Corned beef is king at Katz’s Deli, but the smoked hot dogs and scratch-made kishka are also worth the drive up Dufferin.
The sign at Katz’s Deli looms large over Dufferin Street. Red and rectangular, it’s topped by the giant head of a man with a great mustache and a pith helmet who faintly resembles my late uncle Moe. When I think about this temple to cured Hebraic meats, it’s usually the sign that first springs to mind, so I asked owner Jeff Dorfman to tell me about that memorably mustachioed face. He confessed that it was something randomly drawn by a graphic designer back in 1988 (though the man does look suspiciously like Dorfman). “I wanted one of those beanies with a propeller on it,” he said, but the designer drew a pith helmet instead. They called the man The Great Corned Beef Hunter.
That was a title I held a few years back, when I visited more than 200 shops for my book on Jewish delicatessens around the world. For some reason—despite many childhood memories there, including an epic food fight after a friend’s bar mitzvah—I skipped Katz’s. I strongly regret it. From the wisecracking meat slicers to the cafeteria-style service, Katz’s is a classic Jewish deli. Corned beef and pickled tongue are brined in-house, the pastrami is cured on the premises, and hot dogs are ground, stuffed, and smoked just feet from where they’re served. “As we got busier, we started making as many things ourselves as we could,” Dorfman said. “We only have to buy mustard, ketchup, and Coke.”
Katz is the maiden name of Dorfman’s mother. She and his father were both children of Russian Jewish immigrants who moved to Canada at the turn of the last century, fleeing persecution and poverty. The family ended up operating apple orchards in Picton, Ontario, but they always kept a home in Toronto to be close to the Jewish community. (Today, with numbers close to 200,000, it’s one of the largest urban Jewish communities in the world.) In 1970, shortly after Dorfman lost his job as a stock trader, his mother, Lilian, proposed opening a deli on Dufferin. The area wasn’t, and isn’t, a Jewish strip like nearby Bathurst, but many of the surrounding factories housed Jewish-owned garment and furniture businesses. They were confident that people, regardless of their background, would be drawn to the deli sandwiches. The family opted for a cafeteria line, because it was easier than managing servers, and it became Katz’s trademark.
There’s plenty to tempt you on that cafeteria line. Small bowls brim with dill-flecked sweet cucumber salad, vinegar-tart coleslaw, and thick potato salad. The pickles, full-sour garlic spears, are made in a two-week frenzy each August. Trucks back up to the deli loaded with fresh Ontario cucumbers, which are packed in salt water, garlic, and spices, then left to ferment in the fridge until they achieve that perfect bite and tang.
Most people at Katz’s head straight for the meat-slicing machines, where Dorfman’s son, Aubrey, manages to furiously shave little mountains of meat while keeping up a steady banter. Corned beef is king here: It’s somewhat sweet, a touch garlicky, and very tender. If you like that, though, then go for the tongue, which is even silkier and almost melts when you eat it.
Katz’s is one of the few Jewish delis that make its own salamis, but it’s the hot dogs and knockwurst (a fatter dog with more garlic) that are the real revelation. Made from ground chuck and stuffed into a Coney Island-–style casing for extra snap, the dog tastes clean and meaty, an entirely different breed from salty street meat. It comes swaddled in a soft, poppy seed–studded challah bun, with a healthy drizzle of mustard and chopped onions.
Katz’s also makes its kishka from scratch, another rarity among delis. A savoury pudding that involves stuffing onions, flour, and spices into a beef intestine, kishka sounds terrible—I get it—but tastes amazing, like a kosher boudin noir. “We sell as much of those as the hot dogs,” Dorfman says, with obvious pride.
It is an almost universal truth that great Jewish delis stay in a single location and are operated by one family. Katz’s is now in its fourth generation, and Dorfman has no desire to open more storefronts, despite repeated offers by customers to finance expansion. “Why do we need five of these?” he says. “One’s enough. Why would we run three places poorly when we can run one excellently? That’s what we like to do.”
3300 Dufferin St., 416-782-1111.