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Free Food: Is Katz's Pastrami Sandwich Still a Good Deal at $30?
Plus, America's best new restaurants and chefs from Food & Wine and Bon Appétit, as well as thoughts on when a restaurant is "gonna suck"
Free Food is a weekly column that tracks some of the biggest (and smallest) stories in food from across the country, with a focus on features, op-eds, and reviews.
Top Story: Katz’s pastrami sandwich jumps up in price, again
You wouldn’t eat one of New York’s top pastrami sandwiches every day, like you would a BEC or a hot cheese slice. These skyscraper-sized creations are exercises in gustatory excess, like a prime rib at Smith & Wollensky or a giant martini at Bemelmans. It’s something you share a few times a year with an old coworker or an out-of-town friend. Some folks surely love this supersized reality. I don’t. And I like it even less now that the price of this staple is moving even further into splurge territory.
You’l pay $27.45 for a pastrami on rye at Katz’s this September, $1.50 more than last year. The increase tracks with nationwide beef prices, which are rising amid constrained supplies due to droughts out West; in fact consumer beef and veal prices rose a sturdy 2.4 percent last month alone, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported this week.
After tax, you’ll now end up spending $30 at Katz’s. Add on a tip — a customary “thank you” for your carver — and the price ends up being closer to $35.
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Make no mistake; no one’s going to get their Subaru repossessed because they’re spending an extra few bucks on pastrami. But in a world where the cost of everything is going up and up — causing Americans to cut back on non-essential spending — one has to wonder whether a $30 pastrami sandwich is truly worth it. That’s all the more true when you have to wait in line halfway down the block at Katz’s to get one.
I’ll argue that what might be the city’s most famous sandwich shouldn’t cost more than a full-day admission to MoMA, or about as much as a famous hanger steak in Brooklyn. And it shouldn’t look like it’s portioned for a competitive eating contest.
Katz’s pastrami sandwich is “not fantastic and never will be until something is done about the rye,” the NYT’s Pete Wells wrote last year, though it’s the favorite of Eater critic Robert Sietsema. I personally love the deli’s brick red navel meat, with its peppered bark and obscene marbling, but I prefer the product at S&P’s lunch counter in Flatiron. The meat there packs more nuance of coriander than the others. But best of all: It’s smaller. You can finish the whole thing by yourself without curling up into a ball and praying to the New and Old Gods that you’ll never treat your GI tract so poorly again. And for a few bucks more you can add on a nice chocolate egg cream and still end up paying less than at Katz’s.
2nd Ave Deli, incidentally, is holding at $25.95 for its own pastrami, while Hometown still asks $28 for its superb sandwich.
America’s Best New Restaurants and Chefs: Bon Appétit and Food & Wine
The glossy food mags put out their “best new” lists this week; they’re huge efforts that require quite a bit of travel and money and eating. Those who follow the restaurant world won’t be surprised by a few of the entries, like Pijja Palace, an Indian Italian sports bar in Los Angeles (it’s really, really good), and chef Ed Szymanski who runs two of New York’s hottest restaurants with Patricia Howard.
But what I like about these lists are the surprises. Bon Appétit’s package, overseen by Elazar Sontag, highlighted Brooklyn’s Ensenada, a mezcal-fueled Modern Mexican spot that, like Aldama, hasn’t received the serious attention it deserves. I reckon I’ll have more to say about the seafood-centric Williamsburg-spot again soon, but briefly: This is where you go for stellar fish tacos by Cosme alum Luis Herrera. Of particular note is the large format al pastor branzino, with pineapple butter as rich as cheesecake.
Food & Wine’s effort, in turn, put a spotlight on Washington D.C.’s Isabel Coss. She’s not an unknown figure by any stretch of the imagination, but her fine work in the pastry kitchen at Cosme never really attracted the same close-ups as other high profile pastry chefs. So it’s très cool to see Khushbu Shah penning a legit profile of Coss and her desserts at Lutèce, a Georgetown neo-bistro helmed her chef-husband, Matt Conroy. I’m dying to try her pear sorbet!
A select group of New York restaurants have been working to rethink diner fare with more expansive (and expensive) preparations than what one might encounter at a pancake-and-eggs joint. I think of Thai Diner in Nolita (just look at those lines), the Korean-tinged Golden Diner in Two Bridges, and Superiority Burger in Alphabet City (a white hot vegetarian take on a coffee and pie joint).
In Oakland, however, chef Matt Horn is trying something different with the nostalgia card, serving up $19 hot dogs and fancy filet-o-fish sandwiches. SF Chronicle associate critic Cesar Hernandez likes some of the dishes, including a tallow-laced burger that deposits a layer fat on your lips like “Chapstick.” But the journalist also has tougher words:
But we don’t go to diners for health purposes. My takeaway: You visit Matty’s to be comforted, not because it’s doing something new but something familiar. The problem is the cost of comfort here is much higher than its source of inspiration, and the execution is usually worse. To put it bluntly, it’s hard to justify an expensive hot dog that isn’t as good as one you’d get after a concert.
I love charcoal-tinged chicken livers at Japanese yakitori spots, and I still dream about lobes of that tangy organ from an old frisee salad at Bar Boulud. But for reasons I can’t manage to wrap my head around, I’ve never managed to develop a fondness for poultry livers when they’re transformed into mousse. I always find that preparation to be bilious.
That said, I reckon I’ll give it another shot after reading Jaya Saxena’s missive on the funky ingredient. The Eater correspondent does a clever job contrasting aughts-era offal with the current spate of chicken liver mousses, arguing that they appear more polished and luxurious than the rustic and messy toasts of the 2000s. I’m particularly tempted by a version at Denver’s Hey Kiddo, which includes “fluted ribbons of chicken liver mousse on Texas toast, topped with crispy tempura, pickled mustard seed, and strawberry vinegar,” Saxena writes.
Every critic relishes putting out a list of things they don’t like, and New York Magazine columnist Tammie Teclemariam has a particular juicy collection of thoughts here, titled: “Is That Restaurant Gonna Suck?” Do yourself a favor and read the whole thing, but here are three choice lines:
“Famous brunch: If dinner were better, the restaurant would be famous for that instead.
Any borough in the name: Or the word social, for that matter.
Mayor Adams’s approval: Quid pro quo is not Latin for ‘culinary excellence.’”
I haven’t had the opportunity to eat a lot of catfish in my life, but as a lover of seafood and all the words folks use to describe edible underwater treasures, I was intrigued by Alison Cook’s thoughts on Gatlin’s Fins & Feathers. Enjoy:
“Catfish can be polarizing. Some delicate souls recoil from a certain “muddiness” that infuses some specimens of this very Southern freshwater fish. (I am not among them.) But the catfish at Gatlin’s has tasted pure and singing every time I have sampled it…Great fried catfish is its own kind of miracle, but a blackened fish that holds up under its spicy sear feels rare to me. I’ve always thought the blackening technique bullies the fish, but at Fins & Feathers, it actually works.”
Ligaya Mishan goes deep on vanilla, particularly on the subject of how the intoxicating spice has somehow become a linguistic and cultural signifier for blandness. There’s a lot in in here, but this quick meditation made me smile:
“It’s good to remember that the use of “vanilla” as a pejorative is mostly confined to American English. (In Japan, the connotations of “vanilla” — familiarity and friendliness, the implication of an endearing innocence — led executives at All Nippon Airways in 2013 to give their lower-priced subsidiary the name Vanilla Air; it has since merged with Peach Aviation.)”
That’s it for this week. Try sitting outside for some al fresco chomps this weekend while the weather is still nice!
p.s. Since I mentioned Robert Sietsema’s love of Katz’s, check out this very cool piece he wrote last year comparing the Lower East Side institution with Langer’s in Los Angeles!
p.p.s. I don’t usually talk about this stuff but it was nice to learn the other day that The LO Times is now a Substack bestseller! Thanks so much to all of you for joining me on this unexpected journey…I have lots of cool stuff planned for the months ahead!