Age is just a number, but when you're a deli, and you're turning 65, it's a pretty big deal. Take Langer's, the family-owned deli powerhouse in Los Angeles, whose influence goes well beyond city borders. Langer's turned 65 this month, and hundreds of people came to celebrate.
There were no discount specials. Instead, Langer's celebrated its annivesary by giving out free #19 sandwiches, for two full days. This is the #19-Pastrami, swiss, cole slaw, Russian dressing, on rye. The sandwich created 65 years ago by Al Langer himself.
Al Langer was steeped in the deli business from an early age. At age 11, he was standing on a box in New Jersey selling hot dogs to pay for his bar mitzvah. There were other brief tangents—like trying to manufacture copper jackets for teapots—but fortunately for the deli world, a failed venture, and he opened Langer's in 1947. Today, Al's son Norm Langer carries on the tradition, ensuring his father's exacting standards are met consistently.
Norm takes my shoulder and points to the back room. "That used to be a liquor store," he says, before gesturing out the window and across the street, where the liquor store stands today. The room we're standing in, he tells me, was a Crocker Bank. Langer's began with 12 seats and expanded to 135 seats. The wood paneling, the upholstered leather seats—little has changed, other than the accolades that have steadily covered the walls.
Let's begin with the pastrami. Beef brisket, cured and covered in spices, then smoked and steamed to a point between fork tender and fall-apart collapse. So tender, it must be, and is, hand-carved. The crunchy coleslaw and the tang of the Russian dressing, together with a gentle layer of Swiss cheese, they are the supporting players that create a rich harmony with the pastrami. The rye bread manages to be at once soft at the center and crispy at the edges. The bread alone is worth seeking, with its crunch and caraway seeds.
Though some consider change the sign of the times, the #19 was perfection from its first day. The sandwich hasn't changed since the day Al Langer created it, yet it continues to be one of the best pastrami sandwiches in the country. Our very own Ed Levine paid homage to the #19 in his pastrami tasting in 2007.
Inside, patrons sit shoulder to shoulder, huddled over their sandwiches, grasped carefully so as to not let any pastrami pieces fall out. The atmosphere is quiet, each person focused on eating. I look up when I hear a father yell playfully to his young son, "Two hands, two hands! This is a two-handed sandwich."
You can order the pastrami and rye by mail order, but it's not quite the same as experiencing Langer's in person. The #19, when created for you by hand begs to be played on repeat. And if you see Norm, ask him to tell you about his family.
About the author: Sarah Woo is a pasture-raised, California girl paired with slow-grilled Santa Maria tri-tip and piquant Korean kimchi. Check out her kitchen adventures at Winner Celebration Party (www.winnercelebrationparty.com). You can also follow her on Twitter at @wcpartyparty.