It’s just after eight o’clock and the line is getting long. A group of German tourists is looking confused, while some locals plan the best line of attack for reaching the high deli counter before everyone else.
In between a constant stream of orders for pastrami and corned beef, my order once again stands out: a turkey sandwich, on rye bread, with two sides of Russian dressing. In the mecca of pastrami, a little-known secret is spreading — Katz’s also serves the best turkey sandwich in the city.
Since 1888, in the depths of the Lower East Side, amid a never-ending parade of construction, Katz’s Delicatessen has served its products in the same way: everything sliced to order, and without a fuss. In a city this large, Katz’s is an anomaly. The place is chocked with tourists, yet locals can still feel comfortable calling it home.
Each week, Katz’s goes through about fourteen tons of pastrami and corned beef combined, according to Jake Dell, who recently assumed the day-to-day operations that his father, grandfather, and uncle took over from the Katz family 30 years ago. For those without a calculator nearby, that’s nearly 30,000 pounds of meat. On the other side of the carving knife, they will sell some 2,000 to 3,000 pounds of turkey during that time. But the little bird on the totem pole, or roasting spit, shouldn’t be sold short.
The turkey sandwich at Katz’s is great on many levels, and it starts with the cooking process. First, all-white meat breasts are slowly roasted in the oven in what Dell calls “oven bags,” letting the birds soak in their own juices and keeping the meat flavorful. As Dell puts it, “Can’t soak in too many juices.”
After their time in the oven, the breasts are placed in the steaming pit, alongside the fabled pastrami and corned beef. As the meat is sliced to order, it’s best to order it a little fatty, for dry turkey (which is admittedly hard to find at Katz’s) is never a good time.
Piled on two slices of rye bread, the turkey is still tender and juicy after you walk the plate to your table. Where turkey can often be dry and unforgiving in its blandness, this sandwich is a cornucopia of perfectly balanced flavor. Forget all those overcooked turkeys you had at Thanksgivings at your aunt’s house — this is one of the few places left in the city that takes the time to slice turkey by hand.
While the pastrami should always get a treatment of spicy brown mustard, a Katz’s turkey sandwich needs a nice helping of their house-made Russian dressing, a combination resembling ketchup and mayonnaise; a side of the house pickles gives it texture and bite. And get a slice of fresh tomato and some raw onion to top the sammie, for tang.
In a world of pastrami, it’s nice to know there’s an undervalued sandwich in this NYC institution that shines just as bright. Next time you go, grab a turkey sandwich, and let your friends in on the best deli secret in town.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 10, 2015