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)
Even in my ancestral homeland of Chicago, a town that is stamped on my D.N.A and etched in my heart, I have to face angry questions about my loyalties from New York haters. When I’m visiting with my extended, deep-dish-loving family, people know that I’ve declared New York my adopted hometown. They know that I have a warm place in my heart for Chicago, but I am fully in LOVE with New York.
As I ate my second Wieners Circle hot dog at 2 a.m. last week, one of my cousin Jeremy’s friends from high school started talking pizza. I wanted to concentrate on my delicious hot dog, so I wasn’t about to start debating. But this guy, fortified with a few Jager bombs and a Chicago accent, forced the issue.
I tried to explain to him that Chicago food is in my blood, that grease runs thick in my veins (and arteries), and there was no reason for him to be defensive. But by this point it was more of a monologue on his part. I let him go for a while, but the last straw was when he broke into a Vinnie Barbarino style over-the-top New York goomba voice, bobbed his head like a chicken, and mocked me with, “Hey, OOOH, Dis pizza is good, yeah sure, but it ain’t as good a Ray’s on 59th Street no how.”
First of all, Ray’s on 59th Street, if it exists, is not good. Second of all, I am a lot of things, but I am no food snob. I’m always open to trying new things. And if I find the taste is superior, I’m not afraid to change my mind about what’s better. Plus, I never even said New York has better anything as far as this guy knew.
But since he brought it up, I thought I’d indulge this New York hater. So today I’m going to compare a few of the foods I ate in Chicago recently with some similar foods I ate in New York recently. And since he dropped the pizza bomb, I’ll start with that.
I am well aware that many of the denizens of each city harbor very strong, often irrational, feelings on the pizza issue. And not everyone will be happy with the pizzerias I’ve chosen to compare. But Due’s is where the majority of my family recommended I eat when I was in Chicago (although certain members of my family urged me to go elsewhere- Lou Malnati’s, Edwardo’s, Baccino’s, or Gino’s to name a few). And John’s is where I last ate pizza in New York solely because it’s around the corner from my house.
I have had great deep-dish pizza in Chicago. It is amazing. The sheer amount of cheese is staggering. The flavor of the sausage has made my heart skip a beat. The thick crust can be delicious.
But at Due’s none of those things were true. The crust, though my Aunt Linda loved the buttermilk quality of it, was way too thick and dry for my (and my Chicago-born mother’s) liking. The bland crust overwhelmed the whole pizza. Deep-dish offers the possibility of voluminous cheese, sauce, and sausage, but the proportion of crust to everything else was way out of whack at Due’s.
(LOOKS really good right? But even with all that cheese the pizza was too bready)
John’s, though all anyone seems to write about it anymore is that it isn’t as good as it used to be, is a classic New York thin crust pizza. Maybe it’s not as good as an authentic Napolitana pizza, but the proportions are right on. The crust is thin but not floppy, the cheese is plentiful but not so much as to overshadow the rest of the pie, the sauce is spread to the edge but the pizza isn’t swimming in it. My John’s pie just had more flavor than my Due’s pies did, even though there was less of everthing on my John’s pie.
Plus, if you so desire, you can find a perfectly proportioned, cheesey, saucy, chewy thick slice at L&B Spumoni Gardens in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn.
(Spumoni goes so well with a thick slice no matter where you are from)
I admit, however, if you crave great Chicago pizza, Spumoni Gardens won’t do.
I also tried a cherry lime ricky at Due’s. This drink, had at an old-fashioned soda jerk like Tom’s in Brooklyn, can be incredibly tasty and refreshing. A classic New York cherry lime ricky is just selzer, syrup, ice cubes, and a lime slice. Due’s made their’s like a frozen smoothie.
(Chicago on the left; New York on the righ)
Generally I love smoothies, but the one I had at Due’s was weak. It melted way too quickly, and it left me in the mood for a real New York style cherry lime ricky.
Billygoat Tavern is a famous old Chicago institution from the 30s on the level of Tom’s Diner in Brooklyn. Billygoat was even parodied on Saturday Night Live in the 70s (because all the good cast members on SNL in New York came out of Second City in Chicago), yet my branch of the family had never been there. The moment we walked in, I immediately realized that it had been a terrible mistake that it’d taken us this long.
(smoke obscured the view of our “doubles” on the grill)
The grill man actually did yell “Cheezeborger, cheezeborger, cheezeborger, cheezeborger” the way John Belushi did in that SNL sketch. Classic old Chicago characters in suspenders and fedoras sat in every dark corner watching the Cubs getting slaughtered by the Mets. And the burgers were delicious.
(Here is my branch of the family, every member with a full mouth of Billygoat burger aside from Milo whose mouth is full of Goldfish)
(Milo will move onto burgers soon enough if I do my job as his uncle)
The host suggested we (and everyone else who came through the door) order “doubles.” My sister-in-law didn’t come up to the counter to see that each patty was McDonalds thin, so she ordered a “single” and ended up being fairly disappointed. The doubles, with cheese between the patties and a fixin’ bar of chopped onions, relish, and sliced pickles, were tasty for sure. But I think, like the Due’s pizza, there was too much bread. My sister-in-law and I decided to go back for a second round and split a “triple,” and we were both duly impressed.
(Melissa shows off the “double” and I show off the “triple”; I think it is clear who makes the better spokesmodel)
The “triple” was delightfully meaty and cheesy, and I think the host should be recommending those. But I must say that even a “triple” can’t compare with a Corner Bistro “bistro burger.” The bistro burger is the premier burger in New York if not the world. Admittedly, it has a leg up on a Billygoat burger because the bistro burger comes with three stips of bacon. But the real difference is in the beef.
I saw the Billygoat burgers come out of stacks of patties with slices of paper in between before they hit the grill, making me suspicious that they had been frozen at some point in their history. Corner Bistro ground beef is stored in a vat. I used to order mine medium, but one night at around 3am I witnessed the owner drop by, put a rubber glove on, grab a handful of ground beef out of the vat, and eat it raw. Since then, I always order my bistro burger rare.
One thing Billygoat has on Corner Bistro is that they offer much crunchier, tastier pickle chips (I think the above pictures make that clear). And crunchy pickles go a long way toward a good burger experience for me. So now might be a good time to compare New York pickles to Chicago pickles.
Let me begin by saying Chicago wins the prize for best utilization of pickles. If New Yorker put a entire pickle spear along side each of their Sabretts, they’d be a much happier bunch. But I can’t say the Puckered Pickle Co., “Made With Pride In Chicago,” that my Aunt Linda keep in her fridge are as good as the Gus Pickles I keep in mine. And I know of no place in Chicago that sells pickles out of the barrel on the sidewalk the way nature intended.
It seems like I’m saying Chicago’s food is inferior to New York’s. But I assure I think no such thing. It so happens that I like John’s better than Due’s, Corner Bistro better than Billygoat Tavern, and Gus Pickles better than Puckered Pickles. But Chicagoans can take for granted some foods that New Yorkers can’t even hope to find at near that quality (Italian beef sandwiches for one).
And more importantly, Chicagoans know how to eat. Where else can I go where people don’t bat an eyelash when I eat ribs for breakfast:
(You can tell it’s breakfast because my hair is wet from the shower)
(My aunt Linda makes sure to bring ribs home from the black part of town)
Had I picked different places, Chicago might have come out on top in every category. But I did give Chicago a fair shake. The places I review here are institutions in that town. And I didn’t even bother to compare hot dogs or ribs because I think Chicago takes those columns with no competition. So you New York haters need to cool out. Still though, New York is a great place to come home to.
Due’s, 619 N Wabash, Chicago
John’s, Bleeker Street and Jones Street, West Village, Manhattan
L&B Spumoni Gardens, 86th Street and West 9th Street, Bensonhurst, Brooklyn
Billygoat Tavern, 430 N Michigan Avenue Lower Level (SERIOUSLY, GO DOWN SOME STAIRS THAT DON’T LOOK LIKE YOU SHOULD GO DOWN THEM, DON’T BE DISCOURAGED IF YOU CAN’T FIND IT AT FIRST) Chicago
Corner Bistro, West 4th Street and Jane Street, West Village, Manhattan
Gus Pickles, Orchard Street and Broome Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan
Hecky’s, 1902 Green Bay Road, Evanston
Visit www.famousfatdave.com for an eating tour of New York City