Sandwiches tell stories. That’s true for any food, really, but especially so for sandwiches. For one thing, they’re ubiquitous; I can walk into a corner store in Anytown, USA, and rest assured that there’ll be bread and meat waiting for me behind the counter. Their universality, however, doesn’t mean predictability. The simple, unassuming sandwich has yielded endless permutations, each representative of specific places and times. There’s the New Orleans muffuletta, the Kentucky hot brown, Los Angeles’ French dip, the New England lobster roll, and so on and so forth. Sandwiches are culinary traditions, carried across geographical boundaries, merged with other foodways, and engrained into new cultures; take, for example, the Vietnamese banh mi. Pretty special.
All that is to say: Jay and I found some damn good sandwiches in NYC.
Last time we’d been in the Big Apple, Jay and I’d missed eating one of its most iconic foodstuffs: the pastrami, particularly the one at legendary Katz’ Delicatessen. We weren’t about to make the same mistake twice. We did, however, make a number of other errors that immediately betrayed us as tourists, mere hours into our stay in Manhattan:
- Gawking. The legendary Katz’ boasts a quintessentially New York atmosphere: wood-paneled walls covered with framed memorabilia; a long counter manned by fast-talking servers; a sign pointing out the site of that one When Harry Met Sally scene; etc. The hefty camera strapped around my neck probably didn’t help me pass as native, either.
- Fumbling with the ticketing system. We confusedly grabbed tickets from the host, who told us to hold onto them in order to exit the restaurant. In my starry-eyed state of mind, I didn’t quite hear him and nearly threw away my ticket since I didn’t end up ordering anything — but I’m glad I found the slip of paper at the bottom of my coat pocket. The “admissions ticket” model is a smart way for Katz’ to keep track of the customers and their orders within its premises.
- Sitting in the booths. Once we got our food, we eagerly plopped down in the cushy patent-leather seats lining the restaurant… and were promptly booted out. Unless you want more formal sit-down service, you’re expected to order from the counter and eat at a table. Quick and dirty, y’all.
The trademark sandwiches, while expensive, are enormous, and served with pickles and mustard. I, however, had my eye on the three meat platter: essentially a DIY sandwich sampler including pastrami, brisket, and corned beef — enough to feed “three tourists, or one regular customer.” We stared in amazement as our deli guy sliced up enormous hunks of meat, throwing us a sample here and there, and layered it all onto a plate for us. The accompanying sliced white bread, pickles and mustard, while solid, were mere accoutrements for the magic of the meat. The brisket and corned beef were deliciously tender, fatty, and salty, but paled in comparison to the insanely flavorful pastrami. After packing up our leftovers, Jay and I agreed that we’d most certainly return to share a single, glorious pastrami sandwich next time.
Next on our list of NYC musts was an NYC sandwich of a different sort: a Cuban from the beloved Cafe Habana (pictured in the lead photo). Once we got to the bustling corner restaurant, though, thoughts of bread and meat went flying out the door. On every table was a plate of elote: corn-on-the-cob, grilled and smothered in luscious layers of mayo, cotija cheese, chili powder, and lime juice. As you might expect, it was delicious and worth a try — but at $8 a pair, not a necessary repeat order. That which we came for, the Cuban sandwich, provided more bang for our buck, with citrus-marinated roast pork, ham, Swiss cheese, chipotle mayonnaise and pickle pressed into a toasted roll — and, of course, fries on the side. I was a total fan of the plate, though Jay thought it just okay; Paseo in Seattle remains our provider of ideal Caribbean sandwiches. In a similar vein, our other entree was great, though it didn’t reinvent the wheel. Four white shrimp (marinated in thyme, oregano, garlic, chipotle adobo pepper, citrus zest salt, pepper and olive oil) were grilled and stuffed into white corn tortillas alongside rice, beans, guacamole, and pico de gallo. We enjoyed the food, laid-back atmosphere, and friendly punk rock service, but wouldn’t make a huge effort to return — especially after realizing that Cafe Habana has outposts in California! Should I find myself in Malibu, I might swing by to treat myself and transport myself back to the West Village.
205 E Houston St, New York, NY 10002
17 Prince St, New York, NY 10012