineage included Russian Jews, Puerto Ricans, and Jamaicans. These guys are the inheritors of an Ashkenazic Jewish eating style that goes back four generations to the days when the neighborhood was predominantly Jewish, before the lower East Side became “Loisada.” Today the area is fast becoming some of the most sought-after real estate in NY City.We discussed the history of pastrami a few months ago, but this is New York pastrami and corned beef, what the British call salt beef and the Canadians know as “smoked meat.” Corned beef is a beef belly cut that is cured in salted brine and spices. Taking a corned beef, covering it in black pepper and coriander and smoking it produces pastrami. Both are then steam cooked.At Katz’s, the counterman asks if you want you meat “lean or juicy.” You want it juicy, which is to say, fat. Counterman then slices a bit off, sets it on a plate and offers you a taste. It’s like sniffing the cork of a fine wine, only involving meat. Corned beef is served on rye bread. This is the canon law of New York. In the film Annie Hall there is a scene where Woody Allen takes Annie to a deli, and she orders corned beef on white bread with lettuce and mayonnaise. If you laugh at this scene it indicates that you are a true-born New Yorker. Katz’s is also home to some of New York’s best hot dogs. These are the same Sabrett’s hot dogs that street vendors sell, but at Katz’s the frankfurters are grilled, and you can ask for a “burned dog” with an extra crispy skin. Next to the dogs are knishes. Knishes were what New York ate before there was fast food.Hot dogs are nice, but knishes fill you up. Spiced potato and onions are wrapped in heavy pastry dough and baked, then grilled. Eat them straight or cut open and filled with mustard. You can still get knishes for a buck at many delis and hot dog stands around the city – a valuable tool to fending off hunger on a budget. Down the street is Yonah Shimmel’s Knishery – a 100 year old Knish joint that has started to add Israeli style vegetable knishes and other “healthy” items to the menu. Sad. Both Katz’s and Yonah Shimmel are typical New York “Kosher Style” delis – not strictly kosher, but not serving meat and milk mixed or pork products. Modern Orthodox Jews accustomed to “Glatt Kosher” restaurants hate places like Katz’s – they look attractively Jewish, but the food is not certified kosher. The service is old style Jewish – rude, loud, they serve tea in a glass, and the sodas include the old fashioned Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray, which is celery flavored soda. During World War Two Katz’s had the idea of mailing New York salamis to the troops stationed around the world. The idea stuck, and now Katz’s does a pretty booming mail order and catering business. The amount of meat served in a single meal at Katz's Deli is enough to serve a family at home, but it is so juicy and tender that it goes down well, finding some creative way to fit into the alimentary canal. I usually start out with the Hot Dog course, freshen the palate with a few half sour pickles, and then move on to the corned beef or pastrami course. No, I could not eat at Katz's every day. Maybe every week. You don't need a posh table and a snobby waiter to know you are getting the best the world has to offer. Katz's is authentic. Katz's never sold out. Katz's is the real thing.