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Mark Dedrick

Katz's Delicatessen, Houston Street - A Lower East Side Institution since 1888

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I'll be on the LES visiting my SIL week after next. She lives on Rivington between Norfolk and Suffolk, a hop and skip from Katz's and Russ & Daughters, which are always on our agenda when we visit.

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It's a hard life, being Jewish and not liking pastrami and corned beef, two staples of the deli dining experience. I've tried each meat a dozen times or more over the last 3 decades (nearly 4!) to no avail. Yet, it was just a couple weeks ago that I once again bravely sampled pastrami that I was sure I wouldn't like, however it was from Katz's and so i thought, what the hell. Well, even after being wrapped up in foil for a couple days, I though it was goddamned delicious. Why did it take so long? So many wasted years...

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Has anyone who has been to Katz's in New York (or other similar establishments) wondered what the point of the flimsy bread is when put up with close to a pound of meat?  I still cannot figure it out.  One of the wonders of the world.

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Has anyone who has been to Katz's in New York (or other similar establishments) wondered what the point of the flimsy bread is when put up with close to a pound of meat?  I still cannot figure it out.  One of the wonders of the world.

It's like putting a couple croutons on an entire roast - maybe it's to make people feel less guilty ("Oh, I'm just grabbing a sandwich" (when it's enough meat for four full meals)). When I used to take friends to Carnegie Deli (back in the 80s when it was good), I nearly *always* paid the sharing charge. "One sandwich for both of us?" "Trust me."

In what now seems like the 1800s, the Tysons Corner Carnegie Deli was nearly 100% as good as the New York original for several months after it opened (I'm pretty sure it was Leo Steiner's death that initialized its demise - it was later sold and renamed "Carnegie's.") For a short while, it was probably the best deli that has ever been in the DC area, and that includes now. When they first opened, they brought the meat-slicer guy down from New York and everything - the pastrami and corned beef were exactly the same quality and portion-sizes (at least at first). Well, it didn't last long, and there are probably twenty people left in DC who remember, but having just lived in New York a couple years before, I can say that it's absolutely true.

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The fundamental problem facing every remaining deli, Katz's included, is that the gargantuan sandwiches for which they are known aren't very profitable. Rather, they're a legacy of the early 20th century, when brisket (used in corned beef) and navel plate (the fattier, bovine belly meat Katz's uses for pastrami) were considered cheap trash cuts and hundreds of Jewish restaurants could compete for immigrant clientele with rock-bottom prices. But the days of inexpensive navel and brisket are long gone"”thanks in part to the national love affair with Texas-style barbecue"”and delis can only raise their prices so high before turning off customers. As a result, the margins on a pastrami or corned beef on rye are perilously thin. In his 2009 book Save the Deli (an indispensible read for lovers of Jewish comfort food), David Sax writes that "most New York delis are breaking even or losing money on their namesake item." Profitable sandwiches, he reports, make margins somewhere between 5 and 15 percent. The reason Katz's was able to live on while its competitors disappeared largely boils down to real estate. As Sax writes in Save the Deli, New York's delicatessens can basically be divided into two groups: those that rent their buildings and those that own....If Katz's had to deal with a landlord, it would likely have disappeared or moved long ago.

The reason Katz's was able to live on while its competitors disappeared largely boils down to real estate. As Sax writes in Save the Deli, New York's delicatessens can basically be divided into two groups: those that rent their buildings and those that own....If Katz's had to deal with a landlord, it would likely have disappeared or moved long ago.

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Boy I appreciate the above story.  My grandfather and two close relatives opened up a family business just a couple of blocks south of Houston on Grand Street in Manhattan.   They owned the main building and I think 2 little buildings in nearby alleys (for storage).  I know they were deep inexpensive whenever they bought them (those old ancestors were far far far from wealthy).  That business was originally all family as I understand it, but when I was old enough to first get a sense of it, there were non family members.  All were unionized as w/ Katz's.

I recall being recruited as a teenage scab during a strike.  It was quite benign though, the store operators would bring tea, coffee out to the strikers and picketers (it was the lowly teenager and my cousins).  The strikers would tell the regular customers they naturally wanted longer hours and lower pay...and after a while the union and the reps of the owners of those type businesses would come to an agreement and everything was back to normal.   The nature of their business type changed over the years and they closed it and sold the buildings...I think in either the late 70's or early 80's.  I can tell you it wasn't for a fortune.  I bet those buildings, especially the main one is worth a ton now.   C'est la vie.

That cost info is just nuts.  It certainly describes the death of deli's.  One reason I enjoy DGS is that the pastrami or corned beef portions aren't so big.  Who can each that much on a pastrami or corned beef?   I can't.  Never could.

I'm pretty familiar with commercial real estate.  I leased it in this region between about 1980 till about 2000.  I leased a fair amount of retail including restaurants.

Rents are nuts now.  They really exploded in the decade post 2000.  I can't speak about the impact of food costs or labor, but I know part of the reason that you keep seeing menu items go up in cost are rents.

Anyway its a terrific informative article about Katz's the dynamics of that area, their plight and the death of so many deli's.   How sad.

But thanks for the reference.

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I had never really focused on how critical a factor real estate ownership is for NYC restaurants until I saw one of Bourdain's NYC shows a few years ago about old iconic NYC restaurants and markets. It turned out that every one of them owned their own properties. Looking at the wave of redevelopment in Washington and close in VA and MD, I suspect that ownership is now a critical factor here as well. 

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On 10/29/2014 at 2:35 PM, BklynBoy said:

I had never really focused on how critical a factor real estate ownership is for NYC restaurants until I saw one of Bourdain's NYC shows a few years ago about old iconic NYC restaurants and markets. It turned out that every one of them owned their own properties. Looking at the wave of redevelopment in Washington and close in VA and MD, I suspect that ownership is now a critical factor here as well. 

Alongside Katz’s Pastrami, Luxury Condos, by Ronda Kaysen in the New York Times, April 22, 2016.

Quote

Last year, the family-owned deli at 205 East Houston Street sold two neighboring properties and its air rights for about $17 million, paving the way for a developer to build an 11-story condominium next door. The arrangement ensures that, for at least another generation, New Yorkers will be able to get corned beef and brisket at the Lower East Side deli that was immortalized in the 1989 film “When Harry Met Sally.”

 

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Of the Manhattan delis that still exist, Katz's is still my favorite.  I have memories dating back to pre-school of this place.  Stopping here on the way back to DC when on a family trip.  We would also include a walking trip of China town to see ducks hanging in the windows of the shops (my mom was disgusted).  These memories as a child I am sure have something to do with who I am as an adult.  The trips also included a stop in the Bronx in my mom's old neighborhood, to which I famously requested to stay in the car for fear.

I love the ordering system a Katz's, the LES grit, the food, etc.  Except for the prices, it has been frozen in time and is something that doesn't exist much anymore.  I hope it sticks around for a long time to come so I can try and make an impression on my daughter.  So far, she has been to Carnegie deli and had her first sip of an egg cream, need to get her downtown on the next trip.

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11 minutes ago, pras said:

Don--As you said, it is really personal preference, but for me, it is Katz's as number 1, and Carnegie a close second.  2nd Avenue hasn't been the same since they moved.  I like the cafeteria style at Katz's and the fact that the meat is hand cut instead of using a machine.  I also like the grit of the LES, although that even isn't what it used to be.  

Mark Kuller swore by Katz's. 128 years is a *long time* to be in business!

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On 7/31/2014 at 10:33 PM, pras said:

Has anyone who has been to Katz's in New York (or other similar establishments) wondered what the point of the flimsy bread is when put up with close to a pound of meat?  I still cannot figure it out.  One of the wonders of the world.

Not every pastrami or corned beef establishment comes that thick.  Alternatively a "medium sized sandwich" (whatever that size is) on great rye with great crust and appropriate mustard is a terrific sandwich. 

But I would agree with you.  With a pound of corned beef or pastrami and rye...that is like different animal.   I saw a reference elsewhere to an office ordering in one of those monster sandwiches and ordering extra bread on the side.  They break up the monster sandwich, reportion it, create 3 or 4 appropriate sized sandwiches and they had great lunch sandwiches.  That is smart.

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15 minutes ago, Mark Dedrick said:

I had lunch here yesterday. I don't have a lot to add, except that it is still fantastic. 

Don't forget to order (and tip) at the counter.

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Exactly, this is key. Go straight through to one of the cutters (I tend to go to like #5 or 6). Too many people either mill around by the door confused, or settle for one of the tables with servers. 

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Had such a delightful time at Katz last Sunday morning. Going on a Sunday at 930am has several advantages. It is not crowded, the owner was hosting his grandkids and family to an elaborate deli spread in the back (yes breakfast like pancakes but also hot dogs), and it is never not a good time for their pastrami. The pastrami half sandwich was ample and so delicious. Their rye bread is only ok (I miss the double baked from DGS) but that meat, oh that meat. It is perfectly cooked - nice chew, but delicate, not falling apart, sliced in front of you to not too thick and not too thin, with great bark and so much flavor. The matzo ball soup was good - soup was pretty good packed with carrots and a nice huge soft matzo ball. The pickles were hit and miss. The sours were good but not great and the half sours were awful - salty cucumbers, I wouldn't even call them pickles. (now I'm biased against half-sours but these were not good). The potato knish's filling was rather good - lots of good sweet onion flavor but not too sweet but the dough was almost non-existent. It was super thin and basically a shell to hold the filling in one place. Kids loved the good bagels and cream cheese and the super friendly bagel guy to made them chocolate milk taking time to mix it all by hand. The countermen were also super friendly.  We got some black and white cookies to go which were rather good. 

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11:30 a.m. the day after Thanksgiving.  The line is out the door but moving quickly.  Go inside, get a ticket, was told table service is an additional 40 minute wait.  Go to the counter and place an order for a pastrami sandwich ($23 or $24) and a corn beef sandwich ($22).  In the mean time, my niece and her friend has been looking for a table in the packed dining room with no success.  Finally they find a table with only 3 chairs but we are a party of 5.  The kids sit down, the adults eat standing up.  I go to the beverage counter and get some drinks.  The harried atmosphere makes it hard to enjoy the sandwiches - which are still delicious.

I'll only go back during the off hours.

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I apparently didn’t get enough of Katz’s last month, we went back this morning.  At 9 a.m.  there are plenty of tables but no table service 🙁.

The kids complained that the pastrami wasn’t as good as last time - maybe they just weren’t hungry, or don’t appreciate fatty luscious beef first thing in the morning.

I washed the sandwich down with a beer and burped satisfactorily.

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4 hours ago, Ericandblueboy said:

I apparently didn’t get enough of Katz’s last month, we went back this morning.  At 9 a.m.  there are plenty of tables but no table service 🙁.

The kids complained that the pastrami wasn’t as good as last time - maybe they just weren’t hungry, or don’t appreciate fatty luscious beef first thing in the morning.

I washed the sandwich down with a beer and burped satisfactorily.

"but no table service"

To repeat: One should not use, unless you must, table service at Katz's.

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21 minutes ago, Marty L. said:

"but no table service"

To repeat: One should not use, unless you must, table service at Katz's.

Why not?  I’ve had table service before and it’s easier to figure out what i can order from a menu than scanning the long overhead menu board (especially when they’re busy).  Also, I don’t have to tip everybody separately - the cutter, the guy who poured me a beer, and the cashier.  I guess I prefer being served.

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7 hours ago, Ericandblueboy said:

I washed the sandwich down with a beer and burped satisfactorily.

I'm fairly sure you mean you burped with satisfaction (unless you're conveying the quality of your eructation). :)

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On 12/31/2018 at 3:08 PM, Ericandblueboy said:

Why not?  I’ve had table service before and it’s easier to figure out what i can order from a menu than scanning the long overhead menu board (especially when they’re busy).  Also, I don’t have to tip everybody separately - the cutter, the guy who poured me a beer, and the cashier.  I guess I prefer being served.

I couldn't agree more. I think the idea that you fight your way to the cutter and order your meal in the most difficult way possible helps people to feel like "real" New Yorkers.  Well, this formerly real New Yorker is here to tell you that New Yorkers accept a lot of annoying stuff in the name of authenticity or whatever.  I never really got it until I finally moved out of the city and looked back.  

But Katz's.  Katz's is fantastic however you choose to have your smoked meat served to you.

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