You may remember me arguing that the BLT is the best sandwich ever, with the one caveat that the hot Reuben sandwich sounded pretty good. So of course, the Reuben made it to my list of must do food experiences for my visit to the US. Katz’s deli in NYC’s Lower East Side is The Place to get such a sandwich. The corned beef is dry cured in a process which takes a full month. The resulting meat is truly delicious and perfectly tender. The sauerkraut adds suitable texture and vegetable matter. The dressing, with finely chopped pickle has a beautiful sweet, sour creaminess which works beautifully with the other ingredients. What’s not to love about melted Swiss cheese. Then the bread: it was a little unexpected. It was only a light rye, but flecked with lovely caraway seeds, perfect for this purpose.
Katz’s itself was also a great cultural experience. It’s been running since 1888 and is frequented by a whole range of New Yorkers, as well as tourists. It makes for great people watching if you have the time to stick around after your massive meal. There’s a certain system going on, which kind of scared me at first but when the staff realised I was new, they explained it to me. They’re very efficient, the place has a very high turnover, but also pretty friendly. My waitress was super lovely.
Actually I’d love to make (or more likely see someone else make) a film, Empire Records style, about the staff and goings on at Katz’s deli. I think there’d be some great stories there; great characters. And it’s a great set too: the pine paneled walls are covered with photos of the owner with famous people, above which are countless neon light signs of American beers. Along the other long wall is the mail order deli with the catch cry “send a salami to your boy in the army” and the massive servery with a whole cast of players. There are self-serve drinking water taps at the back of the restaurant and custom mustard bottles on the table. You are given a ticket when you first arrive which is used a bit like it is in a sushi train, to mark what you’ve eaten. There’s a bouncer on the door who checks all the tickets, so you can’t run without paying the bill. There’s the option for ‘self serve’, I still don’t know how that works in this context, or table service.
When I sat down, my waitress gave me a big plate of complimentary pickles. I didn’t know what they were, but made the effort to try one of each and asked about them later. They were: half sour (from a garlic brine, no vinegar), full sour (pickled with garlic in a vinegar brine) and pickled tomato (which was actually a pickled green tomato). They were certainly salty, but I thought the full sour was especially delicious. The waitress also gave me a choice of drinks that I’d never heard of. I’d tried root beer already (it tastes kind of like cough syrup) so I thought I’d try Black Cherry. It was pretty good, still a little medicinal, but not as much as root beer. Katz’s are famous for their pastrami, so I actually got half pastrami in my Reuben. The pastrami was indeed delicious, but I think the Reuben flavour combo works best with corned beef. The volume of food was immense, I was eventually beaten by it, but the meal wasn’t cheap. I paid over $25 US dollars, plus tip. But I think it was worth the whole experience.
I was wonderfully surprised when the waitress took away my plate and packed up all my leftovers for me to take home: pickles and all! I didn’t even ask. But I knew they’d be great on my train trip to Washington D.C. It turns out cold Reuben sandwich is also pretty great. I might even do them that way at home. Now I need to find a suitable Russian dressing recipe!