New York Stories: Shelter from the Storm, and a Huge Pastrami Sandwich at Katz’s Delicatessen

On a temperate summer day in New York City, the wind turned blustery, the blue sky transformed into a menacing shade of gray, and within moments, the heavens opened up.  The rain was intense, and the streets and sidewalks were mottled for only an instant before they became completely saturated, the gutters failing to keep pace with the rushing waters.  Pedestrians caught unprepared huddled together under the nearest available awning or bus stop shelter, forced to invade each others’ respective personal spaces by an Act of God.

All of this meteorological chaos was perfectly fine by me, because while it was happening, I was sitting in Katz’s Delicatessen, shoving an enormous pastrami sandwich into my gaping maw and tipping back a bottle of Brooklyn Lager.  We did not take an umbrella with us, but if there’s a place to hole up as you wait for a summer rainstorm to pass, you couldn’t ask for better.

In the weeks leading up to our trip to New York City for the 55th Summer Fancy Food Show, we had firmly decided that we wanted to make a return to this classic deli on the Lower East Side.  With our memories of our first experience quite fuzzy (in our defense, it was 2:30am and we had just emerged from a nearby nightclub), we knew that we wanted to experience Katz’s Delicatessen during the daylight hours.

The scene could not have been more different. At 2:30am, we were one of only a handful of occupied tables in the vast wood-paneled dining hall, which is decorated with framed pictures of famous people who’ve eaten there.  I remember reviewing the selection of items that is displayed on the wall above and behind the cutters’ stations, walking up to the lone cutter on duty, ordering our sandwiches, and making small talk as he assembled our meal.  This time, I stood at the end of a substantial line of people that snaked through to the front of the restaurant.  Here’s a helpful hint: each cutter has his own line, but most folks go to the line that is nearest to the entrance – move further into the hall to shorten your wait at a shorter line.  Almost every table was occupied, and when we managed to squeeze ourselves into an empty space, the back of my chair butted up against a neighboring table.  When I reached the counter, I had to raise my voice to call out my order.  I honestly think that it was the same cutter as from our first trip.

I made it through ordering the corned beef and pastrami sandwiches without incident.  I knew that I had a fifty percent chance of getting the next thing right.  “I’ll take one corned beef, one pastrami, and…a…knish.”  I had pronounced it “nish”, in the sincere hope that the ‘k’ served just as useful a function as it does in the word ‘knight’.

“You mean a “KA-nish?” the cutter replied, deadly serious. I was glad to have the counter serve as a barrier between us.

“Um, yeah.  That.”  He motioned me to the other counter to place the knish order.  That’s the quirky thing about Katz’s Delicatessen – if you want a sandwich, you go to one of the many cutters in the center of the counter, if you want a hot dog or knish, you go to the station at the end.  Want a soda?  Go down to the other end.  Want a beer?  Go back to where you ordered the hot dog.  You could skip all of this exercise by asking for table service, but where’s the fun in that?  Plus, if you go to the counter to get your sandwiches, the cutter will always provide you with a sample of the meat for your approval before he begins carving your order.

The sandwiches at Katz’s Delicatessen are immense, heavy with the weight of 121 years of tradition.  They are true deli sandwiches, served with a combination of sweet and tart pickles on the side and a swipe of sharp yellow deli mustard that serves to cut the richness of the fatty meat.  The pastrami sandwich is a full two inches of meat, precariously balanced on a comparatively small and thin platform of rye bread, its beefy edges crusted with spice rub.  The corned beef is similarly endowed, but with a juicier, fattier aspect that is characteristic of a superlative brisket.  As good as the corned beef can be, you can reach for epicurean nirvana by ordering a classic corned beef Reuben, which pairs the meat with a mountain of tangy sauerkraut and a layer of Swiss cheese so thick, you could ski down it.

The knish is a rectangular pillow of dough wrapped around a densely packed filling of potato and onion, fried until golden.  I highly recommend it if you’ve never had one.  You should be aware, though, that there are two varieties of knish.  The Coney Island knish is as I have described; there is also a traditional Jewish knish that is round and baked.  I tried one once and didn’t like it as much as the Coney Island, but you should taste one of each since it’s a matter of personal preference.

The last thing you need to know about Katz’s Delicatessen is this – they work off of a ticket system.  When you come into the deli, you’re handed an orange ticket, and as you order different items from the counter, the countermen take your ticket, mark it with what you’ve ordered, and pass it back to you.  At the end of the meal, you hand your ticket to the cashier, who totals it and takes your money.

Don’t even ask what happens if you lose your ticket.  You, and your wallet, really don’t want to know.