Culinary delights of the Lower East Side: Katz’s

October 25, 2010 • 5:38 am

The most famous culinary landmark of New York’s Lower East Side is Katz’s Delicatessen.  No doubt their estimable pastrami contributes to this, but the biggest factor was the deli’s appearance in the movie “When Harry Met Sally” (see below).

Katz’s, at 205 E. Houston Street, opened in 1888—it may be New York’s oldest restaurant.  While the Lower East Side is now only marginally Jewish, with most of my kinsmen having fled to Scarsdale or “uptown,” it retains several of the establishments that made it a culinary Mecca for all New Yorkers.  My nephew, Steven, just moved to New York to study film at Columbia. On my recent swing through the east coast, I decided to give the lad a taste of his heritage.  We had only one day, and several establishments to visit.  This made for a real pig-out, but all of those places are within a few blocks.

No trip to the Lower East is complete without a sandwich at Katz’s.  It’s unprepossessing from the outside:

But what gustatory treats lie within! You get a ticket at the door and present it at the counter.  To get a sandwich (pastrami is de rigeur) you go one-on-one with a counterman—the guy who slices the brisket.  You should leave a buck in the cup for a better sandwich, and by all means get it on rye bread, with the meat fatty. (You can ask for “lean” if you’re either watching the fat or you’re one of those misguided folks who regard food as medicine, but I wouldn’t recommend it.)  If you ask nicely they’ll give you a sample before making your sandwich.

Note the prices: they are HIGH (click twice to make the photos huge).  I actually prefer the pastrami at the Carnegie Deli uptown (their sandwiches are larger, too), but the old-time atmosphere at Katz’s is unmatchable:

Sadly, my nephew is a neophyte and insisted on getting corned beef (which is also good, but not as stratospheric as the pastrami); and since we were on an all-day nosh, we split a sandwich so I had to have that too.

My nephew nomming half a sandwich.  Can you spot his second culinary mistake? He’s having a beer.  All the cognoscenti know that there is only one thing suitable for drinking with pastrami or corned beef: Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray Tonic (you can see my own can at lower right).  It’s a celery-flavored soda whose sweetness and vegetal flavor perfectly complement the salted meat.  For some reason Steven thought the elixir ghastly, and too sweet.  (I still have hopes for him, though.)

Here’s a photo that Katz’s used for advertising during World War II.  Lucky was the Jewish soldier who got a salami in the foxhole!  (No pun intended.)  I love this photo because it really tweaks the strings of my DNA.  How much more Jewish can you get?

But, as I said above, what really made Katz’s famous among the goyim was its appearance in a crucial scene of “When Harry Met Sally,” for the deli is where the shiksa Sally (played by Meg Ryan) demonstrated to Harry (played by Billy Crystal) how a woman can fake an orgasm.  Although the movie wasn’t great, this scene certainly is.  Be sure to watch all the way to the end.  The appearance of Katz’s here is surely no accident: both the director, Rob Reiner, and the screenwriter, Nora Ephron, are landsmen.

Note that the shiksa is having turkey—and disassembles her sandwich—while Harry has corned beef.

For more on Katz’s, and some mouth-watering photos, read the Roadfood review.

46 thoughts on “Culinary delights of the Lower East Side: Katz’s

  1. Of course it’s also mentioned in the Cubs song (made more famous by the They Might Be Giants cover version) New York City, where the singer lists off the great places/things in NYC:
    Statue of Liberty, Staten Island Ferry, Co-op City, Katz’s and Tiffany’s;
    Central Park, Brooklyn Bridge, The Empire State where Dylan lived;
    Coney Island and Times Square; Rockefeller Centre, wish I was there.

  2. Boys & beer eh? Plus you get less beer in the US than over here (Over There to you!).

    Send a salami – I love that picture – looks like they were using them as shells!

  3. What a coincidence, Jerry! I haven’t been to NYC in ten years, but I was in Manhattan Saturday and made my first trip to Katz’s.

    Weird that you blog about it within 24 hours.

  4. Lucky was the Jewish soldier who got a salami in the foxhole!

    No wonder there are no atheists in foxholes, if that’s what it means. I guess I have a lot to learn about Yiddish slang.

      1. Geez, you seem to be going on and on about sandwiches from places I’ve lived around (2 blocks from Katz’s, and recently 15 minutes from Harold’s…depending on traffic). Stop it! I’m starving this morning!

  5. You are so mean putting this up! I am dying for that pastrami now!!! (Great bit though and what an uncle you are! Lucky young man is Steven!)

  6. Jerry: Next time you are in Seattle, try Salumi. Wonderful sandwiches with their own cured meats. The line up starts before opening at 11am.

  7. I’d definitely order a celery soda if I had a chance. A snow cone made with the syrup could be interesting, too.

    In my years in exile in Jersey, there was a Puerto Rican place in New Brunswick that had fantastic chicken with beans, rice & fried (green!) plantain, and with it the drink to get was a soda that tasted like bubble gum. Anyone know the name of such soda?

  8. Peter Luger Steak House is older than Katz’s. It’s in Brooklyn though, right across the Williamsburg Bridge. It’s expensive, cash-only, and reservations can be hard to get, but it’s the best steak you’ll ever have. (Johnny Carson called it the best meal he’s ever eaten, or something like that.) And some of the waiters there seem like they’ve been there since it opened.

  9. Salami in the foxhole: That’s hilarious.
    I’m going to be thinking that line all day, and laughing every time. I might pass on any “visualization, tho (okay, maybe not).

      1. Goyim from the midwest, of course.

        Until I moved to the East Coast, religious prohibitions such as not mixing meat with milk were absent from my cultural vocabulary.

        I suspect that the vast majority of tourists who wander into Katz’s would be stunned to learn just how many dietary rules are broken by the bacon cheeseburger.

  10. One day I’d like to follow Jerry around on his gastronomical educational tours.

    But then, I’d probably weigh at least 300 lbs soon afterwards. (I love food!)

    1. “All the cognoscenti know that there is only one thing suitable for drinking with pastrami or corned beef: Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray Tonic (you can see my own can at lower right).”

      Er, maybe you should let me pick the drinks. I would have gone with the amber ale, too.

  11. I couldn’t help noticing Steven’s T-shirt from the Ava Gardner museum in NC.
    That’s about the only thing worth visiting in Smithfield.

    I, too, take issue with your characterization of the movie.
    It’s neat to see the real place shown in the movie.

  12. Whenever I’m in the Montrose district in Houston, I make it a point to eat at Katz’s Deli there (owned/operated by a grandson of the New York Katzes). In my opinion, it’s the closest thing in Texas to a real Jewish delicatessin — WAY better than Kenny & Ziggy’s.

    1. He was there, of course. And he regards Ava (and I can’t disagree here) as the most beautiful movie star of all time.

  13. If anyone is ever in Connecticut Rein’s New York Style Deli is wonderful.

    It is just of I-84 in Vernon Rockville.

    1. Been to Rein’s several times, I was there Sunday, on the way back from Princeton. Rein’s is very good but not great. The liverwurst and chopped liver are wonderful. I had a whole whitefish (minus the head).

  14. I’m a goy, but I have to say that Cel-Ray is delicious and it is the perfect drink for pastrami or corned beef. Hmm…corned beef….drool…..

  15. $16 for a Ruben? I get the feeling this is like Canter’s Deli in LA. Way over-priced and cruising on its reputation more than its product. Although Canter’s isn’t nearly as over-priced as Katz’s, it’s merely just vastly over-rated.

    1. I’ve been to Canters and I’ve been to Katz’s, Carnegie, etc. There’s no comparison. Canters is about as close as I found in LA, and I do enjoy it, but if the NY delis are a 10, Canters is about a 6 or 7 (depending on what you get).

  16. Sorry but, pastrami?? You have got to be kidding! Get your sorry a** up to Montreal and go to Schwartz’s for a smoked meat sandwich! Now we’re talkin’. (My Canadian pride showing itself.)

  17. Forgive this left coaster, but the salami I commonly encounter is typically Italian.

    Half my heritage is Scandinavian, and I’m old enough to remember the tradition of making sausages (korv) at home and mailing them to distant family members. The recipes tended to favor pork and include potatoes as filler — in other words, poor peoples’ food, Swedish soul food, insanely salty — and are probably now nowhere available.

    This is just a roundabout way of explaining why, whenever I read of some gathering with an excess of male participation described as a “sausage fest”, I find myself salivating.

  18. Look at that corned beef! The corned beef I’ve been offered in the UK was processed and almost certainly from a can. We’re so used to it that I doubt anyone would try to sell a quality product here using the name.
    We tend to get ripped off badly over here,so the Katz prices don’t look too bad at all by comparison.
    Btw, ‘army’ and ‘salami’ rhyme quite well in standard UK English.

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