To view a video take on this installment of The Good Life -- along with a real pastrami sandwich --
click here . Recently I found myself ordering up a hot pastrami sandwich, a round potato knish, some half-sour pickles and a Dr. Brown's Cel-Ray soda. My waiter at New York's world-famous Carnegie Deli replied, "What's better than that?" Nothing. Save perhaps the Beatles, the world may never have seen a combination that matches this fabulous foursome. No feast on earth compares to the quintessential New York deli meal. Not the eight-course tasting menus at Daniel , Jean Georges or any of New York's swankiest restaurants. Nothing the most Iron of chefs could whip up even given all the time and ingredients in the world. The irony is that people spend their lives traveling far and wide in search of The Good Life. But you need look no further than the local delicatessen counter. After all, there's a reason you can't spell "deliverance" without "deli." Seeking salvation in smoked meat, I visited three huge New York City delis -- the Carnegie, the Second Avenue and Katz's -- to see how they stack up. Carnegie may be the best known delicatessen on the planet. But like the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty, many New Yorkers probably haven't visited the Carnegie since they were kids. That's less for quality of the food, which remains top-notch, and more for the lines and the tourists -- both of which New Yorkers are known to go miles to avoid, no matter how tasteful the fare inside. (It's even possible that Peter Luger , New York's gold standard steakhouse, would get shunned by the locals were it to relocate to touristy Manhattan from its exotic outer-borough home in Brooklyn's Williamsburg neighborhood.) And true to form, a tour bus was parked outside the Carnegie as we arrived for our off-peak visit, around 6 on a Monday evening. But there was still plenty of room inside. The cavernous restaurant is adorned by hundreds of pictures of celebrities who have made the pilgrimage to tackle a massive, meaty sandwich.
And the sandwiches are everything they're made out to be: colossal, gigantic, gargantuan, whatever adjective you want to use. The pastrami on rye (what else?) arrived quickly, was cut thick and wasn't too salty. It was also far leaner than I remembered on my last visit, which was probably over a decade ago. (Hey, I'm a New Yorker.) There was no doubt that the pastrami lived up to its billing, even if that was a pricey $15.95. Then again, this Dagwood Bumstead-style sandwich is probably meant for two people. Or maybe a small Midwestern family, depending on what they had for breakfast. The pickles, on the other hand, were priceless. They arrived at the table moist and juicy. At most delis you live with the fear that your free side of pickles has been recycled once or maybe more. As a self-appointed knish expert, I must say I found the round potato knish disappointing. I like 'em lumpy. If I want mashed potatoes in philo dough, I'll order it that way. To wash it all down, I went with the Dom Perignon of deli drinks, a can of Dr. Brown's Cel-Ray. It may be an acquired taste -- obviously the folks from Dubuque at the table next of us didn't quite grasp its subtlety -- but there is no finer complement to the world's finest sandwich.
2nd Avenue Deli doesn't compare to the Carnegie. Not in the quality of food mind you, both dish up equally wondrous pastrami, but in the fact that the Second Avenue Deli is kosher and the Carnegie is not. This distinction may seem trivial to some. But to the observant Jew, as well as those who worship at the Temple of New York delis, the gulf between kosher and kosher-style can be wide and deep. The fact is, I can forgive the neophyte at the Carnegie for sending back his Cel-Ray in favor of a Coke. But I cannot forgive him asking for Swiss cheese on his corned beef, or a wedge of muenster on his pastrami. Those affronts to fine cuisine, let alone humanity, don't happen at the 2nd Avenue Deli, which keeps its milks and its meats separate, according to kosher laws. The pastrami is sliced thinner here than at the Carnegie. And you may want to order a backup Cel-Ray in advance because the meat is also saltier. Luckily, in addition to pickles, they also serve a wonderful mayo-free cole slaw.
Katz's Deli isn't kosher. But it is for lovers. And not just pastrami lovers. As most movie fans know, Meg Ryan had her faux-orgasm there while dining with Billy Crystal in the romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally. And Katz's cafeteria-style arrangement brings back memories of high school, so don't be surprised if your first crush pops into your head as you wait tray in hand on the pickle line. But the pastrami line is where the magic happens and there are no height requirements to get on this ride. Whereas the 2nd Avenue Deli is ideal for those who prefer their pastrami on the salty side and sliced thinly, Katz's is the place for those who like it peppery and thick-cut.
Furthermore, unlike the help at Disney World, the folks behind the counter at Katz's will give you a sample taste of the magnificent stuff if you throw a dollar in the tip jar. You have to be Goofy to not take advantage. The round potato knishes are more than serviceable at Katz's, yet I did not order one there. Instead, I smuggled one in from
Yonah Schimmel's Knishes Bakery , another longstanding Lower East Side institution located around the corner. Yonah Schimmel's knishes are heavier than shot puts, full of magnificent lumps and just the perfect complement to Katz's finest. To view a video take on this installment of The Good Life, click here .
The Carnegie DeliThe
|The Carnegie Deli |
Carnegie Hall of delis?
|2nd Avenue Deli |
Try the pastrami -- kosher too
2nd Avenue DeliThe
|Katz's Deli |
Where Harry met Sally
Katz's DelicatessenLike the Carnegie,
Don't miss the knishes