What’s Not To Love About Katz’s? New York’s Best Jewish Deli

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Everyone who goes to Katz’s for the first time will come away with sensory memories that linger forever. Outside, the old neon sign glows like a beacon day and night, seven days a week, Thanksgiving, Christmas and on weekends twenty-four hours a day. The place is big, and barebones, unadorned except for more than 750 patrons’ photos—including Mikhail Gorachev’s —and old New York beer brand signs like Piels, Schlitz and Schaefer. The noise is from people shuffling in and out, pulling back chairs and tables, ordering, plates and silverware hitting the worn Formica tables. The mingling aromas of steaming beef, franks and beans, pickling juices, sauerkraut, roasting turkeys, French fries is inebriating. You get a ticket on the way in, the countermen make your food—all meats are still hand-carved by masters who have been slicing for decades—then clips your ticket, and you move along quickly to get potatoes and drinks. And if you lose the ticket, tough beans, you pay a $50 charge.

And then there’s the sound of the swoon from those tasting the world’s greatest Jewish deli food. The most famous of swoons, of course, is that of the very WASP-y Meg Ryan faking an orgasm for the very Jewish Billy Crystal over pastrami sandwiches in When Harry Met Sally (1989), followed by a woman customer watching and telling the waiter, “I’ll have what she’s having.”

There is table service (for which you can use a credit card, otherwise cash only). So, you sit where countless others have plopped down for 120 years—who knows if Jerry Lewis or Leonard Bernstein sat there?—and look down at the massive amount of pastrami, tongue, brisket, turkey and other meats tucked into two slices of rye bread reaching a height of about four inches. To eat at Katz’s is to become part of a savory immigrant history only New York could embrace.

Katz’s began in 1888 as a small deli named Iceland Brothers om the Lower East Side , then the principal neighborhood for immigrant Jews from eastern Europe. In 1903 Willy Katz joined the store along with Harry Tarowsky, and the name was officially changed to “Iceland & Katz.” Then when Willy’s cousin Benny joined him in 1910, they bought out the brothers and it became just Katz’s Delicatessen and moved across the street in April 1917.

At first Katz’s clientele was mostly local Jews, although it was never a kosher deli, including performers from the Yiddish theater, and the National Theater on Houston Street. You’ll still find their photos on the walls. By the ‘30s Katz’s was attracting the show biz crowd from uptown (many of whom had once lived downtown) During World War II, with three owners’ sons in the service, Katz’s began the tradition of sending food to them under the (trademarked) banner, “Senda Salami To Your Boy In The Army”

Later on, when Willy and Benny Katz passed away, the store was left to Benny’s son-in-law Artie Maxstein and Harry’s son Izzy Tarowsky. A new generation found that they had no relatives to whom they could give the store, so long-time friend and restaurateur Martin Dell, along with son Alan and (son-in-law Fred Austin, officially bought into the partnership in 1988 on the 100th anniversary of the store. Alan’s son Jake officially joined the store in late 2009 and is currently in charge of all major operations.

Given its history as a true New York icon, it’s no wonder so many filmmakers have dragged their cameras into Katz’s for an scene that immediately establishes a connection to old New York food culture. The deli was in Contract on Cherry Street (1977), Donny Brasco

(1997), Across the Universe (2007), We Own the Night (2007), Enchanted (2002), even a French film, Nous York (1912).

Things move swiftly along the counter line at Katz’s, with a staff 140 making it run. That counter goes through 30,000 lbs. of meat each week, and the prep process hasn’t changed: “Our corned beef and pastrami is cured using a slower method, which best flavors the meat, without injecting chemicals, water, or other additives to speed the process. Our finished product can take up to a full 30 days to cure, while commercially prepared corned beef is often pressure-injected (or “pumped”) to cure in 36 hours. Yep, you read that right. 30 days vs. 36 hours.”

What do order? Anything, but the pastrami and corned beef are requisite to get the unique flavor of what Katz’s does better than any other deli in town. Alas, that is a result of the attrition among delis, which once proliferated, many strict Glatt kosher, with strict rules of never serving meat with dairy. Those were called “appetizing” stores. Few were as big or so devoted to sandwiches as Katz’s; most were small and served lox, smoked fish, bagels and pastries. A few notable names still exist: the 2nd Avenue Deli, Sarge’s and Barney Greengrass and the Carnegie in Manhattan, Frankel’s in Brooklyn and Liebman’s in the Bronx. To one degree or another, they all do many items well. But only Katz’s, which has had well more than a century to first perfect, then to maintain, great deli, has every flavor down pat.

All the delis are now expensive, but as every aficionado knows, you’re going to bring at least half a sandwich home for another meal.

Oh, and Katz’s is likely to be there whenever you go. They own the building.

Katz’s

205 East Houston Street

212-254-2246

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