Lipitor… please!

2008.Oct.06 Monday · 1 comment

in Restaurants

 Every man with a bellyful of the classics is an enemy to the human race.”

– Henry Miller, Author

New York City – The first week I moved to The Big Apple, in 1982, someone told me I had to go check out “the best deli in the city” because they were probably going out of business that year, the building being sold to developers… I went. It was an experience, and for a boy from the midwest, still wet behind the ears, their corned beef and their pastrami were a revelation. Prior to that the versions I’d had, likely, were all vacuum-packed slabs of meat from commercial ventures, good no doubt, but in a different sphere of existence from these hot, steaming hunks of meat carved up to order, piled high on bread, a squirt of mustard, a handful of pickles on the side. Nothing more, nothing less. And, so I discovered the world of the “true” New York deli at Katz’s, 205 East Houston Street, Lower East Side. In short order, too, I found my way to Ratner’s, the Second Avenue Deli, Gus’s Pickles, and others… all long gone.

But Katz’s remains. And every year for the last twenty six years, I’ve heard that I have to run right down there because developers are buying the building and it will be no more. And, once every two years while I lived here I would wander my way over and run the gauntlet to end up with a heaping helping of melt in your mouth meat. I haven’t been since moving away a bit over three years ago now, and Sunday afternoon I met up with a friend with whom I usually head out to try interesting and obscure Asian spots that he’s discovered. He suggested Katz’s. It was so out of the blue, so out of character, that I couldn’t think of anything to say but “yes”. And so we trekked down to the Lower East Side, hopping off the bus in front of Yonah Schimmel’s, the only spot one goes to for a really good knish… no, I mean a really good knish… but knowing what lay in store for us, we ambled on by. We continued past Russ and Daughters… peering longingly in the window at the array of smoked fishes, and pickles, and… no, really, we know what we’re in for, we must… keep… going…

And so, we finally entered the cacaphonous, begrimed hall that is, probably always has been, and probably always will be, Katz’s – a place most of the world only knows from When Harry Met Sally as the spot where she demonstrates faking an orgasm… We began the arduous task of “dining”, a term that can only be applied to the experience by one with the loosest possible definition of the term. The security guard at the door looked us over, handed us a couple of “tickets”, the same speech that he must give a thousand times a day rolling off his tongue – don’t lose the ticket, all tickets must be turned in when you leave, whether it’s been used or not, keep the ticket with you at all times… yeah, yeah, heard it before… let’s move on. Pick a line, the shortest line, in front of any of the “cutters”. It’s a push and shove match for the most part, and the tables come so close to the cutting counter that there’s not really any space for a line anyway. The place is full of Asians… how odd, for years it’s been all about the Jews eating Chinese food, clearly they’ve decided to return the favor.

We pick a “line” with only one guy in front of us… how were we to know he was ordering a dozen sandwiches to go? A near quarter hour ticks by until we finally get to the counter, slip a couple of singles into the tip jar – it’s the only way to get a sample slice or two, not to mention friendly rather than surly service. We order one pastrami and one corned beef sandwich, on rye, smear of mustard, don’t think about ordering anything else… really.. no potato pancakes no matter how good they are… no salads… okay a handful of pickles, but really, no more than that. Hand over one of the tickets, the cutter marks it with strange squiggles that will mean something to the cashier later. One of us moves down the line to wait another ten or so clicks of the minute hand, a line that ought to move quickly since it’s just cans of soda, bottles of beer, and french fries… lots of people are getting french fries… fools… they have no idea how much food they’re in for. A couple of Dr. Brown’s Creams, hand over one of the tickets, more squiggles, grab some straws… let’s find a table, thank god we didn’t go stand in the line for those potato pancakes, no matter how good they are. Shove the debris from the last customer off to the side and sit at one of the longer “communal” tables, it’s the only space available, and if we’re lucky, one of the two or three cleanup guys around will actually deign to pick up some of the trash from past customers.

Katz’s Deli - corned beef and pastrami sandwiches

And, we dig in. And it’s everything I remember it to be. The pastrami, spiced and smoky and so tender it falls apart as we tear through our half a sandwich each… a pickled tomato or cucumber interspersed here and there. Then, on to the corned beef, saved becase we know what the experience will be… the long pink slices ribboned with fat looking like o-toro, tuna belly… and, in similar fashion, melting on the tongue. I learned long ago not to hesitate at this point, if one slows, one will not be able to finish, and indeed, my companion, who has “taken a break” between the pastrami and corned beef finds himself too full to continue before he’s made it halfway through the latter, and gives up, pushing his plate away grimly. But I am gamely licking my fingers as the last morsel disappears. Then again, I hear the developers are coming, and perhaps I, no longer resident of the city, will never see the inside of Katz’s again….


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