Sandwich Smackdown: Mile End’s Smoked Meat vs. Katz’s Pastrami

We last called upon Kim Davis, the East Villager who writes At the Sign of the Pink Pig, to judge the new porchetta sandwich at Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria against the classic version at Porchetta. Now that another buzzy sandwich shop has opened in NoHo, we asked him to referee another meat match. Will the Canadian underdog, Mile End, prevail over the reigning champion, Katz’s?

Mile End (2)Kim Davis The smoked meat sandwich at Mile End.

The East Village, like it or not, may be gentrifying, but one might have been forgiven for thinking that some things would never change. The supremacy, for example, of the pastrami sandwich at Katz’s as an iconic New York dish, a plated symbol of deli history, and the one thing any visitor to the neighborhood has to eat.

Yet here comes Canadian Noah Bernamoff, with a trimmed down version of his modernist Brooklyn deli Mile End, opening on Bond Street just off the Bowery, no more than a ten-minute walk from the self-proclaimed “Best Deli in New York.”

Mile End Sandwich asks you to stand at a zig-zag communal table while scarfing modern versions of deli classics. The tongue sandwich is pickled veal tongue with onion-raisin marmalade; the beef on weck is made with Wagyu. Above all, there’s the signature smoked meat sandwich, Mr. Bernamoff’s tribute to the old Jewish delis of Montreal.

Mile End dry cures brisket in a spice mix, smokes it, and hand-carves it to order. The result is bright red meat of varying texture, served with mustard on rye. The best of it is soft and tender, but the shards from the exterior of the brisket take some chewing. It’s produced at Mile End’s own commissary kitchen in Red Hook.

With no adornment (pickles or slaw are extra), the price of the sandwich is $12 plus tip. The meat is mellow and comforting in flavor, not strongly smoked like barbecue.

Katz'sKim Davis The pastrami sandwich at Katz’s.

Pastrami is by no means the same thing as Montreal-style smoked meat. It’s usually made from navel, a fattier cut than brisket, and brined (wet-cured) before being smoked.

The provenance of Katz’s pastrami is relentlessly ambiguous – even the owners couldn’t get their story straight in a 2003 New York Times article – but it’s fair to say it’s a slicker, sleeker product than Mile End’s meat.

Salty and smoky, Katz’s pastrami is a flavor bomb, tender throughout, leaving the mouth pleasantly coated in savory grease. It comes on rye with mustard if you ask for it and a fistful of complimentary pickles. It will set you back $15.75, and don’t even think about not tipping your cutter.

I can give some credence to those who claim that the Katz’s sandwich has dwindled in size over the years. Even so, it has double the elevation of the Mile End pretender, and without weighing it, I’d say it has almost twice the heft, easily justifying the higher cost.

The verdict? There’s room for innovation as well as tradition. The Mile End sandwich is a mild and plausibly sized lunch-time or afternoon bite. It won’t leave you in a protein coma. For those late-night salt and fat cravings, on the other hand, Katz’s is hard to pass up.

And maybe it’s nostalgia, but I still truly believe that anyone who has time or appetite for only one New York sandwich should line up at the 1888 veteran. Your order: “Pastrami on rye, with mustard, and make it juicy please.”

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: June 1, 2012

A previous version of this article misspelled the surname of the owner of Mile End. It is Bernamoff, not Bermanoff.