There are a few New York City institutions that are worth trudging through tourists in order to experience—the Empire State Building is not one of these institutions. What is undoubtedly worth the time, effort, cash and crowd is the Big Apple’s seminal source of classic Jewish comfort food, Katz’s Delicatessen.
Katz’s began as a small deli in New York’s Lower East Side and has since gained legendary status as part of the city’s cultural palate, particularly with its trifecta of almost mythical sandwiches: pastrami, corned beef and brisket, all on rye.
Customers cannot go wrong with any one of these three delectably decadent meat-delivery systems. Here’s a less-than-definitive ranking of my three favorite Katz’s sandwiches, ranked from most-treasured, to slightly less-treasured to definitely still-treasured-just-not-as-much.
No. 1 Pastrami on rye, mustard
Katz’s homemade pastrami on rye is one of the world’s most celebrated sandwiches, period. Cured for two-to-four weeks and rubbed with a blend of proprietary spices before it is smoked for about three days and finally boiled and then steamed, the pastrami at Katz’s is a true labor of love. Piled onto rye with a loving balance of fat and lean, it is also a flavor of love.
The addition of spicy brown mustard cuts through the saltiness for a bite that touches all the senses in all the right ways. If you like your pastrami a little fatty, but feel weird saying “fatty,” ask for it “juicy” and the counterman will get it.
No. 2 Brisket on rye, gravy side
From the preparation to the taste, brisket is vastly different from pastrami. But Katz’s care and strict adherence to the process results in a brisket sandwich good enough to make one reconsider ordering pastrami on rye for the 30th time in a row. The brisket at Katz’s is slow roasted in Grandma’s gravy and boasts a deep, rich flavor that is serene and comforting. Some prefer to swap out rye bread for a club roll—that is completely acceptable with the brisket sandwich.
Ask for a side of gravy for dipping, as there can never be too much Grandma’s gravy in life. Throw in a half-sour pickle for cool refreshment in between mouthfuls of beef.
No. 3 Corned beef on rye, mustard
The corned beef at Katz’s is cured for 30 full days before it even sees a slicing knife, ensuring a complex profile of flavors and some of the most tender bites of beef ever committed to sandwich form. While it doesn’t pack as much chutzpah as the pastrami, the corned beef has garnered a well-earned following at Katz’s as a timeless throwback and an always-reliable option.
Take the sandwich to the limit by making it a Reuben with Swiss cheese and sauerkraut. While it certainly isn’t kosher, the Reuben is a mountain of a sandwich that can be a challenge to finish—but when it’s from Katz’s, the challenge is more delicious than daunting.
Katz’s Delicatessen, 205 East Houston St., corner of Ludlow Street, New York City, 212-254-2246, www.katzsdelicatessen.com