“For most New Yorkers, deli means pastrami, and pastrami means Katz’s. This is simply a fact of life, like death and taxes.”
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Katz’s Delicatessen, easily one of this city’s most iconic restaurants. It’s been hanging around the Lower East Side for almost 130 years now, and in that time, tourists and New Yorkers alike have come to cherish its kosher-style food. Their pastrami sandwich is on every list of things you’re supposed to eat in this city—and you know what? You probably can, nut allergy be damned.
I’m in the process of breaking a bad habit of assuming I can’t eat any of the hyped-up foods everyone’s always talking about. Sure, it’s probably a valid assumption when it comes to some things (Dominique Ansel’s cronut, or—ugh, I need this—his burrata soft serve), but I’ve proven to myself time and time again that I can, in fact, get in on a lot of the trendy and/or iconic (read: uh, touristy) foods this city has to offer. Turns out, getting off my ass and asking questions actually pays off more often than I’d ever expected—and I suppose I have this blog to thank for that realization.
Since I started eating at Essen, I’ve been on quite the pastrami kick. It was that kick that led me to email Katz’s last week. I asked a few questions about nuts and cross-contamination, but the response I received was underwhelming, to say the least: “No nut products.” That was it. So I called, and while the experience was a bit painful (it involved, for some reason, lots of “can you just call back in 15 minutes?”), the results were well worth the effort.
The folks at Katz’s do not cook with nuts. However, they do carry a number of baked goods (babka, etc.) made elsewhere that may not be free from cross-contamination. No word on whether or not those baked goods actually contain nuts—their babka is rumored to be made by Green’s, actually—but I’ve been told to avoid them regardless. No big deal, really; I don’t think anyone goes to Katz’s for the overpriced desserts.
We need to have a talk about Katz’s ever-important rye bread, though. It’s supplied by Rockland Bakery, whose allergen information is confusing as hell, to say the least. At Katz’s, the Rockland bags are made of wax paper and are without any sort of “may contain” warning. I’ve seen other Rockland rye bags, though—at Frankel’s Delicatessen, for example—that are made of plastic and that do bear a “may contain” warning, right above the nutritional information panel. Strange.
Naturally, I called Rockland to find out what was up, and the woman I spoke with (who worked in Rockland’s retail department, the only department I had any luck reaching by phone) told me in no uncertain terms that Rockland makes only one type of rye, and that they do make that rye on equipment that’s also used for their nut-containing breads. So that’s that, then, I guess? Nope.
At that point, I’d been eating their rye for weeks without issue, and I’d decided to continue to do so because (a) it had been fine so far and (b) I love Katz’s. But I wanted to be certain about the risks I was taking, so I sent Rockland an(other) email in an attempt to perhaps find out about any measures they were taking to reduce the risk of cross-contamination. The reply I received, from Rockland’s Food Safety Manager, was as follows:
Thank you for contacting us regarding your concern on the allergen in our facility. I would like to inform you, our Rye bread is manufactured in a plant that is tree nut free and no equipment is shared with any tree nuts or any kind of nuts.
We are a HACCP certified company with specific programs and cleaning procedures to prevent cross contamination as well we have programs to control any use of allergens.
The allergen disclaimer on the bag, it is a generic statement found on all Rockland Bakery products, and in most cases, it is requested by our customers or governmental offices, however, like in the case of the Rye bread, it really doesn’t apply.
If Katz and Frankel’s, in fact are using our Rye bread, in both cases, the bread is free of any tree nut and nuts contamination.
I sent a few more emails to a few more addresses to be absolutely certain that above information was, in fact, accurate, but I didn’t get much back…except for what seems to be Rockland’s official allergen statement, which I’ve attached here. (Spoiler: It’s consistent with the above email, which comes as no surprise, because it was written by the same guy.) Good news, I guess.
While I don’t like how much misinformation I received—inconsistent answers are one of the easiest ways for a company to put me off—I’m inclined to trust that Rockland’s rye is made in a nut-free facility. Of course, I understand that such hubbub is enough to sour many nut-allergics on Rockland (and Katz’s, by extension). It may have been a deal-breaker for me, too, if I’d gone through all this before I got myself addicted to this goddamn pastrami. Too late now, though. (Plus, I really do believe that Rockland’s bread is safe.)
That is, of course, just my personal stance, and as always, you should only eat where you’re comfortable eating. My goal in rambling like this is to provide you with (more than) enough information to come to your own conclusions about Katz’s and their rye. (And by the way, it’s certainly possible to avoid bread at Katz’s. You can order the meat on its own, or you can go for any of their other bread-less offerings, though neither of those options is, uh, canon. Still, doable. I recommend the three-meat platter.)
Anyway. All I can say, really, is that Katz’s works for me. Proceed past the following salami wall at your own risk.
Katz’s is loud and chaotic and almost always packed to capacity (with ding-dongs, no less), but all that’s easy enough to ignore—just focus on the smell of the meat. When you walk in, you’re given a ticket (don’t lose it or you’ll be out $50), and then you’re on your own. If you choose to go the self-service route, you’ll eventually figure out that you’re meant to take your little ticket to the appropriate counter and use it to order some food. If you’re getting a sandwich (as you should be), you’ll want to tip the dude who slices your meat, and then you’ll want to take your drooling ass to a table and get to business before anything goes the slightest bit cold.
The first time we went, Sam and I both ordered pastrami on rye—a mistake, considering how huge those sandwiches are. (Half of one is pictured below, in a bit of disarray, because I’m a klutz.) To our delight, our cutter let us sample some hot pastrami before he piled it onto our sandwiches. (Apparently, that’s SOP; we’d had no idea.) Over the din, he looked for our approval, and over the din, we gave it. And then it was sandwich time.
The sandwich. The sandwich. The sandwich. I’d really rather not play into the circle-jerk, but my honest-to-goodness opinion is that this sandwich is about as good as it’s reputed to be. It didn’t change my life. It didn’t stop my heart. It isn’t the best thing I’ve ever eaten. But it’s absolutely delicious. That much is undeniable. The pastrami, thick-cut and peppery, really does melt in your mouth. It’s very fatty, though not sickeningly so, and the sour of the mustard complements it wonderfully. The rye is just okay, but really, who cares? It’s all about that pastrami, baby. And the pastrami is damn good.
The corned beef (pictured below—first untouched, and then in the inevitable state of disarray) is wonderful, too. So wonderful, in fact, that some days, I even prefer it to the pastrami. (Which I like more depends on little more than which I had last. Seriously: Corned beef is criminally underrated.) Like the pastrami, it’s incredibly tender and juicy—but it’s saltier, tangier, and to me, it tastes a little cleaner (though I’m fully aware that it isn’t “clean” by any stretch of the word).
If plain pastrami/corned beef sounds too boring,
you’re wrong, but consider trying the Reuben. It’s made with meat (pastrami or corned beef), sauerkraut, Russian dressing, and Swiss cheese, and it’s pretty solid. I could’ve done without the Swiss, and the rye couldn’t quite hold the combination of greasy meat and wet sauerkraut, but you know what? Messy as it was, I enjoyed the hell out of the one Katz’s Reuben I’ve eaten. It’s not quite on par with its kraut-less brethren, but it’s a good option when you’re in the mood for something a little different.
I like their knishes, too. (Actually, I like stuffing fallen sandwich meat into their knishes. Same thing, right?) They’re under $5 each, which is low for Katz’s, and I like to use them to supplement my usual meal of a half sandwich. (Sam and I have fallen into the habit of splitting a sandwich and a knish. That brings the meal-for-two price down to $25, which is a lot easier on our wallets than the double-sandwiched alternative.) Katz’s offers both square and round knishes, by the way. I’m partial to the square ones, but some insist that round is the way to go. Do with that what you will.
Anyway. I’m, like, 1,700 words and 5 photos deep here, so I suppose I should probably stop going on about this place. Suffice it to say, then, that I am a huge fan of Katz’s—at lunchtime, at dinnertime, and even (and especially) at 2am on a Saturday night, when there’s hardly anyone there and the bathroom floors are covered in sawdust. There’s just something about that place that makes me happy.
And okay, a lot of that something is the food, but there’s more to it, too. The atmosphere: the bustle, the smell, even the tourists—even the misguided ones, who spring for waiter service and then insist on ordering turkey on wheat, extra mayo. The enormous dining room, the hanging salamis, the kitschy celebrity photos that cover the walls. The cutters and their perpetual need to poke fun at me. The sense of coming together over something (pastrami, duh). And, of course, the fact that even I can take part.
Find Katz’s Delicatessen at 205 East Houston Street, on the corner of Houston and Ludlow. And remember: DO NOT, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, LOSE YOUR TICKET. (Also, here’s some further reading, because Katz’s fascinates me: a lovely description of a night at Katz’s, and an explanation of how they make their pastrami.)