I try not to spread the rumors I hear in my cab. These are just schlubs I pick up off the street, and I usually have no way to corroborate their stories. The internet is a powerful weapon which, according to my America Online Terms Of Service Agreement that I e-signed in 1994, I have sworn to use responsibly.
But I heard a particularly nasty rumor a little while back that I just had to investigate. I heard that Katz’s Deli is going to be turned into luxury condos. “No no no, you got it all wrong,” I retorted when those words violated my ear holes. “They’re turning the parking lot and Yarakovsky’s container store across the street into condos. That’s already happening.” My brain wouldn’t allow me accept the possibility that it might be true. But my fare told me that he’d read it in Time Out New York, and if James Oliver Curry says it. . .
Apparently, the plan is to close down Katz’s (for the first time since 1888), build condos on top, and then reopen Katz’s underneath. To me, this is terrifying. This is like the “grandma is on the roof” joke. They are setting me up to to let me down easy. So that I won’t just wake up one day and find Katz closed forever, the way 2nd Avenue Deli met its demise not so long ago.
(A close up of Katz’s as it has been for well over a century)
(A wider shot reveals the luxury condo trend on the LES visible just a block away on Orhard, and this shot was taken from the luxury condo construction site mentioned above)
No luxury condo on earth would allow a stinky deli on its ground floor. I think it’s a New York State Law that if there’s anything other than a bank on the retail level of a luxury condo, it’s got to be a Whole Foods.
Guss Pickles as we know it ended the same way. One day, the building’s owner decided to make luxury condos out of the Essex Street location. One morning, they went to open up the store and there was a lock on the gate and an eviction notice. Guss had to move to Orchard Street, but the joke’s on the gentrifiers because I guarantee that first floor will still smell like full sours for at least a decade. Katz’s smell, however, won’t linger if they tear the whole structure down to make way for high rise with floor to ceiling windows on every floor (which look great from the inside, but is starting to make the Lower East Side look like a suburban office park).
I decided to go into Katz’s Deli to do a little snooping . . . and eating. It was late on a weeknight, so there was no line. I walked straight up to that old meat cutter with the white hair and the tatooed forearms (if you eat at Katz’s you know who I’m talking about). As he made me my reuben, I made small talk (and made sure that he saw me put a dollar in that upside down paper cup that acts as a tip jar on the Lower East Side). His name, I found out after eating the meat he cut me for 10 years, is Peter. He’s Russian, and he’s worked at Katz for longer than Bernie was a Yankee.
“So . . . what’s the deal with this luxury condo business?” I asked as if I were Jerry Seinfeld setting up a joke. I wanted him to look at me like I was crazy. I wanted him to flick his wrist and wave his knife dismissively. I wanted him to say that it was just a rumor, a dirty, rotten lie.
But he didn’t. His face dropped. His eyes narrowed. And as he pushed a slice a warm pastrami across the counter for me to nibble, he leaned in and motioned for me to do that same. “You have no idea the amount of money these people are dealing in. . . No idea,” he said in a hushed tone. “But they don’t tell us nothing. It might be a condo with the deli on the bottom. It might be a condo with a lobby on the bottom. It might stay the way it is. They don’t tell us nothing. But you have no idea . . . no idea the amount of money.”
Now, I’ve had more powerful religious experiences at Katz’s than I’ve had at my synagogue. I’ve never felt more Jewish – or more at peace with the world for that matter – than I did while eating my first Katz’s reuben, alone, facing one of the only blank spots on the wall. If Katz’s closes, I may consider moving out of New York. That, or become a Buddhist.
So with the possibility of Katz’s closing, and 2nd Avenue Deli and Pastrami Queen as much a part of New York history as the Checker Cab, I was in the market for a new deli. I’d already heard about this place in New Jersey called Harold’s from an college friend who used to eat at Katz’s with me. Then an old New Yorker in my cab told me Harold’s was the real deal. When I heard a couple of gay Puerto Rican thugs from Newark with their elderly Jewish trick on the Christopher Street Pier announce loudly that they were all going to Harold’s, it was the last straw. It was time for me to branch out.
(Harold’s immediately gets old school cred for the skyline on the sign)
On my last trip down the NJTP I pulled off at exit 10. And there my faith was restored. I found Harold’s everything I’d hoped for and more.
First of all, everything there is oversized. And I don’t just mean oversized the way the way white girls wear their plastic belts in Williamsburg. I mean oversized the way Barry Bonds’ head is oversized. One slice of cake is the size of an entire cake anywhere else:
And, as Harold’s sign boast, in this case “bigger is better.” My pastrami sandwich was delicious. It was moist and tender, fatty without being chewy, with a tempurature like warm apple pie. New Yorkers often claim it’s the city’s water that makes their food so special, so it can’t be duplicated in New Jersey. Granted, I like Katz’s more. And both 2nd Ave Deli and Pastrami Queen were better. So I guess I’m lowering the bar now that the pickin’s are slimmer. Either way though, Harold’s pastrami made me very, very happy.
Harold’s pickles made me even happier though. I’d heard that they had the world’s largest and only free pickle bar. But I assumed that that too was a rumor. A FREE pickle bar?!? Sounded too good to be true.
But there it was, as plain as the Jewish nose on my face. And the pickles were great. New pickles, half sours, full sours (although they call them half sours, sours, and kosher dills as though the others are not kosher and don’t have dill which I think they are and they do). The pickles were almost all crunchy. Not a mushy bloater in the bunch. And the health salad, hot cherry peppers, spicy pickle chips, and pickled tomatoes were all delicious as well. When the sandwich came, a small bowl of completely gratuitous cole slaw came with it, but it ended up being one of the highlights of the meal.
I made more trips to the pickle bar than was appropriate, but at Harold’s it is a culture of abundance and no one batted an eyelash. In fact, the menu encourages sharing at no extra cost. Melissa and I shared one “small” pastrami sandwich, and by the time we left the table we were stuffed. We each got a Dr. Brown’s, we brought home left-over pickles from the bottomless pickle bar along with extra rye bread to go with the extra sandwich and a half worth of left-over pastrami, and the whole thing cost $25 including the tip.
Katz’s will close one day. And I’ve come to terms with that. Maybe there won’t be condos. Maybe there will be condos. But I will most likely see Katz’s shutter its doors before the end of my life. So when that happens, there will be a lot less of this:
And a lot more of this:
Harold’s New York Deli Restaurant, Exit 10 on the NJ Turn Pike, Follow The Signs To Raritan Center until after the clover leaf under the highway, Take a left onto the street where you see the Holiday Inn and Harold’s in the back
Five Borough Food Tourism at FamousFatDave.Com for Katz’s and much more
(On the clock at Katz’s)