According to the MICHELIN Guide, New York City has over 75 Michelin-starred restaurants including five with the coveted three-stars. But when ny.eater.com recently wrote about the city’s, “most important and distinguished restaurant”, they weren’t talking about Thomas Keller’s Per Se or Eleven Madison Park, which was once named, “the best restaurant in the world.” It was Katz’s Deli they referred to, a delicatessen at the corner of Houston and Ludlow on the Lower East Side of New York, where they have been serving the planet’s best pastrami sandwiches since 1888!
I like fine dining as much as the next foodie. I’ve dined at The French Laundry in Napa’s wine country. I have a favorite restaurant in San Francisco where the homemade ridged pasta scented with truffles and foie gras is to die for. But the meal I dream of (often) is a pastrami sandwich from Katz’s with a large side of their sweet and creamy cole slaw, some half-sour pickles, and a couple of bottles of Dr. Brown’s Cream Soda. It’s heaven on a plate! Orgasmic, even. Throw in a square potato knish but I can pretty much guarantee that I’m going to be so busy stuffing my face with the pastrami that the knish will be wrapped up to be eaten the next day.
There are plenty of deli’s in the country with “acceptable” pastrami, some even that are pretty good. In the San Francisco Bay Area, a newcomer named Wise Sons Jewish Delicatessen is decent. The Refuge in San Carlos, CA clearly takes their pastrami very seriously. In Los Angeles, Brent’s Deli and Langer’s Deli are both excellent. New York has lost some of its institutions, most notably Stage and Carnegie, but the advocates of Katz’s and 2nd Avenue Deli are still fighting a religious war as to which is the best. And Kenny & Ziggy’s in Houston was pretty darn good, even if you needed a week to read the gargantuan menu.
With all these choices and more, what makes Katz’s pastrami head and shoulders above all the rest? Surprisingly, Jake Dell, a current third-generation owner of Katz’s revealed some of the secrets. It starts with the cut of meat. While cured meats can come from any part of the brisket, the best pastrami comes from the navel end. Want to guess what Katz’s uses? The pastrami is cured for two to four weeks, then a secret rub is applied, and then it’s smoked for several days. Almost none of the other delis smoke their own meat. And rather than curing for weeks, some use injection brining to pump salt into the meat under pressure and speed up the process from weeks to days. A lot of this is science but there’s art at the end. The master “cutters” at Katz’s, hand cut the pastrami with speed and finesse. Running it through a slicer like most delis do ruins the meat in my opinion.
Katz’s has special meaning to my family. For years, we’ve been flying in the pastrami from NY to CA for birthdays and other occasions. The pièce de résistance however was Father’s Day a couple of years ago when we created the “Dream Team” of pastrami sandwiches. Now don’t tell Katz’s but, frankly, their rye bread stinks. It’s average and that just won’t do. Los Angeles has perfected “double-baked” rye bread, warm and crunchy on the outside and chewy inside. David Sax, author of the wonderful book, “Save the Deli” expressed a similar opinion in an article in The Atlantic, “The Search for Real Rye.” Anyway, we took Katz’s magnificent pastrami and married it with the spectacular double-baked rye from Fred’s Bakery in Los Angeles. Fred’s supplies the rye bread to Langers and if you get there early enough, you can score a loaf or two of your own. The result was beyond sensational and I can’t wait to do it again.