Some people say there's a feud between Los Angeles and New York, but as any Angeleno can tell you, it's entirely one-sided. New Yorkers may disdain our sprawl and optimism and unashamed love of television, but we think New York is pretty great. We like the museums and theater scene, and those old buildings and seasons are as neat as can be.
But there's one thing we have to say: LA has better food. Now don't get me wrong, dining in New York is wonderful, but even if we didn't count LA's astounding immigrant food scene and its increasingly ambitious high-end restaurants, there's one inescapable fact: Our pastrami is tops.
Hear me out.
Quality hot pastrami is increasingly hard to find in New York as its delis disappear and its standards crumble, leaving a few pastrami sages surrounded by pre-packaged meaty mediocrity. But in LA, pastrami as cuisine is more alive than ever, thanks to two complementary and thriving traditions: old school deli culture and newer school culinary reinvention that stems from LA's particular immigration patterns. Let's dig into both.
New Blood for an Old Tradition
Just like in New York, traditional delis in Los Angeles, such as Langer's and Canter's, serve enormous pastrami-on-ryes, mustard on the side in the fresser tradition, and have been doing so since the 1930s and '40s. (You can read all about pastrami's migration to the West Coast here.) Newer restaurants, notably Wexler's, combine the kosher deli pastrami tradition with a contemporary focus on where that meat comes from and what ingredients go alongside it.
Micah Wexler is LA's latest pastrami king, praised by the likes of the LA Times and Weekly. Though his background is in fine dining, last year he opened a deli at the refurbished Grand Central Market in downtown Los Angeles. "Counter" might be a better description—he sells his pastrami, bagels, smoked fish, and spreads all out of one tiny stall surrounded by eight stools. His neighbors are purveyors of pizza, pupusas, tacos, and ice cream.
Given the limited space Wexler has to work with, he's doing an impressive amount of from-scratch cooking on-site, including the actual brining and smoking of the pastrami. On that point he's probably besting his inspirations: Most delis have the brisket brought in after it's brined, and usually after it's smoked, too. (Canter's, Langer's, and Brent's were all evasive on this point when asked directly.) The difference in taste is evident. Wexler's pastrami has nice seasoning: not too overpowering, but not lurking in the background. I hate to use this word, but the meat is truly unctuous—profoundly rich and tender.
"Talking about sourcing is a cliche, but our brisket has no hormones or antibiotics, we know what they're fed and how they're slaughtered," says Wexler. And indeed, the meat tastes fresh, not overly salty like at so many other pastrami purveyors. To turn brisket into pastrami, he and his team "trim the fat, down to about a quarter-inch fat cover, then we brine it: water, salt, sugar, spices and curing salt. It sits for about a week, then we take it out of the brine, dry it off, crust it with our pastrami spice, then air dry for a day, then smoke it for three hours, then slow-cook for six hours at a constant low temperature."
At Langer's, the double-baked rye bread is just as famous as the pastrami, another leg up on the universally lifeless and spongy rye you'll get at every deli in New York (even Katz's). Wexler went for quality rye, too. He doesn't have a bread oven on-site, so he outsources production to a small traditionally Basque bakery in the South Bay called Etxea.
Wexler's process is the same for making any pastrami, more or less, whether it's done in a restaurant or outsourced to a factory. And Wexler certainly isn't knocking Langer's, the deli that was the undisputed pastrami king in LA before he came along. "I wouldn't say I was trying to top Langer's, though a lot of people make that comparison. There's room for more than one great deli. They're more of an inspiration than competition. With any traditional food, there's a benchmark. That's Langer's for me, with pastrami and rye bread. Those are the flavors I like the best, and I wanted to get close to that."
Though I'd say Wexler's tastes the best. And it comes in a manageable non-fresser size. But Langer's will probably never lose its spot as the number-one purveyor of pastrami sandwiches in the city. Deli expert David Sax calls Langer's "the pinnacle of pastrami sandwiches in the US," due especially to the bread. "Langer's bread is warm, thickly cut, double baked rye, which has a sturdier crust, better aroma, and stands up to the sandwich a hell of a lot better than the pre-sliced thin rye Katz's uses, which often tears under the strain of all that meat and mustard." Critic Jonathan Gold calls Langer's pastrami "better than anything I've ever had in New York."
Beyond the Deli
Langer's particular benchmark has set the LA standard for the Yiddish, New York-derived deli culture. But on the best coast, pastrami transcended that narrow category years ago, mostly at the many, many, anonymous-in-their-ubiquity burger stands around Los Angeles County, which are largely on the eastside, adorned with signs touting their "BURGERS TACOS PASTRAMI." Pastrami sandwiches at these spots are a comfort food mix that really represents what Southern California is all about: hot pastrami adorned with the likes of shredded iceberg and pickled jalapenos.
And pastrami isn't only sandwich filling at these brightly-colored stands. It might appear between between patty and bun on a cheeseburger. Or in a burrito. Or chopped up and sprinkled onto French fries, mixed in with chili and cheese. The latter is an especially popular off-menu gut-bomb available at The Hat, a small chain the makes most "best-of" pastrami lists, certainly due more to the nostalgia factor than the actual quality. But it has to be said that a pastrami quesadilla from J & S in Montebello, where too-salty, low-grade pastrami is tempered perfectly by heaps of guacamole, tomato, and shredded lettuce, is "authentic" only to Los Angeles. It's also shockingly delicious in a kitchen sink sort of way; the pastrami here is so heavily cured it tastes almost like bacon.
"I don't personally eat pastrami Hat-style," says Wexler. "I'm a purist. But it is uniquely Los Angeles-style, and when researching [for my deli], this certain type of place kept popping up, the little stand with tacos, burgers, pastrami, sometimes yakitori. And always named something like Tom's or Jack's. It's part of the LA food journey, very representative of who we are as a city." Indeed, Angelenos don't bother much with tradition. The delis here serve bacon, and you won't be shunned for getting your sandwich on sourdough or adding Anaheim chilies or jalapenos or banana peppers.
There isn't one specific moment or recipe to point to that explains how pastrami became a quick-service headliner in LA, right alongside burgers and tacos. It can be tracked pretty closely to LA County's migration patterns, though. Boyle Heights, a neighborhood just east of the LA River, was the center of the Los Angeles Jewish community (along with other pockets like Montebello, downtown and Westlake) up until about the 1920s. At that point Jews began migrating to the westside, while Central Americans (especially Mexicans escaping their war-torn country) became the dominant cultural force in the old neighborhoods. But the eastside held on to that pastrami.
Canter's, perhaps the most famous of the delis (many celebrities and celebrities-in-training hang out there in the wee hours), was opened in Boyle Heights in 1931 by a family that had owned a restaurant in New Jersey prior to heading west. In the early 1950s they moved across town to Fairfax Avenue, the main artery of the westside's conservative and Orthodox communities. In those preceding 20 years, they had plenty of time to influence the appetites of the growing Latino population.
Brent's, located in the far reaches of the San Fernando Valley, was a struggling business when the current owner took over in 1969. It now has two locations and hundreds of employees, an evolution that took place while the Jewish population of west San Fernando Valley more than doubled. Langer's, which has never left its original location across the street from sometimes-terrifying, always-bustling MacArthur Park, has the most diverse clientele of the Big Three delis.
Movin' on Up
Pastrami's impact on LA's culinary culture isn't limited to fast food joints; it's showing up more and more on menus of some of the city's relatively higher-end restaurants. Jeff Rohatiner, owner of the lauded Jeff's Gourmet on the westside, makes old-fashioned pastrami a few times a year, but his regular recipe—served on a roll with mustard—is "a very lean pastrami, California-style. It's doesn't have that richness that a lot of people are crazy about," he says. Still, he gets customers "from every corner of LA. Every ethnicity. Pastrami has that draw. It surprised me, actually." Perhaps it shouldn't be that surprising. The Oinkster in Eagle Rock (and now Hollywood too) is owned by a Filipino chef and is as well-known for its pastrami as its roast chicken and $6.50 milkshakes.
Hunt around in New York and you'll find some of this, too—kung pao pastrami at Danny Bowien's Mission Chinese Food (a California import) and pastrami tacos at Alex Stupak's Empellon Taqueria. But there's less innovation than you'd think in a city known for both its fine dining creativity and its pastrami.
But back in LA, it comes full circle: Plan Check, an upscale burger joint with two westside locations and a newer one downtown, has pastrami on their menu. Chef Ernesto Uchimura doesn't serve it deli-style, though. Instead, the LA native, who grew up "craving" the pastrami at the thoroughly LA-style Johnnie's, serves his pastrami—- cured and smoked in-house—on a burger with cheese, mustard, pickles, and a fried egg; or atop fries, with gravy, cheese, and pickles. Like The Hat, but with some technique behind the extravagance.
It's not what a lot of people look for when they search for pastrami. But it tastes good. And it shows why pastrami in LA is the best. It's varied, inclusive, and has more soul. And it reflects how Angelenos eat: no rules, bro.