The Great Pastrami Taste-Off: Katz's in New York vs. Langer's in Los Angeles
"What really blew us all away was the double-baked bread."
Ever since I wrote my pastrami story for the New York Times a few years ago, I've wanted to conduct a taste test between Katz's Delicatessen in New York and Langer's Delicatessen in Los Angeles. Why? Many reasons, actually. I never tasted them side by side for that story. Nora Ephron opined on the record in the New Yorker that Langer's served the best pastrami sandwich in America. Jonathan Gold stated categorically that Los Angeles has a far superior deli culture to New York's. David Sax said the same thing in his book, Save the Deli.
So aiming to settle this East Coast vs. West Coast rap-style pastrami controversy, we decided to conduct a definitive pastrami taste test. And we invited the Los Angeles apologist herself, Nora Ephron, to participate. She graciously accepted, in record time.
In the name of pastrami globalization, we tried to obtain some smoked meat from Schwartz's in Montreal. Though Canadian meat outlets don't ship to the United States, we had one of our food blogger friends Katerine buy some at the shop and send it to us.
But the best-laid plans of men and pastrami went awry.
We followed our FedEx number with bated breath, and saw the box from Canada arrive at my house just in time. We exulted in our successful smuggling foray. I called my wife and asked her to put the meat in the fridge.
"What smoked meat? There was only rye bread in the box."
Our hearts and stomachs sank. The Royal Canadian Mounties (or somebody) had dashed our ultimate pastrami taste test hopes and dreams. Nevertheless, we vowed to persevere. Neither rain nor sleet nor the Canadians were going to stop us from our appointed pastrami task.
Katz's: Three pounds of hand-sliced pastrami and a loaf of rye bread, along with some mustard.
Langer's: Two pounds of machine-sliced pastrami, sent by Norm Langer, along with very specific instructions on how to reheat the meat in the microwave. Plus two loaves of rye bread, one sliced and one unsliced.
In her New Yorker piece, Ephron categorically stated that the source of Langer's superiority was its double-baked rye—after purchase, the bread is baked a second time just before serving for a crispy outer crust. So in an attempt to replicate the Langer's experience, we put the unsliced loaf of rye in my preheated oven, right on the rack for twenty minutes—just as Norm Langer instructed us.
We heated the Katz's pastrami and piled it on the rye bread. The handsliced Katz's pastrami was delicious, tender and peppery, but the single-baked Pechter's rye was singularly unimpressive.
The Langer's pastrami was a little more peppery, a little spicier, though the machine slicing meant it didn't have the magical nooks and crannies of the hand-sliced Katz's. But my God, what really blew us all away was the double-baked bread. It was so good we experimented with giving the Katz's pastrami the double-baked bread treatment. It was a revelatory Clintonesque moment.
It's the double-baked bread, stupid.
Ephron agreed that the double-baked bread was the difference-maker—but in the name of ultimate pastrami fairness and equanimity she wanted to taste the Langer's pastrami hand-sliced after being sent whole.
We agreed to reconvene doing just that, and also to redouble our efforts to defeat the forces of Canadian pastrami security.
Stay tuned for Part Two—the East Coast v. West Coast v. Canada pastrami taste test. The next step? A journey between Montreal and New York by car. With our very own pastrami mule.