Hi, my name is Niko Klein. I’m a senior management major, and I have a serious love for good food and Los Angeles. My goal is to combine the two and share my dining adventures in the city we live in. I’ll be writing about L.A.’s great restaurants, some famous and some hidden. For each article, I’ll write about two to four restaurants, all tied together with a common theme. Here's episode one:
Jewish Delis: Pastrami on Rye
Los Angeles didn’t invent the Jewish deli, though we have adopted it and perfected it. The birthplace of the classic Jewish deli is New York, specifically the Lower East Side, which was an immigrant hub at the dawn of the twentieth century. Nineteenth century German immigrants brought the idea of the Delicatessen to America, and Jewish immigrants later borrowed the idea in order to provide a kosher offering to the growing Jewish population in The Big Apple. While European Turks had created meats similar to pastrami in centuries past, the pastrami we know today was an American Jewish invention upon coming to America and encountering previously untold quantities of cheap beef. According to the documentary "Deli Man," the Jewish deli is on the decline, with thousands in New York in 1931 and now only 150 in all of North America. This astonishing statistic proves Los Angeles to be nothing less than a hub of the Jewish deli, with over ten in the city.
Categorized by seemingly endless menus and even more mouthwatering delicacies behind a glass deli counter, I’ve decided to stick to these two classics: a pastrami on rye and a cup of matzo ball soup. While some people may claim loyalties to their Reuben sandwich, potato knish or corned beef sandwich, a great Jewish deli relies on its high-stacked pastrami as a benchmark. Any fan of Seinfeld will remember George’s love interest, Vivian, claiming “I find the pastrami to be the most sensual of all the salted, cured meats.” I have to say I agree. If you’re willing to spend upwards of $15 on a sandwich, there’s hardly anything that quite satisfies a lunch hunger like hot pastrami stacked high on seedy rye.
Pastrami: While both corned beef and pastrami can begin as beef brisket, or the chest of the cow, pastrami is typically taken from the navel, directly next to the brisket. The navel makes a better pastrami due to its particular fattiness, allowing for hours of cook time. Both start in a spiced saltwater brine, therefore curing the meats. Beyond this step is where the two meats differ. Corned beef gets boiled, while pastrami gets a spice rub (heavy on the pepper) and is then smoked.
Matzo Ball Soup: Matzo balls are Jewish soup dumpling balls made of matzo meal, eggs, water and some sort of fat. The balls are typically served in chicken broth or soup.
Nate n’ Al (414 N Beverly Dr, Beverly Hills, CA 90210)
Founded in 1945, Nate n’ Al was one of the first Jewish delicatessens on the West Coast. Al Mendelson and Nate Rimer moved from Detroit to open up shop in Beverly Hills, and the establishment has stayed in the Mendelson family ever since. When the deli first opened, Beverly Hills was a mere residential town, overshadowed by glitzy Hollywood and Downtown. However, as Beverly Hills has grown into the land of abundance that we know today, Nate n’ Al has remained traditional and reliable in the land of opulence. When asked what makes Nate n’ Al different, David Mendelson had one word: “Location.” Its home in Beverly Hills gives Nate n’ Al a unique customer base consisting of tourists, celebrities and everything in between. New York import Larry King is known to eat breakfast every morning at Nate n’ Al. Running the restaurant with his brother Mark, David takes pride in continuing the legacy of his late grandfather, Al. According to David, his grandfather claimed to have the best pastrami available west of the Mississippi river. He recommended a wonderful documentary called "Deli Man" that helped paint a picture for me of the sort of labor that goes into running a deli.
I very much enjoyed my meal. I ordered the “New York” sandwich on rye, a cup of their matzo ball soup with noodles and a side of delicious potato salad, gleaming yellow. I also enjoyed the company of my father, who had taken me to Nate n’ Al throughout my childhood. Before our food was served, our waitress brought out the obligatory plate of tart deli pickles, a favorite of mine. While their rye may not have the soft middle of Langer’s or Factor’s, the fixings in the sandwich created an oomph that any pastrami lover would crave. The coleslaw was sweet and cold, perfectly complimenting the hot, savory strips of pastrami that crumbled and scattered around my plate as I ate the sandwich. In Los Angeles, we are spoiled with wonderful pastrami, and Nate n’ Al ranks right up there with the bests.
Langer’s Deli (704 S Alvarado St, Los Angeles, CA 90057)
The interior screams classic, unchanged, Jewish deli, with classic delicacies behind a long glass display case, brown leather, wood paneling and charismatic servers that seem to be transplants from decades past. While Langer’s itself hasn’t changed much since its 1940s founding, the surrounding area has. Across the street from L.A.’s infamous MacArthur Park, Langer’s lies in a surrounding black and white to that of Nate n’ Al. Langer’s sticks out like a sore thumb amongst discount clothing shops, storefronts brimming with images of Christ and corner fruit vendors. In an area once known for gang violence, the deli not only survives, but thrives. Langer’s exists shoulder-to-shoulder with the Dodgers, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the city’s other great historic institutions. Some will tell you that Langer’s offers the best hot pastrami on rye in the whole United States of America, always neck-to-neck with Katz in New York. This author has never been to New York, so I’ll continue to side with Langer’s as my deli of choice. Maybe it’s atmosphere, maybe it’s nostalgia or maybe the pastrami sandwich is truly superior, but I have an undying affection for this delicatessen that is less than a mile from my beloved Loyola High.
The difference lies in the cut. Langer’s has always hand-cut their pastrami. While most delis machine slice their pastrami, Langer’s hand-cuts in order to avoid drawing out the meat’s moisture, as a machine-cutting process does. With a Langer’s sandwich, you’re guaranteed a melt in your mouth experience. This consistency can be attributed to Langer’s steaming process. The pastrami delivered daily to the store is ready for consumption, but Langer’s steams the pastrami for a few hours in order to get the product as soft as possible. The #19 is their most famous, with swiss, Russian dressing and coleslaw; however, I opt for the #1, as I don’t care for Swiss. The bread is a big competitive advantage for Langer’s. Though most delis will claim a double-baked rye, this downtown delicatessen delivers big time. A hard, crispy crust and a heavenly, soft inside make this the best rye bread around. Nate n’ Al has Langer’s beat on the Matzo ball soup, but Langer’s still delivers a good cup. I usually get an order of French fries, extra pickles and occasionally a chocolate malt, if I’m feeling indulgent. Go in and get a sandwich, but don’t mistake the adjoining park for a pleasant picnic spot.
Factor’s Famous Deli (9420 W Pico Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90035)
Aside from Mark and Dave Mandelson, there’s another sibling duo owning and operating a classic family deli. On Pico Boulevard, the Markowitz sisters, Debbie and Suzee, show that deli ownership is a woman’s game, too. According to Debbie, it’s the only deli out there run by two women. Factor’s opened in 1948 and came under Markowitz ownership in 1969. The décor is classic deli, but with a twist. The wood paneling and brown leather are still present, but sports and cinema memorabilia hang everywhere, including signed photographs of famous past patrons. A receipt of Dean Martin’s is especially eye-catching. Additionally, Factor’s is “more than just a deli,” as the sisters offer a catering service and the entrance room offers plenty of other treats behind glass.
While she acknowledges the quality of other L.A. pastramis, Debbie said Factor’s pastrami “can beat any pastrami in a taste test.” In fact, a recent blind taste test at the Wilshire Synagogue had Factor’s pastrami coming out on top. Debbie attributes the delicious pastrami to a recipe and process change made three years ago, notably changing the spicing and also adopting a steaming process of three to four hours, in order to soften the meat. A thick, hand-cut option is available by request, and this truly shows off the meat properly. I had a “sky-high” pastrami, consisting of Russian dressing, coleslaw and thick-cut pastrami. With it, I had potato salad and a cup of matzo ball soup. The soup was tasty and provided the sense of comfort that only a good matzo ball soup can. The potato salad was delicious in its simplicity. The sandwich surprised me, pleasantly. While most would say you’d be hard-pressed to find a better pastrami on rye than Langer’s, I’d have a hard time telling the two apart. The sandwich insides were cradled properly by delicious double-baked rye.