Some Food I Can Never Go Wrong With – Katz’s Pastrami

I grew up on Long Island, and one of my favorite things in the world is a good Jewish-style Delicatessan. Sadly, while there are a few outside of New York worth eating at in a pinch (and some of the better ones in Los Angeles certainly have their partisans), the best deli food can be especially hard to find in my travels. There’s certainly not any worth mentioning in my home town of DC.

So when I head to New York I almost invariably have to seek out my favorite Pastrami, which comes from Katz’s on the Lower East Side.

More often than not I’m busy, and have any number of restaurant meals booked and obligated, and so I’ll find the only chance to head over there being on the way out of town. No matter how little time I have left, it’s a must-do. And a couple of weeks ago was no exception.

Now, being the sucker that I am for this kind of food, and being nostalgic for my childhood, I can find it hard to resist on the street as well. Not nearly as many food carts offer knishes as used to, so when I find one that does — against my better judgment — I’m unable to pass it by.

This time was no exception:

But I really should know better, it’s not as though a knish on the street is going to be the best I can do. In this case I was paying for the decision over the next couple of hours before heading over to try out the new Lotus of Siam.

Fortunately, Katz’s was a Sunday afternoon opportunity to redeem the deli component of the trip. I’ve written about Katz’s before, it’s almost always packed on a weekend afternoon and always delivers the goods.

Here’s the packed entrance and exit

And the chaotic lines to wait in for food

They do have tables with waiter service alone the side of the restaurant. Otherwise, just send someone in your party to stake out a table while you wait for your food. The place to start is with the sandwiches, and each sandwich maker — known as a cutter since they’re slicing the meat fresh for you — has their own line. Do your best to judge the shortest, it’s usually farther in, though personally I always pick the same line, the guy who is an institution there and is usually in the background whenever there are TV shots of the place. Great guy, but he can be slow if he winds up chatting while helping one of the regulars.

This is, of course, the restaurant used in the famous “I’ll have what she’s having” scene from “When Harry Met Sally.”

There are separate lines for sides like cole slaw and drinks (gotta go with Dr. Brown’s), and also for knishes and the like though I just had my guy grab a couple of knishes while helping me out with sandwiches in order to save a line.

Now, I should say — in my opinion only their Pastrami is actually stand out. Everything else is merely fine, but not the absolute best in New York deli food.

I had everything package to go because of time, even though I planned to eat in the restaurant. My original flight home was cancelled, I had spent time messing with that and had organized a booking on an earlier train. Time was tight.

So the presentation wasn’t much. But I wasn’t there for the presentation.

The main event was of course the pastrami.

We finished our sandwiches, grabbed a cab and headed to Penn station .. arriving literally as our train came up on the board, and only after walking the last several blocks to the station because of traffic. Katz’s had nearly cost us our train back to DC, but it was certainly worth it.

Update: As studio253 notes in the comments, and as I should have mentioned, Katz’s is cash only. They give each person a ticket on the way in, the ticket is noted with how much you owe for your food, and you pay on the way out. Now, my wife and I go in and they hand us two tickets. I just have them put everything on one, pay off of that, but return both the used ticket with pricing and the blank one as we leave.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I love Katz’s deli! Especially their pastrami! Too bad I am in Calif–I would go more often if I lived in NYC.

    I look forward to eat at Katz’s everytime I’m in NYC.

  2. For those in LA, the best (hand cut) pastrami is at Langer’s (not Cantor’s–but that is a good deli, too) near downtown LA, and according to David Sax, who wrote the book about the best delis in America called “Save the Deli: In Search of Perfect Pastami, Crusty Rye and the Heart of Jewish Delicatessen””–it is the best in the country!

  3. For those in LA, Johnnie’s Pastrami in Culver City is also very good, been there since 1952. A bit pricey, but I usually only eat half of the sandwich and take the rest home, since it is so large.

  4. Love this blog if it isn’t miles and points its covering food.Gary your a legend!
    I consider the Carnegie Deli to be the gold standard of NY delis having lived there all my life before moving west in recent years
    Corned beef is heavenly and pastrami up there
    each bite closes off yet another set of arteries
    Who is complaining though? 🙂 is Katz really worth the trip?

  5. Katz’s is NOT cash only, as one may pay by credit card towards the rear of the restaurant. I do this every time I am in New York and visit Katz’s Deli.

    I order the exact same meal, except I order my pastrami extra lean. There is a place within walking distance that actually makes the knishes…

  6. Brian,

    I don’t ever recall seeing a cash register in the back. Is it near the fries area, or is it around the corner? Do tell.

  7. Credit cards are accepted at the last counter – where they pack stuff to be shipped.

    Personally, I think Katz’s is superior to Carnegie. While the food is almost as good at the Second Avenue (and, of the three, is the only one that is actually Kosher, if that is important to you), I think that the atmosphere at Katz’s is far superior to both.

    I do disagree that the only thing at Katz’s that is stand-out is the pastrami. It may be the best, but I prefer the corned beef, and the brisket is no slouch. There are others who rave about their (of all things) hot dogs. The potato pancakes are a worthy side dish.

    Lastly – @Gary – If you need a knish fix while in the vicinity of Katz’s, walk about two blocks and hit Yonah Schimmel’s Knishery. It’s the real deal, with both sweet and savory varieties available.

  8. Interesting post from someone who explored so many “non-kosher” restaurants of the world! 🙂

  9. Next time you are in NYC, check out Mile End in Brooklyn. Recently voted NYC’s best deli by Zagat Survey. I also second the Yonah Schimmel suggestion.

  10. Thanks Steve for the heads up you sound like you know your food.Any idea what brand of hot dogs they are useing at Katz?

  11. @don h: Carnegie is closed permanently. (A horrible shame.)

    Gary: Next time you’re in South Florida (sometimes mistaken for New York City south), there are several excellent delis here. My favorite is Gramercy Deli on Jog Rd. just south of Atlantic Avenue in Delray Beach.

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