At approximately 11:00 a.m. we board the F train at 34th street heading south to Coney Island but Coney Island is not our destination. Instead we are looking for the most “orgasmic deli” in the city, Katz’s Deli. Katz’s founded in 1888 was seen in the movie “When Harry met Sally” via the famous “I’ll have what she’s having” scene, but it was legendary long before then. Many have said it is not only the best deli in NYC but also in the country. After my first visit I find it hard to disagree. If you are one of my Second City neighbors you may have experienced Manny’s Deli in Chicago. Katz’s is Manny’s times ten. The sensory overload is indescribable. There is a doorman who gives you a ticket to get in and you can’t leave without presenting the ticket to the cashier and/or doorman on the way out (with punches indicating how much you spent – trust me it will be a lot). In other words do what ever you want while you are here, eat anything you want, but don’t even think about dining and dashing. As you enter a long cafeteria counter begins with the smell of hot dogs and knackwurst on the flat top and continues for about 200 feet ending in cookies and pastries with everything a great Jewish deli needs to have in between. Pastrami, Matza ball soup, mac and cheese, goulash, knishes, turkey bresat, yadda, yadda, yadda…We arrive at 11:30 as the buzz is growing with sounds of knives and plates clanking. Clearly we look helpless because a 50ish year old guy dressed in black pants, a Katz’s deli t-shirt, white apron and paper hat tells us if we need help we can have waiter service towards the back. I don’t even know what that means but I’m going with it because CJ is hungry, fading and the seats are filling up RAPIDLY!
CJ starts to eyeball the sandwich a woman next to us is eating which looks to be some sort of bagel, egg and cheese thingy. Looks pretty delicious I might add. When she inquires as to what exactly that “thingy” might be with our server/savior who we later learn is named Marty, he pretty much flat out tells her there is no way she is ordering that and puts a giant plate of new dills, old dills and pickled green tomatoes on the table. Using a deft soft sell he explains that when they opened in 1888 they had sandwiches on the menu and sandwiches, so “when in Rome…” We order a corned beef on rye with Swiss as well as an order of potato latkes with applesauce and sour cream. I think he almost smiled in approval but still would have rather we ordered two sandwiches instead of one to share. I would have loved to try a knish, the pastrami, the matzo ball soup and a bunch of other stuff too, but I have a donut and a pizza ahead of me so I refrain.
To say the sandwich is good is doing it a disservice beyond imagination. The sandwich is as Meg Ryan would say, orgasmic! The latkes are as light as a feather and totally non-greasy despite the fact that they are fried potatoes mixed with egg, which is pretty remarkable. Everything is written by hand. There are no computers. We had to wait a good while to get our check (which is one of my biggest service hot buttons) since we needed to get our “ticket” punched. On this day it didn’t matter as much. I even went up to the end of the counter and said hello to the guy who was clearly the owner. His name is Fred Austin. He seems about as mellow as a guy could be even in the midst of what had the feeling of an oncoming typhoon of energy and customers. I told him I could feel the intensity building from the minute we got there at 11:30. He said “stick around and watch for a half an hour and see what happens next…but if you’re done we could use the table too” with just the perfect twinkle in his eye that said he was half joking and half serious.
At my place of work we throw around the phrase “iconic” restaurant with relative ease. I mean we are Joe’s Stone Crab Chicago, sister to the 99 year old Miami beach legend. Every once in a while I wind up at at place that reminds me what a privilege it is to deserve that label “icon”. Katz’s is probably the most iconic of all places I have ever eaten. It was an experience that transcends the food eaten, the people seen or the walls and chairs. It was damn near better than sex, and if you don’t believe me you can always check with “Sally”.
Next stop donuts!