Katz’s Delicatessen

I still find it strange that I’m actually living in New York. I’ve largely moved beyond the pinch-me-I-am-dreaming feelings to ones that are more about just thinking that it’s weird that I’m still here, surviving and getting to feel like this is a city that will somehow be mine. But that doesn’t remove the knowledge that I will one day be gone, either because I want something new or because survival is no longer possible given the expense. But even though that day is not near, I still have a running list in the back of my mind of things that I know I will regret not doing before I leave. A slightly different list than one of foods I want to try or places I want to visit. Having a hot pastrami sandwich at Katz’s was definitely on the regret list. Especially as it’s been 11 years since my first trip here. There is no question that it is a must-visit New York City institution, especially now that many historic establishments are shutting down. Of course, there is the When Harry Met Sally connection, too, which was just as good of a reason for me to make a long overdue first visit.

I can do tourists, lines, awkward service, and surly staff. The pastrami was what kept me at bay for so long. Despite being a happy meat eater, I still haven’t developed much of an affinity for rich flesh, especially that which is smoked. I’ve always been fine with bacon, but I never really seek it out. Chunks of pork belly can be too much for me. Southern BBQ has yet to convert me. I can easily eat a bowl of fat whipped cream, but there’s just something about smoke where a few bites can be more than enough. I went near starving for some assurance that I would give it a fair chance. My order was the standard pastrami on rye.

I now understand the importance and the skill of the men who cut the meat because the hefty cuts were indeed like butter. The ease with which a bite could be taken was unbelievable to me. No pulling, tearing, or cutting needed. Dentures would be optional for my grandmother, I’m guessing. The heat and brine of the mustard and pickles are essential for balancing the strong flavours of the warm, fatty pastrami, and the pickles give textural contrast to the soft meat/bread. I don’t think the sandwich is too big for one person. There is some height there, but rye slices are small. The sandwich is on the equivalent of like a salad or dessert plate. Unless you’re a child, no one should have any issues managing it. But this brings up two things:

One, even if size is not an issue, the richness of the meat can be. By the end, I was beyond satiated. The spices and the smoke (and the fat) turn a small sandwich into a sizable meal, and I could feel it. I am someone who often doesn’t register being full, but on this day, I was very full*. I probably shouldn’t have finished it, but that pastrami. I also now understand why people flock to it. It’s not a flavour I will crave, but I get it now.

Two, the height of the sandwich makes it easy for slices to slip out. Those were the best bites I took. I enjoy sandwiches, obviously, but that rye bread is as awful as I’d read about. Perhaps even worse. The texture was like a kitchen sponge, and it’s easy just to say that’s what it tasted like, too. The only redeeming quality is that it didn’t fall apart from the meat juices. See? Kitchen sponge.

*I made room for Dominique Ansel’s burrata soft-serve ice cream, mind you, about an hour later.

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