I spent a couple hours Friday eating and learning about the history of Katz’s Delicatessen on New York’s Lower East Side, which celebrates its 120th birthday this year. When I first ate there in 1991, I was just barely aware of the world’s oldest Jewish deli. Having been the location of a famous Meg Ryan scene in “When Harry Met Sally,” it was in the beginning of a revival. It’s a place that has become even more culturally significant with the rampant development and gentrification that has swept through Manhattan like a tidal wave.
I never really cared about that scene. I care about deli. I have been hankering to get down there since I heard about the making of a documentary about Katz’s, Katz’s: That’s All! The filmmaker is an émigré to New York from Uzbekistan of all places, Yura Dashevsky, whose m.o. is to contact famous deli patrons and talk to them about Katz’s. Given his background, interviewing-style and accent, he confesses that he is sometimes confused with the ersatz journalistic star of the neighboring country of Kazakhstan. I arranged to meet Dashevsky at Katz’s along with my friend Noam Cohen of The New York Times. I got much more of an experience – and much more to eat – than I originally expected.
Dashevsky introduced me to two men who run Katz’s, Robert Albinder, the deli’s general manager who has worked there for 32 years, and one of it’s owners, Alan Dell. While the trend of the deli business has been downward over the past several decades, both men told me that little of that has touched Katz’s, which has served as a national gold standard for pastrami and corned beef sandwiches. The sale of soup and turkey sandwiches have picked up over the years, but most patrons, when the want deli, are going to order exactly that when they walk into Katz’s. Back during my first visit, I was going through one of my episodic health kicks and attempted to order a turkey on rye. The deli man looked at me and said, “not here.” I ordered a pastrami.
Katz’s is a classic ticket system. You take a ticket. Go to the station of your choice – hot dog and knish, sandwich carver and pickles, drinks and sides. On the first go round I returned to my roots and had a pastrami on rye, pickles and coleslaw. Katz’s makes their own mustard and prepares their own deli meats. Dell oversees the selection of the meats that make up pastrami. The only appropriate cut, he cautions, is navel; if it’s not from the navel, it’s not pastrami. He maintains that many places today use the wrong cut of meat. “It has to have marbling,” he says. Katz’s also makes its own pickles and mustard.
I took a selection of pickles, whole sour, half sour and tomatoes. My preference is a crisp half sour pickle. Dell says there is a definite regional difference in pickle preference. New Yorkers tend to like the light green whole sour pickles; those from outside New York, the more mild half sours.
Katz’s draws celebrities from all walks of life. Some years ago a limo pulled up, a Secret Service officer got out, ordered and brought back a pastrami sandwich to go for President Clinton. Several weeks ago all five New York borough presidents met there.
Dashevsky had planned to interview me on camera with a plate of food in front of me. There was only one problem. I ate my sandwich too quickly. I had to get up again and order a hot dog and kasha knish. This kasha knish, made from buckwheat groats, had far more spice, flavor and moisture than is customary. He took a couple shots with the knish. But nothing seemed to work until Dell brought over yet another plate with slices of turkey, corned beef and brisket. The brisket, which I somehow had never ordered there, was the big surprise. I mean I was raised on the brisket sandwiches a the old B & D in Brookline and educated on the brisket at Elsie’s in Harvard Square — both now long gone. This brisket trumped all. It was perfectly tender and flavorful.
One of Katz’s slogans is “Send a salami to your boy in the army.” I brought one home to Boston to eat with the Fabulous Dana and my mother upon my return. Katz’s makes its salami itself and then allows it to harden hanging in the deli’s refrigerator. A real treat.Katz’s is a relatively new passion for Dashevsky, who came to New York in 1996, and first entered Katz’s in 1999. In his homeland, he ate salami, but never pastrami, which comes from Romania. But he’s preserving an important piece of food culture, Judaica and Americana.
Katz’s is located on Houston and Ludlow Street in Manhattan.