This is the fifth installment in a new series called Is It Still Good? Eater NY will be revisiting long-established restaurants that have acquired towering reputations and still generate plenty of traffic to find out if the food quality justifies our continued admiration. The last review was Corner Bistro.
If you last stepped into Katz’s Delicatessen 35 years ago, you’d barely recognize it now. There were almost no celebrity photos on the bare walls and few tourists, either. The sprawling, paneled space, garishly lit by fluorescent lights and configured like a giant L, mainly hosted working men in jeans and uniform shirts unceremoniously gobbling two-fisted sandwiches. Even at lunch the space was half-empty, and displayed a fusty and antique quality that filled me with wonder. Now, the place is so crowded that a line forms outside on Houston Street, and just getting a sandwich inside can take 10 or 15 minutes. Like our rickety subway system, Katz’s is a survivor.
As the city’s most important and distinguished restaurant, the place is complex in its origins and development, as the accretion of signs inside and out attests. Like Delmonico’s — which began life as a French pastry shop, but today is more of a steakhouse — Katz’s started out quite differently, as a smaller deli that made its own sausages. This is evidenced by the sign Wurst Fabric (Yiddish for “sausage maker”) on the Ludlow Street side. Oddly, the sign also reads 1898, but that has been crudely altered to 1888, which is the true founding date. Much of Katz’s day-to-day history over 130 years is lost in the murk.
Sausages remain at the institution’s cholesterol-clogged heart, and you can still get a salami sandwich there, though few seem to. During World War II, “Send a Salami to Your Boy in the Army” became its catchy slogan. Then, as now, only real New Yorkers knew that “salami” rhymed with “army” if pronounced in the local dialect.
Yes, Katz’s remains a place of wonder — tourist hordes, menu failures, and annoying celebrity photos aside. Almost everyone knows that when you go, a pastrami sandwich is the thing to get, though the clueless opt for a reuben, not realizing that this does violence to the spirit of the Jewish delicatessen with its mixture of meat and cheese, though Katz’s has never been kosher. The fame of Katz’s pastrami has traveled around the world, and made it one of New York City’s most celebrated culinary products, rivaled only by pizza.
That pastrami is lustrous, crusted with blackened spices, veined with fat, and flaunting a carmine color that will set your mouth to watering if you’ve tasted it before, and most fressers I know have had it many, many times. The method of making the sandwich — the meat cut by hand with a long sharp knife by a line of white-costumed carvers — makes it taste even better.
But my purpose here is not to praise the excellent pastrami, but to gauge Katz’s overall worth as a restaurant, taking into account as critics must do all of its products, good and bad. The crowdedness and difficulty of ingress have already been noted, though aficionados go mid-evening, when tables are available, because what tourist wants a sandwich for dinner? I also discovered that, between the hours of 8 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. the place is almost empty, and little is as thrilling these days in this overcrowded city as walking into an empty Katz’s.
I went there at that hour to try the breakfasts. One must order at the hot dog counter in the front window, and omelets are the main offering: pastrami, corned beef, lox and onions, salami (considered something of a New York classic in itself), and the one I ordered due to its arcane nature, tongue ($17.95). The guy cooked my glottal omelet on the flat top used for hot dogs, which was kind of funny. The finished dish was a thin egg sleeve flecked with innumerable tidbits of tender veal tongue. It came with buttered toast, coffee, and orange juice. Really, not a bad deal, though the coffee was strictly diner joe.
But even better than the tongue omelet were the blintzes. I’d expected some flash-frozen product with a gummy wrapper, but what appeared after a 10-minute wait were three plump, powdered sugar crepes with crisp edges and fresh cheese that tumbled out when cut into. Sour cream and apple sauce came alongside, but at my request a little cup of blueberry compote was also provided. These may be the best blintzes in town, beating the hell out of Veselka’s. Order them ($12.95) at the salami counter in the rear.
Another good breakfast bet are the latkes (potato pancakes), also ordered at the salami counter, though the insides are more pureed than shredded. They are served piping hot and demonstrate that the kitchen is really on top of its frying game. A possible exception to this are the steak fries that many customers order in addition to the sandwiches. If you get them as soon as a fresh batch is carried across the dining room on a tray held aloft, they can be quite decent. If allowed to cool and grow mushy, they’re awful.
There are several other Jewish deli staples available at one counter or another — mastering the counter system is a major accomplishment. In fact, the multiple order stations is only one of Katz’s enduring quirks. Another is the ticketing system, whereby you are required to take a paper ticket yanked from a roll by a sentry at the front door, with your final tab added up as you make your way across the room via a series of grease pen additions and cross outs. Then you must present your smeary ticket at the register as you leave, and settle your bill, preferably in cash. And woe betide the pilgrim who misplaces their ticket and incurs a stiff fine!
The Jewish deli staples you may not have noticed before include chopped liver, noodle pudding, a sausage called kishka or stuffed derma, square and round knishes, bagels with lox and cream cheese, and a matzo ball soup that still has me sitting on the fence. You get one giant sphere in a consommé floating with diced vegetables that contains no discernible chicken. Friends of mine love it, especially as a hangover remedy.
I don’t have to praise the hot dogs, which are wonderful. But don’t be tempted by Katz’s chili con carne, which contains the random kidney bean and is more like meat mush. Another dish that doesn’t belong is the Philly cheesesteak ($18.45). The bread it comes on is all wrong, the beef in little sautéed nuggets instead of silky small slices. There’s a cheeseburger available at Katz’s, too. Will someone please try it for me?
One rarely ordered item in a hot dog vein is knoblewurst, a thick hank of aggressive garlic sausage offered with a single piece of rye bread for $8.95. In the 80s, when Katz’s was always open past midnight, it was the regular post-gig nosh for many an East Village punk band. Smear on the grainy mustard and heap up the sauerkraut!
And now on to the sandwiches. These are divided into cold and hot, and all sorts of plebeian deli fare you never need to try are included, such things as egg salad and tuna salad, including the legendary “individual can tuna.” Things get more interesting with the bologna sandwich ($17.95), piled way too high on the rye bread, as if you were King Midas and the luncheon meat were gold. The bologna, while beauteous to look at, is too bland and lacking in salt and garlic.
Some hot sandwiches are unexpectedly good. Pulled from its secret receptacle on the counter behind the carvers — who are referred to, somewhat frighteningly, as “cutters” — the turkey is superb, moist and fragrant. Just make sure you ask for some Russian dressing to be slathered thereon. The house mustard doesn’t really do much for this sandwich. The corned beef is distinguished, fine grained compared to the pastrami, but it’s a little too salty for my taste, perhaps the result of the 30-day cure boasted of on the website.
Which brings me to a Katz’s hack I’ve been using for years. The brisket used to make the pastrami and corned beef is a fallible beast, just like it is in Texas barbecues. One brisket can be tender and supple, which another is obdurate and shot with gristle. Accordingly, I’ve always ordered the combo on rye ($24.45), which includes a stack of pastrami and a stack of corned beef, one of which will certainly be “on” that day. If you’re lucky, both will be excellent, and the melding of flavors is a good thing, too. The enhanced size of the combo also means that the sandwich is more shareable between two diners.
So how does Katz’s fare overall as a restaurant? Order the pastrami, blintzes, hot dogs, or turkey, and you find yourself in one of the city’s finest restaurants, perhaps washed down with a Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray soda. Order the Philly cheesesteak, bowl of chili, or the cold steak fries, and you might as well be eating in 7-Eleven.