The restaurant scene of NYC has intimidated me since the first lonely Fung Wah day-trip I took there back in high school. Overstimulated by noises and overwhelmed by options, I couldn’t imagine how even residents could reach a decision on where to go and what to eat in a city that seems to have everything for everyone at any time. Lately, the world has gotten smaller for me. I know precisely which coffee cart in Phuket and which sopapilla stand in Santiago to recommend to folks traveling there. And as my confidence in seeking out the best a city has to offer has grown, I feel gradually less lost when it comes to New York. Recently, I always seem to have goals set when I go there. A Caffe Medici in Eataly, a chef’s tasting at Blanca, wine and breaded sweetbreads at Pearl and Ash.
There are a list of classics, also, that remain to be checked off the list. While I’ve had Balthazar’s almond croissant and the Black Label Burger at Minetta’s, I shamefully had not been to Russ & Daughter’s or Katz’s in the Lower East. I had heard too many tales of massive late-night pastrami and corned beef sandwiches, potato knishes and legit matzo ball soup. Pickled cucumbers and pickles sandwich-side. I’ve seen the mountains of freshly carved meat in countless travel shows and heard plenty of complaints about how overrated this place is. It had been bothering me for some time that I had never been there. Last week I stopped in.
For being so hyped, Katz’s is a surprisingly accessible and easy place to visit. There was no line when I went and patrons were generally efficient in ordering what they wanted, the latter of which suggested they were locals (or at least NY residents for more than 5 years). You get a blank ticket from the guy tending to the door. You take it to the counter and ask for what you want. There’s not an official line, just some folks hovering in an amorphous cloud by the ordering station. You get your food and the ticket denoting what you ordered. You eat slowly, scanning a wall adorned with hundreds of autographed photos of celebrities stuffing their own faces with the same sandwich you’re working on. After finishing, you take the ticket to the cashier and pay. They staple a receipt to your ticket, which the door guy takes on your way out. It’s a system built to efficiently handle large throngs of customers. I’m sure I was just lucky enough to be there on a slow night.
No other deli sandwich I’ve ever had can compare to Katz’s pastrami. When I ordered it, the man behind the counter went somewhere and brought back a whole hunk of steaming, brined brisket which he then carved expertly up into a high pile with epic knife and stoic expression. Bright pink meat peeking out of a jet black crust. “Mustard?” Yes, please. “Rye?” Yes, just do what you do. The guy in front of me asked for Russian dressing and a slice of American cheese on his corned beef. I’m glad I went with the original.
The journey through this sandwich starts with picking up a half, feeling the heat of the incredibly tender meat permeate through the thin slices of bread. Fingers sink into the soft bundle, the sandwich seems to breathe out steam. It is light but dense, with juices trickling out and pieces of meat shifting around in your hand, making it seem like you’re holding something that is alive. The moisture wakes up the caraway seeds in the rye, causing the slightly sour aromas to pour forth, blending with the aromas of the meat itself. The chunks of beef flake easily into pieces and melt readily on the tongue. There is a perfect ratio of smooth, soft, juicy, giggly fat to lean meat. The layer of pastrami crust is a great thickness, with the peppercorns and coriander making up the coarse exterior, texturally interesting on the tongue. The herbs pack the sandwich with plenty of flavor, but do so without overpowering the mature, smokey flavors imbued in the flesh. The thin smear of yellow mustard adds a tang which helps break up the fattier chunks and provides a refreshing heat. Biting into this thing is easy, the teeth glide right through the soft bread and the flaky, moist meat. It’s a big bite but not too big, and immensely satisfying. Sitting there, alone with my pastrami, I felt at ease, like less of an outsider in a city that is not mine.
Katz’s: Frequently rated but not overrated, hyped but not overhyped, by my definition of those terms. A wonderful classic that left me feeling good. While Meg might have been faking it, I definitely was not.