It started in Poland. And Romania and Russia. And, of course, Germany. Two million Jews, long separated, settled in the US, many in a small parcel of Manhattan known as the Lower East Side. They lived in tenements, they bought food from pushcarts. and in time, those pushcarts became markets and small sit-down restaurants.
A century later, not much remains. Except Katz’s, of course. The corner of Houston and Ludlow Streets has seen its share of changes–from a Jewish community to a dangerous place popular with drug addicts and ne’er-do-wells, to its modern incarnation as home to various dot.coms, NYU students, and those with enough money to live in the neighborhood. It’s the oldest deli in the country, and among the survivors. (Not a bad starting place: learn some Yiddish from Katz’s.)
Like good barbecue (which uses similar cuts of beef, including the brisket and the navel), the proper preparation of pastrami requires a great deal of loving care. It’s dry-rubbed, then allowed to cure for as long as two weeks, then smoked for about five hours. It’s a costly process that involves a few dozen steps, some at the meat processor, more at the store. Most stores cut corners and buy meat injected with flavor. The best stores have their own processes, including the best way to cut the meat (always hand-cut, never by machine!) A good sandwich contains about a half pound of the succulent, slightly fatty, slightly salty, slight smoky red meat; a ridiculous sandwich, served, mostly, to tourists who now frequent Manhattan’s The Stage and the Carnegie Deli (both located between Times Square and Carnegie Hall), weighs a pound. (These are very smart, if very full, tourists. The pastrami at both the Stage and the Carnegie smells, and tastes, fabulous. But there is lot of it!)
Sadly, I’ve just named half of Manhattan’s Jewish delicatessens. In times past, New York’s kosher delis (not always completely kosher; times change), there were dozens. Now, there are a handful. All good. Some better than the best. Katz’s is in the better category, a definite must-do for visitors to Manhattan. Arguably, the reopened 2nd Avenue Deli is better still. There’s Artie’s on the upper west side. Sarge’s is a good neighborhood place (once, I sat next to Abbie Hoffman). On Manhattan’s upper east side, Pastrami Queen is another good choice.
So what’s so special? Start with a good pastrami sandwich. The flavor is powerful, sweet and peppery, salty and smoky, a blend that smells wonderful and tastes even better–when the meat is prepared the right way, it’s over-the-top, or as Food Network’s Guy Fieri would say, “a one way trip to flavor town!” Pastrami can be eaten on a roll, but it is so much finer with good crusty Jewish rye bread (must be fresh). Many people insist upon a dark brown mustard (Gulden’s), but I’m not a fan. I do, however, insist upon both half-sour and sour pickles on the side. A proper pickle will make a cracking sound when you bite in, and will explode with some juice. The appropriate beverage accompaniment would be a (vanilla) cream soda or a black cherry soda, made by a long-time Brooklyn brand: Dr. Brown’s. If you’re a purist, Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray soda is an even better choice (it’s made with celery seeds). Dr. Brown’s soda is still independently made, and you can (and should) buy it in New York City and Florida grocery stores (or online).
Okay, back to the deli menu. For some, the powerful punch of pastrami is too much, so the fall-back choice is corned beef. This is not Irish corned beef, but it is similar. It’s salty and a bit smoky, but not peppery. It’s milder. It’s delicious–but beware of corned beef sold in places that are not serious about their pastrami. The result will be salty, but ordinary, just a wad a salted meat. Of course, you can go for roast beef or turkey (often freshly cut), and these are just fine, but not so different from what you will find elsewhere. Sometimes, you’ll find rolled beef (sort of a cross between pastrami and roast beef), and often, you’ll find tongue. Yes, cow’s tongue, sliced as deli meet. The tongue is cured, like corned beef, and it tastes great, but then, you find yourself thinking that you are eating a slice of a cow’s tongue, and well, pastrami may be an easier choice.
A good pastrami sandwich can be quite filling, not something you should enjoy alone. Bring a friend. That way, you can rationalize a side dish. And there is no better side dish than a potato knish (KUH-nish). It’s a fist-sized potato dumpling, filled with mashed potato, onion and spices, then baked in a very, very thin pastry shell. Actually, even better (and even more filling, a meal in itself) is the kasha knish. Kasha is a buckwheat groat, enjoyed either as a knish or as part of another deli favorite, kasha varnishkis (same kasha, this time with pasta bow ties and, in the best delis, a thin brown gravy).
Hey, this blog article is already getting long, and we haven’t even left Manhattan. There’s good stuff to be eaten in the other four boroughs, and (many would say) even better stuff in Los Angeles (where the NY delis best customers moved), and wonderful surprises in a handful of other places in the US and abroad. The tour continues next week.
Meantime, if this article has made you hungry, two options. First, get yourself to Manhattan this week. (Katz’s is open late.) Second, dig into Save the Deli by David Sax. Nobody knows more, and I suspect, few people care more, than this traveling author.