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I Think I'm Done With Katz's For A While...

...Based on my experience there today and on my last 2 visits.

I grew up in Brooklyn and Long Island, and moved away from the NY metro area some 30 odd years ago. Growing up, we went to Katz's often. It was always a treat, and I used to dream about the Pastrami. I worshipped Katz's.

I have continued to visit over the years, and whenever I have gone, I have always made the pilgrimage to Katz's. Still loved the whole experience as well as that crave-worthy Pastrami. It still was good for me, and exactly as I remembered from my long-gone youth...up until last September. On that visit, I remember my Pastrami sandwich seeming a bit smaller than normal, and something seemed "off" to me. Didn't think much about it, and returned on my next visit. That was in December.

I was in NY doing a site selection for an International conference I was to hold here in March. Had two folks from the UK with me, and the whole trip, I kept talking to them about Katz's Pastrami. We finally got to go there the day before we were to leave town. Got there around 2:30 in the afternoon, and holy cow...the place was completed swamped. Many tourists with cameras, no room to even walk down the front to get to the slicers, people lined up out the door, not realizing there were multiple lines, In a word, it was bedlam. (Having gone there for many years, I was used to crowds, but this was at a whole different level.) Nonetheless, we waited and eventually got our sandwiches. Went and sat down, and the first thing I noticed, was that the sandwiches somehow seemed smaller than usual. (I had 50 some odd years of experience walking out of there pretty stuffed after a Pastrami, fries and a soda. This time, I easily finished my sandwich, and did not feel anywhere as stuffed as usual. My guests felt the same....both in terms of the size and quality of the sandwich) Again, the sandwich seemd to be somewhat "off" not just in size, but also in texture and flavor. It did not seem to have the intense flavor I had come to know so well, and the meat seemed somewhat tough...a shocker in that I recall the Pastrami typically melting in my mouth.

Which brings us to today. Walked in, and was again met with a completely chaotic scene (Perhaps they could have someone up front doing some "line management?) Finally got to the counter, got my Pastrami sandwich, and had to struggle mightily to even get away from the counter and walk to a table. Was going to get a Dr. Brown's, but it was so insane, I just went and got a glass of water instead. It was annoyingly crowded. Then, I probably walked around for a good 10 minutes before I was able to find an open seat (I was alone). Had to clear my own space, and do my own wiping down. Seems like at some point, Katz's became a tourist destination, rather than a place to go get a sandwich. Maybe this has been going on for a while, but honestly, I never really much noticed it up until this year!

So after all that, I proceeded to bite into my sandwich, and for the first time ever in my life I thought " 'ya know, this really isn't very good." It made me very sad. The meat was incredibly tough and most annoyingly, filled with gristle. Not the lovely soft fatty parts that are normally there, but hard, tough, gristle. Throughout the sandwich. In virtually every slice of meat (I know, 'cause I opened it up to and started tasting slices of Pastrami using my fork.) It was the first time in my 54 yers that I actually pushed the sandwich aside, and thought "I really don't want to finish that." And I didn't.

So when I think about my last three visits, I feel as if there has been a gradual, yet noticeable decline in this once iconic and venerable institution from my youth. As I said, it made me sad. I've been following the Katz's debates on CH for yers, and honestly, up until this past year, have always been in the "it's as good as ever camp." I can no longer make that claim.

Now, I know, it's all subjective. I am certainly not saying I am right here, or that others who see it differently are wrong. No, rather I am saying that as a life-long staunch admirer and defender of Katz's, it is no longer currently working for me. If it still works for you, that's terrific (and again, it's entirely possible that I just happened to hit 3 bad random days in a row...3 data points certainly do not constitute an iron-clad case.) All I'm saying is, I think it's time for a break for me. Perhaps I'll try again in a couple of years.

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  1. It really is sad when a place you have come to depend on lets you down so terribly. I haven't been to Katz's since early in '09, so I can't dispute your experience even though I've yet to be been disappointed.

    Lately, I've been getting my pastrami fix at Sarge's, Though a different style from Katz's, it is, imo, superb! I always request it "very fatty," and whether we eat at the deli or order delivery, I've never been let down by the guys behind the counter. And the size of the sandwich defies my ability to wrap my mouth around it without taking off some of the meat.

    So, the next time you are craving pastrami, you might want to give Sarge's a try. The place is no longer as dingy as it used to be since they've refurbished the interior. Table service is excellent (no "tradition" of ordering at the counter), No crowds of tourists. No insanity. Open 24/7.

    Photos of the pastrami sandwich at Sarge's here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/11863391...

    25 Replies
    1. re: RGR

      Thanks for the recommendation RGR...have been following your sage advice for years on this board, and I very much respect your opinion (by the way...got to EMP for the first time the other night...I know it's a fave of yours, and all I can say is OMG!!!!!) Will definitely give Sarge's a try on my next visit. Thanks for the tip!

      1. re: Howgart

        Don't forget to get their souper soup too. My favorite matzoh ball soup in town, and it includes a giant beef kreplach.

        1. re: Howgart

          You're welcome, Howgart. And I feel very honored that you value my opinion. Of course, I'm thrilled that your experience at EMP wowed you. I look foward to hearing what you think of the pastrami at Sarge's.

          P.S. Since Katz's is the first stop on my famous self-guided LES food excursion, I hope to get back there soon to see what exactly is going on with the pastrami. The tour also needs to be updated because Guss' Pickles is no longer there (moved to Brooklyn). Plus, I want to add a few spots.

          1. re: RGR

            Disappointing to hear this as we were hoping to check out Katz's on our trip this weekend, while taking RGR's tour. It is these kind of things that would definitely steer us away, even being tourists, the spectacle would very quickly be lost on us if the value is not there.

            RGR, if you don't mind, what other places are you thinking of adding to your list?

            1. re: megmtl

              I would still persuade you to go and try it for yourself.

              1. re: megmtl

                megmtl,

                I actually agree with steakrules about tryng Katz's for yourself. If you can start the tour at around 11 a.m., you might avoid the crowds. If the slice the counterman gives you to taste is not juicy, don't be shy about asking him to cut your sandwich from a different slab of pastrami. Also, sharing one sandwich, which is what my husband and I always do = less sticker shock.

                Additions to the tour:
                Sugar Sweet Sunshine - cupcakes

                Essex Street Market (Closed Sunday):
                Roni-Sue's Chocolates
                Saxelby Cheesemongers
                Pain d'Avignon

                1. re: RGR

                  RGR, you might want to consider adding Babycakes bakery, at Broome & Ludlow (http://babycakesnyc.com/). We stopped in after grabbing some Doughnut Plant donuts, and sampled a couple of items, and they were quite tasty! Plus, they are primarily a gluten free/vegan/kosher place, and they are still really good ... even for someone who does not have those dietary restrictions.

                  -----
                  Babycakes
                  248 Broome St, New York, NY 10002

                  1. re: a213b

                    Thanks for the tip, a213b. I'll check them out. I re-take my tour at least once a year, and it is about that time. But I'm a weather weenie, so I'm waiting for a warm sunny day.

              2. re: RGR

                RGR, I've been looking for a spot to post some comments about your LES tour and this may be as good as any. Hope you see it.

                We were in the city a couple of weeks ago to visit the Tenement Museum so we took the opportunity to walk the part of your tour that is south of Houston (and to sample some food!).

                Some changes you need to include in your next revision of the tour:

                The Tenement Museum tours actually start and end at 108 Orchard Street. I don't think anyone could miss it though as there are lots of signs along the street.

                As you have noted, Guss' Pickles has moved to Brooklyn (and, apparently for legal reasons, can no longer use the name Guss). You may want to consider substituting The Pickle Guys, which is at 49 Essex Street (closed Saturday). I have never sampled Guss' pickles so I can't offer a comparison.

                Finally, we could not find Economy Candy until someone told us that they have moved down the street to 108 Rivington.

                Btw, we did not go to Katz's as we already had lunch plans farther north.

                1. re: ambrose

                  Thanks for the info, ambrose! I try to do the tour at least once a year. I haven't yet this year, but after I do (hopefully in the next few weeks), I will make the necessary revisions. I had already planned to substitute the Pickle Guys and am aware that they, like Guss', are closed on Saturday. However, I didn't know that Economy Candy has moved. I also intend to include a couple of new stops.

                  1. re: RGR

                    I don't think it's moved. Maybe there's an error with the address.

                    1. re: RGR

                      RGR Economy Candy has been on Rivington between Essex and Ludlow for over 50 years that I know of

                      -----
                      Economy Candy
                      108 Rivington St, New York, NY 10002

                      Ludlow Bar
                      165 Ludlow St, New York, NY 10002

                      1. re: Diane Dee

                        DD, I don't know the LES that well so I can't tell you whether Economy Candy has recently moved or not. I can tell you, however, that it isn't at 145 Rivington, the address mentioned in the copy of RGR's LES tour that I took with me during our recent trek into the city. We couldn't find any kind of retail store at 145 Rivington and were ready to move on when a passerby directed us to 108 Rivington, which is indeed between Essex and Ludlow.

                        I hesitate to even suggest this but, er, is it possible that RGR made a mistake in the address? :-))

                        -----
                        Economy Candy
                        108 Rivington St, New York, NY 10002

                        1. re: ambrose

                          Mea culpa!! It's not only possible, ambrose, it is definitely a mistake. Economy Candy's website says "108," and I don't think they've moved since I created the tour. To be honest, I just know where it is and never looked at the number, so I don't know where that erroneous "145" came from. Of course, I'll correct it when I make other revisions and additions after I do my annual revisit of the tour, hopefully, within the next few weeks.

                  2. re: RGR

                    Hi RGR...OP here...had to let you know that I am back in town this weekend, and in fact did try Sarge's this afternoon for lunch. All-in-all, a very nice experience.
                    '
                    Had the chopped liver app and of course, the Pastrami on rye. Don't have chopped liver all that often these days, but thought this to be a very good version. Creamy, mildly flavored (as I prefer) with nice onion and tomato garnish. Very satisfying. So, "how was the Pastrami?" you ask.

                    I thought the Pastrami was very good, certainly one of the best pastrami sandwiches I've ever had. Nice ratio of fat to lean, soft, tender, and noticeable spicing throughout. For $12.95, thought it was a lot of sandwich for the money. Sandwich was accompanied by a bucket of sours and half sours, as well as cole slaw. A really satisfying meal, yet...

                    If it seems as if I am not "over-the-moon" raving, you are right. I suspect the reason for this is that while eating the sandwich today, it was the first time I came to the realization that one of the things I really liked about Katz's, was the thicker, hand sliced meat. Didn't ever think it would wind up being a big deal, but somewhere mid-bite, it dawned on me that, while Sarge's serves a superior Pastrami sandwich, it didn't quite make me swoon the way I remember the Katz's version doing in its heyday. I think the cut is a big part of it for me, but I also think that "back in the day" the cut as well as all the other variables came down on Katz's side. Now, I know that's like saying that I preferred the "69 Mets to the current version...those days are long gone, and (I suspect like Katz's heyday) never coming back. So I guess it's foolish to pine for the "Pastrami of my youth" but damn...those are some powerful memories!

                    BTW, really loved the whole Sarge's experience. Great old-time deli vibe, without any attempt at affectation. Just a good, solid place to go have lunch on a Saturday afternoon. Walk in, no hassles, no lines, place is clean, sanity abounds....ahhhh...compared to Katz's these days, a true oasis! I will also note that at mid-day on a Saturday, I was one of three tables eating. Hope they are doing ok, in that these type places are, I fear, a dying breed. (Noticed that a couple of the other restaurants nearby were teeming with 20 and 30 somethings...maybe a generational thing? Do younger folks eat less deli than older?)

                    Anyway, I am extremely pleased to have tried Sarge's, and I thank you RGR for another spot-on recommendation (as per the usual!). Next time back, should I be in a Pastrami mood, I will eagerly return to Sarge's.

                    1. re: Howgart

                      Welcome back, Howgart! :)

                      Thanks for letting me know that you've tried and liked Sarge's. I'm sure ellenost, another huge fan of Sarge's, will be happy to know that as well.

                      While I can fully understand that the cut of the pastrami makes a difference for you, it's not an issue for me. All I care about is flavor and succulence. There's nothing worse than pastrami that doesn't have a soup├žon of fat on it and tastes like shoe leather. Happily, that has never happened with the pastrami at Sarge's, whether we eat it there or order it for delivery.

                      One of these days, I must try the chopped liver and the noodle kugel that ellenost raved about.

                      Yes, the hassle-free experience at Sarge's is a major plus. And I do get a kick out of some of the servers who are real NY characters.

                      Sarge's does a huge take-out and delivery business as well as catering. Second Avenue Deli opening just three blocks south hasn't sunk them, so I doubt Sarge's is in any danger though I do think that was probably the impetus for refurbishing what was a rather (endearingly) grungy interior.

                      The fact that you say you will "eagerly return to Sarge's" speaks volumes!

                      -----
                      Second Avenue Deli
                      162 E 33rd St, New York, NY 10016

                      1. re: RGR

                        RGR forgive me for being lazy and not searching further, but I am going to be in the city the first week in August and the Tenement Museum is on our list of things to do. Can you post a link to your "tour"? I think I read it a long time ago. Thanks.

                        1. re: southernitalian

                          Here's a link: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/4933...

                          N.B. Guss' Pickles has closed. Substitute the Pickle Guys, on Essex St.

                          -----
                          Pickle Guys
                          49 Essex St, New York, NY 10002

                      2. re: Howgart

                        Is it ever crowded? It's not uncommon to see more delivery staff hanging around than seated patrons. They're doing business at least.

                        Murray Hill has become a fat-free chocolate chip muffin on the way back from the gym kind of neighborhood, but I remember they used to have a retail business next door that thrived with all the hustle and bustle one might expect.
                        Also the food did suffer slightly during the period before the original owners took it back. I suspect that's one reason the place isn't getting the same crowds as diners in the area.

                        1. re: sugartoof

                          Great take on Murray Hill although I would say a PinkBerry on the way back from the gym is more likely that a fat free muffin.

                          1. re: princeofpork

                            PInkberry with cereal toppings, maybe.

                        2. re: Howgart

                          I'm totally with Howgart on the thick cut, and that being one of the main reasons I've always liked Katz's.

                          I've heard from others that thin cutting brings out flavor. For me, the bite and texture of thick cut, fatty pastrami is as important as the flavor.

                    2. re: RGR

                      Thanks RGR. What about Sarge's pastrami makes it a different style than Katz's?

                      1. re: boccalupo

                        The spicings are somewhat different. And because Sarge's uses a machine, the slices are thin as opposed to the thick cut of the hand-cut slices at Katz's.

                        1. re: RGR

                          Thank you. I was afraid you were going to say Sarge's was machine cut. I prefer hand cut, but I will check out Sarge's anyway.

                    3. Re: Howgart

                      The pastrami sandwich I had at Katz's recently was exactly as you describe yours.

                      1. Howgart, I'm sorry that Katz's no longer has that special something for you. I've been getting my pastrami at the 2nd Ave Deli (Sarge's is a good second). Give both of them a shot and let us know what you think.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: windycity

                          We've been to the "new" 2nd Ave. Deli once, and I was very disappointed with the pastrami. I specifically requested "very fatty," and what I received had was dry and tasteless.

                        2. Over 10 years ago, the company where I worked had a big deal with a UK bank. Management requested the sales rep to entertain the UK guests at a restaurant that was "real New York". I suggested Katz's, because it was real New York. They had a good laugh at the absurd notion of taking such important and money spending big shots to this old dump in a dump of a neighborhood for a sandwich. They considered "real New York" to be some trendy Mexican flavor-of-the-month located in hip Tribeca called "El Teddy's".

                          It sounds like a few things have changed. LES is now fashionable and on the tourists' itinerary. They aren't afraid of being mugged in the neighborhood by the hoodlums who live there. Cable TV and the internet has made local specialties a fad.

                          Despite its inconvenient location, Grimaldi's seems to have become a tourist trap by being rated as best NYC pizza by one of the Cable TV channels. CH'ers have reported that quality has plummeted.

                          2 Replies
                          1. re: MahatmaKanejeeves

                            And El Teddy's is long gone -crown and all; a loss not especially lamented
                            (although they were one of the earlier tapas bars in NY, which might count for something.)


                            Great story, MKj.
                            And proof again, as if it were ever needed, that no good deed ever goes unpunished.

                            1. re: MahatmaKanejeeves

                              Mahatma Katz's is 122 years old dump that hasn't changed. You missed the point. You should eat in a stuffy Park Ave. or Fifth Ave. restaurant(if they existed). Hoodlums moved out of the lower east side about 12 years ago.When Daniel go his latest star in his New York Times review he had the celebration in Katz's. I guess all the U.S. presidents, Kings, dictators , actors ,etc. think that history is dumpy.

                            2. Ill say that katz's served me a pretty decent pastrami sandwich within the last few weeks, which was far from dry or lacking flavor. that said, 40 bucks for two sandwiches which were hardly gut-busting, a knish and a beer seemed way out of line and id say its fairly obvious that they are raking it in from tourist-driven business. each of the last few times ive been there its been positively mobbed by people plotting their next museum adventure, or asking for subway directions back to their hotels. while others have claimed that this popularification has precipitated a reduction in quality and sandwich size, i can't say this is absolutely the case, but the quality of the overall experience is definitely not worth the price very often for me.

                              sarge's is good, though the location doesn't tempt me very often and its really a different beast because its not hand sliced. also, no matter what else you order, always get the matzoh ball soup because it just cant be beat.

                              for a really fairly priced smokey, cured meaty sandwich, id definitely recommend Mile End in brooklyn. Sure its not technically pastrami, but for me it really scratched all the right itches, plus its closer to me, WAY less money, and i got the sense they actually care about their customers. Im not saying the staff at katz's doesn't work hard, or that i can't sympathize with their frustrations at dealing with clueless tourist masses, but the personality and care that marked my mile end experience was miles away (across an international border, even) from the treatment ive noticed my last few trips to katz's.

                              7 Replies
                              1. re: tex.s.toast

                                I know the fact that the pastrami at Katz's is hand sliced is a big plus factor for many people. And I presume from what you say here that you fall into that category. For me, it matters not whether pastrami is hand or machine sliced. What matters most is the end result. If some people are getting pastrami at Katz's that just doesn't cut it (pun intended), then who cares that it's hand sliced? At Sarge's, the machine sliced pastrami I've had has never failed to be succulent and delicious.

                                And, yes, the matzoh ball soup at Sarge's is excellent.

                                As far as costs go, a pastrami sandwich at Sarge's is $12.95, which is $2 less than Katz's. The sandwiches at Katz's may seem ultra-thick because the meat is sliced thicker. But I think the sandwiches at Sarge's are actually thicker because they pile on more meat. The next time we go to Katz's, I'll take a photo, and we can do a photographic side-by-side comparison. (You can click upthread for the photo at Sarge's.)

                                1. re: RGR

                                  I see where you're coming from, and i would much much rather a good machine-sliced pastrami sandwich than a bad hand sliced one. im all for subjective food tastes and all that, so if machine sliced folks want only machine sliced pastrami, who am i to argue. that said, i think the best pastrami ive ever had (and id include the smoked meat from Mile End i referenced in my other post) HAD to be hand sliced because it would have fallen apart being loaded into/out of an electric slicer. This doesnt answer the question of where to go for a pastrami sandwich in nyc, but does, to my mind, say that the potential for a better pastrami sandwich is higher if it is hand sliced. I absolutely agree that Sarge's makes a killer pastrami sandwich, but it is a very different thing from a hand sliced one which is that way not because of some idiosyncratic or arbitrary taste preference, but because thicker, hand cut slices are essential when the meat has been smoked and steamed into submission.

                                  As for price, Mile End is getting 8 dollars for their sandwiches (13 for the plate, which seemed to be about twice the meat with several of end-ish pieces of rye).

                                  Im not sure i buy the whole "they seem thicker because the slices are thicker". I personally think that being a able to count the slices of meat on my sandwich would make me ore likely to think i was shorted, but that this basically boils down to a pound of feathers versus a pound of lead - only the scale is a good judge of which sandwich is bigger (the scale or number of belt holes i have to let out after consuming one).

                                  1. re: tex.s.toast

                                    We've been to Schwartz's. While I thought the smoked meat was fine, it didn't wow me enough so that I want to shlep to Brooklyn in order to try Mile End. Besides, I hear they've been overrun with crowds, there are long waits to get the food, and they regularly run out of meat by 3 p.m. So, no dinner service. But I've read that they've now rented a warehouse in Gowanus where they can smoke greater quantities.

                                    http://blogs.villagevoice.com/forkint...

                                  2. re: RGR

                                    If you go to a certain review site known for it's user pictures, you can see that Sarge's is without a doubt a higher piled sandwich, even with it's machine cut meat.

                                    The photos of Katz's show uneven sandwiches with erratic portions where in some cases, the meat doesn't cover their notoriously small bread.

                                    1. re: sugartoof

                                      sugartoof Don't go by photos or your eye, The only way you can really tell is to buy one at Sarges and Katz's and weigh them. Machine sliced always look bigger. The sandwich in the photo is corned beef not pastrami and you can't trust a picture Katz's or Sarges would supply. Look at the advice I gave to Hogart. I agree totally about smoked meat. It doesn't come close to juicy pastrami.

                                      1. re: Diane Dee

                                        No idea what you're talking about or if you're looking at the same pictures.

                                        The photos are user submitted and match my personal experience which I previously reported. The OP basically articulated it already, but I do think Katz's is a rip off, serving meat that often doesn't fill the already small bread, and both are of a low quality. There's not much more to it. I could care less what the weight is. I think it's probably the most overhyped establishment in all of NYC.

                                        p.s. I hope you'll join us in other discussions, since so far your entire posting history has been about Katz's.

                                    2. re: RGR

                                      Katz's sandwich weighs about 1/4 lb more. Ask the cutter to slice it thin and ask for juicy. It's orgasmic. Sounds weird but the turkey is the best I've ever eaten.