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.