Katz's Deli: Beyond the Pastrami

"I didn't even know that Katz's had a printed and laminated menu."

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[Photographs: Robyn Lee]

Katz's Delicatessen

205 East Houston Street, New York, NY 10002 (at Ludlow; map); 212-254-2246; katzdeli.com‎
Service: Countermen are brusquely charming, waiters are right out of central casting
Setting: Cavernous l-shaped dining room and counter
Compare It To: Second Avenue Deli, Carnegie Deli
Must-Haves: Besides a pastrami on rye and a hot dog: chicken salad sandwich, pastrami reuben, pastrami and eggs, chicken noodle soup
Cost: $20 for a huge sandwich and a soda
Grade: A for anything made with the pastrami, B+ for the chicken salad and the chicken noodle soup, B for the beef stew and the cheesecake

I've been eating at Katz's Delicatessen for more than forty years, but up until last week I had never ordered off a menu there. In fact, I didn't even know that Katz's had a printed and laminated menu.

Why? Because said menus are only found on the tables with waiter service, and I always get my own food at Katz's. I regarded the kitschy, grease-stained signs above the counter people to be the closest thing Katz's had to a menu. And I thought I knew what to get and what to avoid. My three go-to foods at Katz's are a pastrami sandwich, a hot dog, and (if I'm feeling frisky) a knoblewurst.

I say this knowing the rye bread the pastrami sandwich is made with is lousy, and the club rolls are no better; that the French fries are frozen steak fries that are invariably soggy and heavy; and the no-longer-made-in-house slaw tastes like the same stuff you get in delis and convenience stores all over New York.

But curiosity has always gotten the better of me. Nick Solares has written about a few breakfast items right here, and Alan Richman chimed in about other stuff to eat at Katz's as well. We owed it to ourselves to try the rest of the menu.

I know some of you are thinking that this is like going to Peter Luger's and ordering the salmon, or going to Shake Shack and not ordering a frozen custard or a Shack Burger, or going to Totonno's and ordering pasta. But hey, this is primary Katz's menu research we're talking about here. Our research even bore some fruit. Indeed, we found a few pleasant surprises—some which I might even return for.

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The pancake-style pastrami and eggs omelette ($13.45) comes with rye bread, pickles, and a big pile of those mediocre french fries. A Katz's insider told me to order the omelettes with hand-sliced meat, but I forgot; and the machine-sliced pastrami and corned beef turn tough in these omelettes. So the next time I ordered the pastrami and eggs with some handsliced deckle meat, and that was a far superior plate of food. And I do mean plate. These three-egg omelettes cover the oblong plates they come on, and then some.

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Sausage and eggs ($9.10 with toast, potatoes, orange juice, and coffee), made with rounds of knoblewurst fried on the griddle, was extremely satisfying. Unlike Mr. Solares, I didn't find it too salty at all.

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Did you know that you can order a half sandwich at Katz's, and that said half sandwich actually comes with a tossed salad? The half is plenty to eat, though the tossed salad is a sad melange of iceberg lettuce, cut carrots, and celery. Think of this combo as Katz's spa cuisine.

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[Photo: Ed Levine]

A most excellent Katz's chicken salad sandwich ($8.95) on whole wheat toast is another contender for my Katz's spa cuisine menu (though the copious amounts of mayo it's made with makes that designation problematic). It's made fresh every morning from poached chicken breasts, mayo, and celery. All it needs is a shake of salt. One note: It took a long time for my chicken salad sandwich to be made. It must be an infrequently requested menu item.

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[Photo: Ed Levine]

When I tried Katz's chicken soup a few years ago for my New York Times chicken soup story I wasn't all that impressed. But the chicken noodle soup ($5.15) I had this time around was terrific. It was loaded with flavor, plenty chicken-y, the broth was flavorful, there was plenty of fresh dill, and the thin noodles were not at all mushy. Richman hated his matzo ball soup at Katz's; maybe the kitchen has a problem with consistency. For $13.55, you can get a bowl of soup and half a pastrami sandwich.

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If you're looking for a few more calories and fat grams with your meal, order a Reuben ($15.75)—a very fine Reuben indeed—made with Katz's incomparable hand-cut pastrami, sauerkraut, Russian dressing, and Swiss cheese. If you decide to go the Reuben route, tell your sandwich maker to grill the rye bread. The sandwich needs the crunch of the griddle.

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[Photo: Ed Levine]

Katz's General Manager Kenny Kohn says the only difference between Katz's beef stew and Julia Child's beef bourgignon is he omits the mushrooms. Is that true? Quite possibly, because Katz's beef stew ($16.20 with a side salad) has plenty of tender chunks of beef, carrots, and potatoes, to go along with red wine that Kohn himself brings in from home. That said, the beef is a bit lean.

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[Photo: Ed Levine]

In the name of research, we also tried the burgers, made up front near the hot dog griddle. I ordered a medium-rare cheeseburger ($5.60) with grilled onions, and that's what I got. With a couple of shakes of salt, it's a perfectly respectable burger, but there is really no reason to order it—if you're in the mood for red meat, get the pastrami or the pastrami Reuben.

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Katz's serves a more than decent chili dog ($4.60) that packs a surprising cayenne kick.

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But the cheesesteak ($10.60) is unsurprisingly ordinary. And if you insist on having dessert at Katz's, go for a slice of plain S&S Cheesecake ($5.60), which is creamy, smooth, and just vanilla-y enough. If you have any of the other desserts in the sad-looking dessert case you're on your own.

So if you're at Katz's and not in the mood for pastrami on rye, you have a few options: the pastrami and eggs (order the eggs scrambled soft and tell them you want the deckle pastrami sliced by hand); the pastrami Reuben; the chicken salad sandwich on whole wheat toast; and the cheesecake for dessert.

As for Alan Richman? He's a terrific writer and grump who likes to stir the (chicken in the) pot. In the end, I return to Katz's over and over again to feel that great only-in-New-York energy that emanates from every neon sign in the joint, and, oh yes, that incredible pastrami in all its forms.

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