The scene: Many people know it as the setting for the famous “I’ll have what she’s having” scene starring Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal in “When Harry Met Sally…” and there’s even a sign over the table where it was filmed, pinpointing the spot for tourists. But despite being a popular film location (“Donnie Brasco”, “Enchanted,” “We Own the Night,” “Sidewalks of New York,” etc.) Katz’s was famous long before Hollywood came knocking. Its enduring slogan, “Send a salami to your boy in the Army,” dates back to World War II. Katz’s is nothing less than the most famous remaining Jewish-style deli in the nation, especially since the closing of iconic New York eatery Carnegie Deli, and has been dispensing its famous pastrami and corned beef on Manhattan’s Lower East Side for more than 130 years (since 1888).
While wildly (and justifiably) popular with tourists, Katz’s can be confusing and intimidating to the uninitiated. It is the dining equivalent of walking in midtown Manhattan: crowded, fast-paced, unapologetic – and if you hesitate, everyone passes you by. When you walk in you are handed a blank ticket, which immediately sets it apart from just about every other restaurant, as does the turnstile you must pass through to exit – and just as at parking garages, you do not want to lose the ticket or you will be billed $50 for your visit.
There are two ways to eat at Katz’s: the classic and more popular self-service model, or full-service seating. Regulars will tell you the latter is less authentic and misses some of the craziness of the experience. Even the staff agrees: We were recently greeted with, “Do you want to do it the fun way or the easy way?” But grabbing a seat in the full-service section is actually a good option for first-timers and I recommend considering it, especially if you don’t like crowds or waiting in multiple lines.
Katz’s is one very large cavernous space. The greeter with tickets, turnstile and cash register are by the front door, and down the right side is a long line of ordering counters. The bulk of the space is a sea of tables jammed closely together. At the far end is the catering, pick-up and mail-order counter. Beyond this, the dining room wraps around to a slightly hidden alcove which can be your best bet for finding a seat when the restaurant is crowded. Wherever you sit, you will find nearly every square inch of the walls covered with framed photos of celebrity and pseudo-celebrity regulars, many from decades gone by.
The full-service section is simply a cluster of tables with signage putting them off-limits to self-servers, but otherwise you order and find a place to eat. The recommended strategy (endorsed by staff and not considered rude) is to divide and conquer, sending someone to grab seats while someone else orders. For larger parties you should take this even further and divide your order among companions, since one of the most frustrating things about Katz’s is not waiting in line, but all the different lines.
At the main counter are several carving stations where you can get your sandwiches, pastrami, corned beef, salami and so on (tip: head farther in where the lines are shorter). But if you want a hot dog, there’s a line for that; if you want a knish, there’s line for that. Ditto for dessert, and there’s even a separate line if you want to pay by credit card instead of cash. If you don’t know what you are doing – and many visitors do not – you will end up spending much of your visit waiting in a series of lines before securing a place to eat.
Every time you order something, they scribble it on your ticket and you pay on the way out. Every adult gets a ticket and even if only one person does all the ordering for a group, be prepared to turn in the blank tickets too. The experience is similar to a cafeteria, with trays and grab-your-own silverware. Again, it might be wise to consider waiter service.
If do you go self-serve, the important thing to remember is that each carver is a skilled professional and the tip jars on the counter in front of their stations are not for show. The carvers are responsive to generosity and prone to handing you samples of pastrami, corned beef, brisket or whatever you might be curious about trying, and will slice to order your preference of fattier or leaner meat. They control everything from portion size to the number of pickles you get, so your tip should be made early and visibly – it is wise to invest in a happy carver.
Reason to visit: Pastrami, corned beef, brisket, other meats and traditional Jewish deli sides, from knishes to matzo ball soup – and chocolate babka
The food: The mainstay sliced meats are pastrami, corned beef and beef brisket, in that order, though there is also salami, hard salami, garlic sausage (knoblewurst), knockwurst, tongue and turkey. They sell whole sandwiches in a generous but not crazy size, and none of the towering offbeat combos some other New York delis are famous for. The notable exception is the signature Reuben, with corned beef, Swiss cheese, Russian dressing and sauerkraut. In fact, there are a lot of exceptions you would not know about if you were not a regular, like upgrading the Reuben to pastrami.
While they claim not to sell half-sandwiches, they in fact do, but only as part of combos with either a side salad or matzo ball soup. If you are sharing and want variety, your best bet is to ask for a platter, which is a very normal order here though not listed on the overhead menu board. You get a generous trio of sliced meats – typically pastrami, corned beef and brisket – along with a stack of rye bread to make your own sandwiches, and the meats are customizable (remember the tip). This is easily enough to feed three people, and as many as five with sides and extras.
I personally love the tender, juicy, fatty brisket, but the main event here is the excellent pastrami. Unlike almost all other delis, Katz’s cures their own, made from the more marbled belly cut, and it is consistently rated the best in a city that loves its pastrami (New York Magazine recently rated Katz’s the city’s Absolute Best Deli, Absolute Best Pastrami and Absolute Best Hot Dog). The classic pastrami sandwich is typically adorned with coleslaw and a little Russian dressing, but I usually prefer my slaw on the side.
If you go solo (not ideal) you might consider the half-sandwich option so you can also try the soup and a side of potato pancakes (latkes). New York Magazine is usually spot on with food reviews, but they miss the mark in the case of the all-beef hot dog, which is quite good, with a nice snap and excellent condiments, but certainly not the city’s best. If you love hot dogs, get one, but if you don’t, save the extra room for less-common offerings like the latkes, matzo ball soup or a knish (big and heavy and best split). They also have fries (and they are good) but so does every place else.
The best thing to do is go with at least three other people and get a meat platter, a couple of potato variants, soup, coleslaw, kraut and pickles, and taste everything. If you have room, throw in a knockwurst or knoblewurst sausage.
All the adornments, from the sauerkraut to the coleslaw – and especially the pickles – are very good. The pickles are available as either “full sour” or “new,” otherwise known as half-sour, brined less time for a snappier texture. Both are amazing.
The key to maximizing a visit to Katz’s is sticking to the classic specialties and this extends to the beverages. The iconic accompaniment for a New York Jewish deli meal is a can of Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray soda, an otherwise obscure celery-flavored soft drink that fans (I’m not one) find an ideal pairing for the salty, fatty meats. My recommendation would be an even more-forgotten classic of old New York soda fountain shops: the egg cream. Like everything else at Katz’s, this confuses visitors, because it has nothing to do with eggs or cream, but instead is a half-dessert, half-soda concoction of whole milk, seltzer and chocolate syrup (most authentically Fox’s U-Bet) that results in a sparkling take on chocolate milk and tastes much better than it sounds.
Everyone who visits Katz’s regularly has their own favorites, but if there is a hidden gem it is dessert. Most visitors default to the excellent cheesecake, which is understandable because it’s a New York deli specialty and very good, but a friend recently and adamantly insisted that Katz’s has the best chocolate babka ever, so I tried it, and she was right. For those unfamiliar, babka is a loaf-style cake with overlapping irregular layers of chocolate (or another flavor) and sweet dough. It is one of those pastries like coffee cake that often looks better than it tastes, but the one at Katz’s is exceptional. It also comes in a cinnamon version. It is sold as a whole loaf, so be prepared to take most home, but it is worth the effort.
Part of the wonder of eating at Katz’s is visiting a 131-year-old institution, but for those who just want a taste, there is now a stand at the DeKalb Market Hall in Brooklyn, as well as an extensive mail-order menu.
Pilgrimage-worthy?: Yes – it’s America’s most famous deli serving up world-class pastrami and other sandwiches in a historic and colorful setting.
Rating: OMG! (Scale: Blah, OK, Mmmm, Yum!, OMG!)
Price: $$ ($ cheap, $$ moderate, $$$ expensive)
Details: 205 East Houston Street, New York City; 212-254-2246; katzsdelicatessen.com
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