My eating is not very directed, and not usually educational. I don't get takeout from three local Thai places and sit around taking tiny bites and ascribing lots of adjectives until I have a winner. There's usually just one winner, and that's me, after I've eaten 150% of whatever my stupid whims dictate.
But recently I've been craving pastrami. Maybe the fact that I'm leaving the city soon has started to sink in and now I'll be streaking, panic-riddled, through every cultural treasure I've neglected in the past 7 years. I start my mornings at the Guggenhiem, hi-five a bum as I swing around a lamp-post and shoot off to catch the Circle Line. And Katz's.
You think pastrami and you think Katz's. It's been around quite literally since the end of the 19th century, but in that time the restaurant is perhaps proudest to have hosted the orgasm scene from "When Harry Met Sally." But I'd heard grumbling about the pastrami there recently (Among complaints, Chowhound.com dissensters pointed out
that the meat's no longer smoked in-house, but sent out to Jersey.) And when it came to the city's best pastrami, there seemed to be one name on everyone's lips: Sarge's Delicatessen, on 35th and 3rd, a relative upstart at around 40 years old. The Pastrami Showdown, a.k.a. Superfatty Fat Fat Matty and Jules Fatass Day: Katz's v. Sarge's.
Matty and I started at Katz's. When Matty was a cook at Prune, which is basically across the street, he used to eat at Katz's a lot, and scoffed at rumors of a downhill slide. We went at 3 in the afternoon and the place was basically empty, a rarity. Pastrami sandwich, $13.45, on rye with mustard, and huge-cut fries and a beer for Matty, celery soda for me. The walk to the table from the counter was almost painful, so badly I wanted to tear into that tower of thick, salty slabs of pastrami. It was awesome. It really was. So pickly and falling apart, ribbons of fat running all through it. Although in fact, the meat was surpisingly lean. With some bites you actually had to break down a kind of stringiness.
Apparently it's somewhat common knowledge that if you throw the cutters some extra cash, they'll give you the fattier slices. (Thanks to Chef Dave for the tip.) Maybe the leaner meat is meant to please a changing demographic: our friend Eli said that "new Jews" like the meat lean and "old Jews" like it fatty. I don't know what that means.
No Jew? I try so hard to be Jewish, but then Easter comes around, you know?
As we plowed through our halves of the sandwich, I threw Matty the question of what makes a good pastrami. He said something about nitrates or something, that they're in the meat and you shouldn't be able to taste them. And that you needed the right spice in the brine. And I guess there's the all important question of freshness. As for Katz's production being relocated to New Jersey, who cares? Of course they have to farm out, they're moving a ridiculous quantity of the stuff every day. It tasted utterly fresh. I guess, much like Whitney Houston, Ice T, Jerry Lewis and Norman Mailer, pastrami does not get fatally tainted by spending its formative stages in New Jersey.Sarge's
We didn't even walk. Cab up to Sarge's, which is more of a restaurant, with a full diner menu. Big leather booths, nice waitresses, $1.25 for a BOWL of kickass coffee. We got a pastrami sandwich on rye with mustard ($9.95) and a tongue and corned beef sandwich on rye with cole slaw ($12.95), a house special. Holy shit. The cut was different from Katz's-- this was thinner, more ribbony. Where you had to chip in with some chewing at Katz's, this was pure and total butter in your mouth. And, like Katz's, this was a very generous portion, one sandwich easily enough for two people. It was delicious, definitely up there with Katz's. I think I have a personal preference for the slab-stack thicker cut style sandwich, but there's no doubt that you're dealing with the same quality product at both places.
THE OFFICIAL PASTRAMI SHOWDOWN VERDICT: I am fat and I like salty meat. That's the verdict. I think we call all agree on it. Further verdicts:
- New York is lucky to have so much awesome briny beef.
- If you live in Murray Hill and you're not spending every Sunday morning in one of those leather booths at Sarge's with a bowl of coffee and a pile of pastrami, check your insurance statements, because you've been recently lobotomized. Oh, I forgot to mention: the tongue and corned beef with cole slaw was technically my favorite thing we ate during the whole day. Perfect.
- Katz's has not gone downhill, it is not a tourist trap, it's selling the real deal. And tip your cutter! (Insert crude circumcision joke here.)
That's it for pseudoscience and instructive eating. Back to blindly putting anything in my face.