Some Baloney About Pastrami
Like many other “counter foods,” pastrami has been getting a lot of attention lately from foodie circles, and nowhere more than Los Angeles, home of Langer’s--which many claim to have the best pastrami in the country (Katz’s fans…hold on, hold on). These past few weeks I had the chance to return there, and try a few other LA pastramis, with some interesting results.
First, some background: Despite the sound of the word, pastrami is not, in fact, Italian. According to web sources, it’s an Americanization of the word “pastrome” (in Yiddish via Turkish) or “bastourma” (Armenian), meaning “preserved.” The recipe first appeared here with the immigration of Romanian Jews, in New York City, in 1887 when Morgen’s and Katz’s Delis first appeared on the Lower East Side. Interestingly, goose breast was the original meat that was brined, seasoned (a mix of garlic, coriander, black pepper, paprika, cloves, allspice, and mustard seed is typical), smoked and steamed in this process--making turkey pastrami actually closer to the “real thing.” But in the US, beef brisket or navel—the cut behind brisket, not actual “navels”--were cheaper cuts to use.
Growing up on the East Coast, where pastrami was everywhere, I always assumed that the difference between this and Corned Beef was mainly the cut of beef—Pastrami there tends to be drier, more stringy, and very peppery. The real difference (other than perhaps seasoning variations) is that pastrami is smoked and steamed after brining, corned beef is boiled.
In either case, it was a method of preserving and making palatable a cheap cut of meat. Which means we should never see “Kobe” Pastrami. Although nothing would surprise me with that trend anymore.
Being a city that grew up with a significant Jewish presence—thanks mostly to the movie industry—LA still has its share of delis and other places regularly serving pastrami and its ilk, but few are truly exceptional. Nate & Al’s and Art’s are acceptable, but uninspiring; Greenblatt’s and Factor’s might be slightly better, but would still be nothing out of the norm in New Jersey or Long Island. Canter’s and the Jerry’s chain really don’t present anything above normal supermarket or diner level food. [And believe it or not, about 10 years ago when Milton Berle was still alive and a friend belonged to the Beverly Hills Friar’s Club, I found their corned beef to be the best I’d had in LA. But I expect that isn’t the case any more].
When Langer’s Deli opened catercorner from the southeast corner of MacArthur (nee Westlake) park, it was in the middle of a formerly fashionable but still bustling neighborhood highlighted by the Westlake theatre and grand Park Plaza hotel. The neighborhood is still bustling today, but with a very different accent—a very working class Latino accent. That Langer’s has endured to become something of a national treasure (as the gold tone James Beard stickers on the laminated menus indicate) is a tribute to temerity, or insanity. But after years when many were afraid to stop their cars on Alvarado, it now thrives.
What sets Langer’s pastrami apart is its thick cut and impressive tenderness, far from stringy brisket. Making navel as tender as good roast beef is no mean feat. Still, my most recent sampling had big veins of fat running through (no wonder it’s so tender) and a relatively mild flavor, far from over-salted, despite a significant crust. Quite frankly, it’s about an inch from corned beef, as I’m accustomed to it, which may or may not be what you expect. The bread, from Bea’s in Tarzana (which is connected to another modest deli, Mort’s) is round rather than the typical oblong, with a crispy crust and downy softness inside.
My lunchmates and I decided to split a platter (see above), which even after they charge you for extra bread is still a better deal than single sandwiches, including creamy cole slaw, incredibly sweet baked beans, crispy crinkle fries, Swiss cheese, a big scoop of chopped liver and passable pickles. Their liver deserves special mention—mealy rather than pasty like most, it has a very fresh, mild flavor.
Is it the best in the country? Since every piece of meat is different, I don't even think that's a fair question to pose. I've eaten at Katz's Deli on Houston St. in New York many times, and while I initially loved it, at my last visit I found it altogether ordinary. Second Avenue Deli used to be great, too, but served a more typical semi-dry pastrami. Langer's is impressive in some ways, but depending on your sense of what pastrami "should be," it's not the end of the rainbow.
An institution in the San Fernando Valley, 60’s vintage Brent’s deli resides in a nondescdript Northridge strip mall. Their pastrami seems to have been crafted in direct opposition to Langer’s style. Here the fat is trimmed and the meat is paper thin, red and peppery. You are directed to order the #2 sandwich—a double decker of pastrami and corned beef, with an extra piece of rye in the middle (very atypical), tomato (vine-ripened they say) and a very mild Russian dressing. This makes sense, because a whole sandwich of pastrami when properly made ought to give you an instant heart attack. The crusty rye here I would give a slight advantage over Bea’s (and the pickles beat Langer’s). The combination makes a great balance, and though I couldn’t finish it in one sitting, the leftovers were gone by nightfall. Fries here are typical thick-cuts (i.e. meh) but who ever said French fries were really deli food anyway?
If you go for the sandwich-and-a-half deal here, either your eyes are bigger than your stomach, or you have a serious deathwish. Their desserts are equally daunting. There is a second location in Westlake Village near the 101.
A surprise in my pastrami pathfinding came when I visited The Oinkster in hipper-by-the-minute Eagle Rock (the hood I call home). Calling its cuisine “slow fast food,” Oinkster puts surprising care into its sandwiches and salads, in contrast to its converted vintage burger drive-in location. Their pastrami, they say, is cured for two weeks then applewood smoked. Typically served in a “wrap” it is bright red, and peppery as all get out. Wow. Not even a huge portion, but still takes time to finish. Serious and intense, and unforgettable. I would put this in a top ten of all sandwiches in LA, seriously.
I’ve had their pulled pork before, and it acquits itself respectably too. The “Belgian” fries are not really as earth-shattering as some have said, but they serve sautéed plantains, and an Ube (purple yam) shake with Fosselman’s (Alhambra) ice cream that is Out. Of. This. World…thick, creamy, sweet, just a little ice-crispy, and allegedly filled with anti-oxidants. WINTL. I’ll get to their burgers and PB&J cupcakes one of these days.
My last stop in this parade of pastrami (for now, anyway) was the Eastside Market, a Downtown/Chavez Ravine-area institution that is as hidden as it is well-regarded. On Alpine street, South of Beaudry/East of Sunset, this 80-year-old Italian deli is on the edge of what used to be Little Italy and probably did a booming biz before the freeway cut it off.
Who am I kidding? While it’s really just a lunch place now (the produce is long gone, even if there’s still a shelf of olive oils and such), the dark, concrete-floored almost windowless space still does a booming business, thanks largely to the dedicated clientele from the nearby Police academy and other civil servants (the expected signed Dodgers jersey and City Proclamation decorate the walls alongside pics of Sinatra and…the freeways). One look at the tough guys behind the counter and you know you’re in for a no-nonsense experience.
The menu here is mostly typical Italian deli hot and cold options, served on plain grinder rolls from a relatively compact counter behind a cold case filled (and I mean, stuffed) with proscuitto, sopressata and other imported salumi. Because it looked like a popular choice, I ordered the #7, hot pastrami and roast beef with provolone under sauce—sort of an “Italian dip,” if you will. They give you a fork with it for a reason. Don’t try to pick it up before eating at least half. The pastrami was tender, a bit fatty and chewy, very flavorful but still not super salty—somewhere between Langer’s meat and guanciale, to be honest. The sauce was stewed peppers, tomatoes and other veggies, a bit watery, nothing remarkable. The roast beef was overdone and quite plain for an Italian deli. That doesn’t mean I didn’t finish it—but next time here, I think I’ll go for the cold cut combo.
Perhaps the owners stuccoed over the front windows when the neighborhood was rougher—I kind of wish they’d let some light in again. But considering they seem to be printing money as it is, why mess around?
There are other pastrami notables in LA, too: The Hat, known for serving pastrami au jus, and the Kosher Burrito, basically a Mexican burrito with pastrami, a peculiar LA delicacy that emerged in downtown LA when a Jewish Deli near City Hall started getting requests for burritos from Mexicans moving in to the neighborhood. Or so the legend goes. Since it dates at least to the 1940s, it might be considered one of the first modern “fusion” foods. The Hat still has several locations on the fringes of LA county (Pasadena is the closest to central LA). The Kosher Burrito is gone, but its legacy lives on in many burrito joints around the “Southland.”