If you have been to New Orleans, you may have experienced Mother’s. It is an institution and a scene, but one that is easily grasped. You enter at what appears to be the back door. This is a photo of the front, or exit, door.
You get in line, if indeed you have not already been in line that often extends outside at busy times (i.e., whenever it’s time to eat, which in New Orleans is any time at all, a reality Mother’s accommodates by serving breakfast all day). Upon entering the door, you get a menu and start reading fast in an attempt to grasp the vast array of offerings.
You may be struck right away by the presence of Debris on the menu. Debris is defined by the Cambridge Academic Content Dictionary as “broken or torn pieces left from the destruction of something larger,” giving as an example of use in a sentence: “After the tornado, debris from damaged trees and houses littered the town.”
That doesn’t sound too appetizing and clearly it must mean something else. Cambridge Press came close, but no cigar, probably because they’ve not been to New Orleans.
Anyway, Mother’s defines Debris on the menu, along with Black Ham that you simply have to try to appreciate:
Debris \ˈdā-ˈbrē\ n. The roast beef that falls into the au jus gravy in the pan while roasting in the oven. A Mother’s original. Black Ham \ˈblak ˈham\ n. The seasoned, caramelized crust sliced from the World’s Best Baked Ham. *Available in limited quantity, usually at breakfast.
You move through the line in a semi-orderly manner and when asked by the ladies behind the counter, you give your order. You pay up front, sit down and your order is delivered to your table.
But I digress. This post is not about New Orleans.
No, this is about Katz’s Delicatessen, established in 1888. Yes, that’s 1888. Katz’s sits at 205 E. Houston Street. By now most of you know that as Howston, not, never, absolutely not Hewston. Hewston is in Texas. Houston is in New York City. SoHo means “south of Houston,” which in Texas would mean the Gulf of Mexico or … oh fuhgeddaboudit.
So, we were talking about Katz’s. The place where the famous orgasm scene with Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan was filmed.
We went for Sunday lunch. The line was out the door until suddenly everyone was admitted at once. Inside, bedlam. A “scene,” if you will. How to explain. Even pictures do not convey the full impact.
Immediately upon entering you are handed a ticket with a loud verbal warning that if you lose the ticket before checking out at the end of your meal, you will pay $50 per ticket. “DO NOT LOSE YOUR TICKET!!” OK, I got it. Lose the ticket and you will be financially ruined when you check out. Maybe, I think, they won’t even let you leave if your credit’s bad. At your table, halfway back in the large room, over the roar of the crowd, you can still hear the warning up front to entering customers: “DO NOT LOSE YOUR TICKET!! YOU MUST HAVE YOUR TICKET WHEN YOU LEAVE!! DO NOT LOSE YOUR TICKET!!”
The concept of this place is that you order food you want at individual stations lined up along the right wall as you look in.
If possible, you do not want to sit near the food stations.
The man at the table next to ours had a wife and three kids, each of whom wanted different foods. He came and went perhaps six times, procuring food at different serving stations. To his wife, he finally said “This is the most inefficient set up I have ever seen and I can assure you I will never see it again.” He was, however, still smiling.
I, however, who abhor lines, was not smiling.
At the end of meal, which was OK except that the soup was lukewarm by the time we got to eat it, we went to the front, turned in our tickets, which I DID NOT LOSE!!, and paid. Total for two bowls of soup, a platter that we wanted with corned beef but which in the chaos ended up being brisket, and two soft drinks came to $66.25! If you like a scene, this place is for you.
The next weekend we participated in the March for Our Lives. During a break from standing in an unmoving crowd of thousands, we sought refuge at Fine & Schapiro on West 72nd Street. F & S only dates back to 1927, a relative newcomer in the New York Jewish food scene.
It’s a really small place, shaped like a train car with small booths on each side and a few tables down the middle. The menu is extensive. The concept is like a regular restaurant. You sit, someone takes your order, you eat, you pay at the front and leave. No yelling.
Chastened by our experience at Katz’s, we shared a corned beef sandwich and a single, very large potato pancake with apple sauce. BUT the pickles and a large bowl of tangy coleslaw were on the house. All in all, a very filling meal. With two soft drinks, the bill came to $28.00..
F & S was also quiet. We could talk without shouting. I like that. I said I LIKE THAT!
Anyway, that’s the story. There is a clear choice to be made here, though, of course, there are many other such places in The City. Probably none like Katz’s. A real New York institution. The number of delicatessens and just plain “delis” is declining, however. More about that in a future post.