Katz’s has been around since 1888 and has endured in the hearts of both locals and tourists alike. I found myself wandering into the area after running an errand at REI and thought that I would drop by to see what the fuss was about.
The food at Katz speaks for itself, as does the line of people outside that does not seem to shrink whatever time of day I pass by, whichever day of the week it is. The service is lovely and the experience unique. While it might be confusing and intimidating the first time to see the mass of people waiting at the counter. There is a method to the madness so to speak.
Upon arrival at the door, a gentleman opened the door and ushered me in saying “The fastest way to get something to eat is to head straight to the counter”. He then hands me a yellow ticket and I correctly conclude that it works dim sum style. You order everything you want, the service staff marks it down on your ticket and you get the bill shock only at the end. Well actually the bill isn’t that shocking since all prices are upfront but I shall get to that later.
There are six counters serviced by men of a variety of ages and races. They wield large forks and sharp, long knives. I headed to line 6, the furthest, shortest line where the server was a smaller built guy with the aloof demeanor of a seasoned pro. Looking around nonchalantly, he swiftly carved up a hunk of meat with great efficiency, packing it all in between two pieces of bread with a generous helping of mustard.
I wait patiently behind the 4 others in front of me, observing the people in front of me carefully lest I be “one of those” clueless people. While they work with speed, I didn’t feel hurried at all. I spied the man ahead of me tasting two chunks of pastrami sliced and slathered with fresh mustard. Do they allow tasting? Is he regular? Should I eat the brisket? or pastrami? Is Rye the only kind of bread I can have? Should I have cow tongue? Is this place cash only?
“NEXT VICTIM PLEASE!” hollered the man at my line as he struck his knife on the chopping board swiftly a couple of times. Chunks of meat from the previous cut dislodge themselves from the knife in preparation for the next carve. Moving up, I decide to go with the most tried and tested item, a pastrami sandwich for the princely sum of $19. Yes. Nineteen bucks for what is essentially a sandwich. However, I always believe in giving an establishment the best chance of impressing me on their terms. Getting the hot dog or something cheaper isn’t going to be fair to them. I don’t mess with whatever they say works and if I don’t like it, I just don’t come back.
He carved up some meat in front of him and then deciding it’s not going to be enough, he turns around and spears a new piece from a cabinet full of meat and lands it on the cutting board, chopping and carving away again. He drops 2 rough cut chunks on a small dish in front of me at the counter and asked me if I want mustard. Yes please.
He carries on chopping up the meat and leaves me to it. The meat is steaming hot and the smokey rub falls off in bits and pieces when you handle it. I grab a piece and push it into the mound of mustard freshly wiped off his knife onto the plate. The meat falls apart. With much of the rub clinging to the surface it tastes really great. I mop up the bits that fall off with my fingers and finish the second piece as quickly as the first. My goodness. Coupled with the mustard it really makes a great combination, satisfying and rich. You just have to try it yourself. I suppose they let you taste the meat on the spot as kind of a way to tell you “the meat was this good at the point I carved it up, it’s not my fault if you eat this 3 hours later and decide it’s only so-so”. He stuffs the meat in between 2 slices of rye bread and places in a on a plate, accompanied my 2 different kinds of pickle before taking my ticket, marking it with the total cost and hands it back to me.
I finished half the sandwich and packed the other half for YX while having a great conversation with a couple from Boston, Mass. They share a slice of cow tongue with me and point me to a sign above my head that marks the very spot where Harry met Sally. It was a nice conversation followed by a 360 photo, probably a story for another time.
While a definitely great sandwich for meat lovers, everything just feels a bit pricier than I would prefer. However, considering the cost of an average meal in New York, the service you get and the quality of the meats in addition to the fact that it’s really more of an experience than a meal, it was a very worthwhile eating experience from the time I stepped in to the time I left. Comparing it to the salt beef sandwich from the Brass Rail, Selfridges in London just seems unfair as this one is infinitely more meaty, substantial and leaves you with a fuller belly and more of a story to tell.
Parting pro-tip: You can pay by card at the very end of the service counter as the exit only takes cash.