Beyond BBQ: Pastrami at Katz's Delicatessen
To those outside New York City, Katz's Delicatessen may be best known as the backdrop for Meg Ryan's famous fake orgasm scene in When Harry Met Sally.
To New Yorkers—especially fellow members of "the Tribe"—it's known as the Mecca or Holy Grail of deli meats (reverse religious puns not intended) (okay, maybe a little). For the barbecue connoisseur, it's a different treatment of brisket that demands to be tried. Located right on Houston Street not far from 1st and 1st, around the corner from Georgia's Eastside BBQ and on the same block as whitefish mavens Russ and Daughters, Katz's has been an institution since 1888. That's not a typo.
Upon entry you're given a ticket that gets marked up dim sum style (or Hill Country style) with each dish ordered; you present this to the cashier at the exit when you leave. You have your choice of full waiter service at the tables furthest from the counter, or self serve by queuing up at any of the counter spots.
I recommend going with the pastrami on rye, and ordering no more than one sandwich for every two people to start. If asked whether you want mustard, say no—you can always add it at the table—because at least some of this pastrami needs to be eaten without condimentary interference. Pickles are complimentary, mixing crunchy half sours, not so crunchy kosher dills and sour tomatoes.
While your sandwich is being made, the maker will place upon the counter a small plate with a couple of slices to nibble on (I'm not sure if this is standard practice or because I left a tip beforehand). Rather than curb your appetite it will instead set it to full throttle as you marvel at the jolt of spices in the crunchy edges and the buttery texture of the interior that practically melts in your mouth.
You might be tempted to disassemble the sandwich and just savor each slice, but this is a sandwich that must be experienced as constructed, at least at the outset. Biting down is the eating equivalent of a karate expert chopping through board upon board upon board, only with more yielding layers of pastrami. The juices (and, yes, steam) get released on contact, and the deep cured flavor follows right behind. Although not as smoky as the equally impressive version at RUB BBQ, you can still sense that this pastrami has been smoked.
Growing up, I always gravitated toward corned beef on my rare visits to delis (which my hometown of Boston sadly lacks), but I'm a pastrami convert thanks to its added spiciness, light smoke and mouthfeel bonus of exploding whole coriander seeds with each bite. At inferior delis, the downside of pastrami is the sickening fattiness that can overwhelm the meat. In the capable hands of Katz's, the fat is melted into the meat, leaving it with a surplus of moisture and flavor. In a word, it's fantastic.
Yes, it's hyped, but the Katz's pastrami lives up to the hype. If she ordered the pastrami here, Meg Ryan's orgasm might have been real.
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