The NYC Pastrami Showdown

Everyone hears how great the deli sandwich is in New York.  Maybe it was growing up in western Canada that started me off with a low baseline for quality deli meat but I remember my first trips to New York or Montreal thinking to myself, “This is a real smoked meat/pastrami sandwich?!  Where have you been all my life?!”  On a recent trip to New York, I had to chance to indulge in a number of my favorite delis and set it straight in my head how each stacks up against the other.

Carnegie Deli:

Located just north of time square, this New York institution has been lined up outside the door every time I’ve tried to eat here.  The walls are lined with celebrity pictures and testimony and rightfully so.  They make a pretty good sandwich.  First off, the thing is huge.  The picture above is just the regular size sandwich.  They can make them even bigger.  Meat wise, the meat is moist and well spiced.  There are parts of the huge meat pile that can feel a little on the dry side but the flavor comes through every bite.

Katz’s Deli:

As much as I had heard about Katz’s on food shows, movies and from other New York residents I actually didn’t try this place until my sixth or seventh trip down.  Finally, on a rainy day in 2009, I walked from Canal street all the way down Houston to try this lower east side legend (I recommend taking the subway….this walk was really long).  This placed, much like Carnegie, is rammed with people.  You can watch the busy staff pull slab after slab of meat from the smoker (yes they go through it that quickly) and hand cut off samples for patrons and stack them on to slice after slice of rye bread.  It’s can be a little overwhelming but them smell and rush of people kind of puts you in the zone and you order and are seated within minutes.  As for the sandwich, melt in your mouth good.  The meat has a well balanced smoky flavor, rich peppery spices and is so moist it really does just melt in your mouth.  And that’s just the pastrami.  The beef brisket must be one of the best I’ve ever eaten and the Russian dressing they use on their Reuben is the stuff of legend.  The corned beef is a little on the dry and salty side (I know it’s supposed to be salty) but toss some coleslaw and Russian dressing on top and you have an amazing Reuben sandwich.

2nd Ave Deli:

The name can be a little misleading since this place actually isn’t on 2nd Ave anymore.  This place came recommended by a few lawyers I used to work with who lived in New York early in their careers.  They said all the tourists go to Carnegie and Katz’s but the locals go to 2nd Ave Deli.  Well I had to test it out.  Walking into the narrow establishment after about a 15 minute walk south east of Grand Central, it immediately gives a classic Jewish deli feel.  Knishes, matzah ball soup, perogies and hot sandwiches are flying out of the kitchen and making my mouth water.  The first thing I have to mention is the coleslaw. Probably the best I’ve ever had.

The perogies, both the spinach and potato, are covered with buttery caramelized onions and taste delicious (both the deep fried or boiled varieties).  But the sandwich… gooooooood!  I had the matzah ball soup half sandwich platter since I wanted to try the soup.

My father had the sandwich combo.  It came with both a corned beef sandwich and a pastrami sandwich.  The pastrami was excellent.  Again, like it’s counterparts, strikes a nice balance between smokiness, spice and meaty goodness. The corned beef was also quite good, juicier than Katz’s corned beef but neither corned beef sandwich stacked up to the pastrami (I think I just prefer the juicier pastrami over corned beef).

Really all three pastrami sandwiches are amazing!  You’d be hard pressed to find a deli sandwich of the same caliber outside of New York (except maybe Schwartz’s in Montreal but then again, Montreal smoked meat is a different beast than pastrami.  The very first sandwich I had at Caplansky’s when he was still in that dive bar south of college was also a close rival, maybe even better, but since moving to the big shop I find it has slipped somewhat).  But, if I had to pick my favorite pastrami sandwich, I would have to go with Katz’s, then 2nd Ave and then Carnegie.  For the best sandwich, pastrami Reuben at Katz’s although the beef brisket is a close second.  Best side dishes would have to go to 2nd Ave deli.  It is hard to beat the convenience of Carnegie being midtown right by the theaters though.  In any case, all three serve up some legendary sandwiches, I just wish I could get them here and wouldn’t have to schlep all the way to Manhattan to satisfy my deli craving.

~ by jlowjlow on October 23, 2011.

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