Before I began this crazy caloric search for the best corned beef and pastrami in the city, there was only one place I thought deserved that title. How could you not go to Katz’s Delicatessen?

It’s the oldest delicatessen in the city (dating from 1888) and it just reeks of New York history (and cured meat). It’s the only deli still located in the Lower East Side. I mean, this was the area where the Eastern European Jews settled and brought corned beef and pastrami to the states. This is where it all went down. And Katz’s is where Donnie had a meeting and Sally faked an orgasm. After tasting the meat, I’m not so sure it was fake. I know, I know, girls, you’ve all faked orgasms at one point, but if I order you a combo sandwich at Katz’s, I don’t think I’ll have anything to worry about.

I discovered Katz’s many years ago and it’s a must-stop for any visiting friends or families – especially the ones who have never been there before.  And I was more than eager to re-visit for an official rating.

Katz’s is full of so many fun, quirky little traditions. Once inside, you’re handed a ticket and warned to not lose it. Supposedly, if you lose the ticket, they charge you $50.  Now, I always figured if I “lose my ticket”, I should make sure to spend over 50 dollars in food and then I’ll actually be getting a deal.

Then you have to pick yourself a line depending on what you want to order. The main lines are where the carvers make up your sandwiches, but there are separate lines for knishes, burgers, and beverages. Much like at Disney World (where I used to know the best rides to go to first based on crowd control), you should start at the main attractions. So I immediately wait in front of one of the carving stations.  I know some regulars (I’m not quite a regular yet) have their favorite carver, but as long as the meat ends up on the bread, I’m good with whomever.

Then the show begins and you get a front seat.  Once you choose what you want on your sandwich (I’ve never ordered anything but the combo), the carver gets the meat out of the steamer and like a magician, goes to work hand carving the fat off and slicing it just thin enough to sit on two slices of rye bread. But somewhere in the process, the best possible thing happens. You get a little preview of the meat, as the carver cuts you a slice and offers up a taste.  Just so you know you’re getting the best.

And this is really what makes Katz’s a cut above the rest.  All the meat is hand sliced, which allows it to sit in the steamer as long as possible (which ensures that it’s more moist and tender) and allows the meat to have a natural roughness and thickness, which makes it more exciting to eat (in my opinion).

All these rituals make you a part of the show.  It’s theatrical, it’s fun, it’s unique.  But is it delicious?

The sandwich is perfect. It’s not too big, but big enough that if you’re disciplined, you might have leftovers for later. The corned beef is tender, salty, and hearty. The pastrami also falls apart and has a deeper spice and smoke flavor than most of the other big delis in the city. Even when I don’t order it extra lean, I find the fat is cut just perfectly and the marbling runs deep enough to add lots of flavor but not overwhelm you with grease.

Their pickles are great, the knishes are delicious, and how can you go wrong with a Dr. Brown’s soda? The wall of celebrity photos is a testament to this place’s popularity and fine food. The only downsides here are the crowds at peak hours (it feels like the stock exchange of lunch meat) and the prices (while competitive with the other big delis) are a bit more than I like to spend for lunch.

I’d like to end with some appropriate and funny NY trivia. When the Katz’s sign was being put up on the side of the building on Ludlow and Houston, the sign maker asked Benny Katz what the sign should say. Trying to keep it simple, Benny replied: “Katz’s, that’s all.”  Well, the sign maker, being from the literal school, painted “Katz’s, That’s All.” That’s something I would have done when I was a smart ass kid and I would have gotten in so much trouble. In this case, it ended up being deli serendipity because what else could you really need? Katz’s – that’s all!

Is Katz’s Delicatessen the best corned beef/pastrami in the city? Out of fairness, it’s too soon to call but this is still one of the best deli combos I have ever had. 10 out of 10.

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About the Author

Brian Hoffman is a classically trained actor who is now a full-time tour guide, blogger, and food obsessive. He leads food and drink tours around New York City, which not only introduce tour-goers to delicious food, but gives them a historical context. He also writes food articles for Gothamist and Midtown Lunch in addition to overseeing this blog and a few food video series, including Eat This, Locals Know, and Around the World in One City.

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