The Secret Ingredient In New York's Famous Pastrami Sandwiches

The classic New York City pastrami sandwich — succulent, deliciously seasoned, smoked, and steamed beef piled high between two slices of rye bread — is the stuff of restaurant legends. And no restaurant's pastrami sandwich is as famous as Katz's Delicatessen's.

According to Zagat, New York's most historic restaurant, located on Houston Street on Manhattan's Lower East Side, has been in business since 1888. Katz's started out as just another deli among a host of similar businesses serving the influx of Jewish immigrants in the latter part of the 19th century, but Katz's emerged as a legend, thanks in no small part to its celebrated pastrami.

Hailed by Eater in this YouTube video as "an artisanal meat product," what makes Katz's pastrami so special (in addition to its proprietary spice rub that the owners won't reveal) is the specific cut of meat chosen for the pastrami. Katz's uses the navel, according to Serious Eats. Also known as the belly or plate, this is the cut located beneath the ribs and behind the brisket, and it is this choice that many say separates good pastrami from Katz's great pastrami.

Katz's bypasses the brisket for its pastrami

Most pastrami is made with beef brisket, but the navel cut, also known as the "plate," creates a better pastrami. According to Eater's YouTube video, Nick Solares explains that this cut lends a flavor that is different than that of the brisket. The striation of muscle, he offers, makes Katz's pastrami particularly "supple." Serious Eats adds that the navel is particularly fatty, a trait which allows it to stand up to Katz's extensive smoking process.

There's more to the art of Katz's pastrami than choosing the right cut of meat. The cure is also important, and Katz's uses pink curing salt, which imparts the beef's signature "twang" (via Serious Eats). Next comes the spice rub, a secret proprietary blend that contains coriander and onion, followed by smoking. Katz's pastrami is smoked at low temperature for two to three days, then boiled and steamed until perfectly tender.

The final result is a sandwich that has become synonymous with New York. Writing for Eater, Robert Sietsema describes Katz's pastrami as "lustrous, crusted with blackened spices, veined with fat, and flaunting a carmine color that will set your mouth to watering." All great dishes start with perfectly chosen ingredients. And in the case of Katz's Deli's legendary pastrami sandwich, the beef navel is the unlikely-sounding hero.