Pros: The best pastrami on rye in the country, period, end of story. Sorry, New York.
Cons: You gotta be kidding.
Cities are identified with the foods that epitomize them.
Philadelphia owns cheesesteaks, scrapple, soft pretzels with mustard, Black Cherry Wishniak soda pop and Frank's Birch Beer, and Tasty Kakes. Everybody knows that.
San Francisco owns sourdough bread, Cioppino seafood stew, Rice-a-Roni, Java at Red's, abalone, and Anchor Steam beer. Everybody knows that.
Boston owns baked beans, New England Clam Chow-dah, and butter lettuce. Everybody knows that.
And New York owns Sabrett Hot Dogs sold from street carts, egg creams, Junior's (Brooklyn) or Lindy's (Manhattan) cheese cakes, and pastrami and roast beef specials. Everybody knows that, too, right?...
...except for the thousands of Angelinos (including transplanted New Yorkers like me) who have eaten the inimitable No. 19 on the menu at the venerable Langer's Delicatessen in downtown Los Angeles.
Cast aside doubt, all ye chauvinistic New Yorkers. Behold the true hot pastrami sandwich, and forever forsake the Carnegie Deli and others of its ilk in Gotham. I kid thee not.
Despite the passing last month of founder Al Langer at the age of 94 just 2 weeks after the shop's 60th anniversary celebration (a celebration and a passing each marked by huge headlines and the tears of multitudes), Langer's will live on under the guidance of Al's 62-year-old son Norm. And are we ever grateful!
The old-school 135-seat deli that opened in 1947 at 7th and Alvarado streets near MacArthur Park has seen the neighborhood turn from what was once a Jewish stronghold of big brand retail shops and businesses employing union workers into a Latino bazaar of Mexican, Central American and South American cash-only businesses. Adjacent landmarks like the Edwards Steakhouse vanished with the middle class customers, to be replaced for a while in the late 70s and early 80s by drug pushers and other criminals until the influx of latino small business owners began a decade ago.
Since the subway line's launch in 1993 thousands of office workers to the West come down to Langer's on the Red Metro Line that connects Hollywood and West LA to downtown, getting off at MacArthur Park and walking to the counter for the "No. 19" Pastrami and cole slaw on home-baked and hot (but not toasted, puleeez!!!) Jewish rye encrusted with huge caraway seeds, and slathered with either "Russian" dressing or Gulden's brand brown mustard. The opening of the subway line, Al Langer said, is what saved his business from extinction.
Leave it to an honest New Yorker to give Langer's its due. Writing in the New Yorker in 2002, critic Nora Ephron praised Langer's hot pastrami sandwich (and its bread) as the finest in the world and "in short, a work of art."
"The rye bread, faintly sour, perfumed with caraway seeds, lightly dusted with cornmeal, is as good as any rye bread on the planet, and Langer's puts about seven ounces of pastrami on it, the proper proportion of meat to bread.
"The resulting sandwich, slathered with Gulden's mustard, is an exquisite combination of textures and tastes. It's soft but crispy, tender but chewy, peppery but sour, smoky but tangy. It's a symphony orchestra, different instruments brought together to play one perfect chord."
If Langer's Delicatessen were in New York, Ephron opined, "it would be a shrine."
'Nuff said. All I know is, I can't get enough. The meat melts in your mouth before it gets there. The smell of the hot fresh-baked rye bread is hallucinogenic. Last time I went for lunch I ordered two and took one home with me for dinner that same night. (The sandwich never made it...drooling by the time I got back to my office, I had already eaten half of the second one in the car, and the last of it didn't make it past my 4 p.m. conference call.)
In LA, Langer's IS a shrine, but fancy, it's not. Brown fake leather booth benches, typical diner decor, formica tables, and waitresses who've been on the job...forever and act like the firm but polite know-it-alls you would expect. Not to worry. You want class, or you want good food?
Half the lunch crowd waits for booths, others line up at the counter for take-out and watch in awe has the kitchen staff carefully cuts the fat off the pastrami after slow cooking in steam for hours, and slices it thin. Chefs at Langer's have been known to pass their jobs down to their sons.
Besides the pastrami, Langer's specializes in corned beef and cabbage, brisket, chopped liver, fried kippers, liver and onions, blintzes, lox, and New York steak, as well as some generally unheralded specials that are favorites of long-standing regulars (the No.44 "Nippy Cheese" grilled on rye -- fancy language for a grilled American cheese sandwich). But on THAT rye, it sings!!!! And, yes, they have egg creams and chocolate phosphates!
During the celebration marking Langer's 60th anniversary, city officials remarked how the deli and its owner never gave up on the community when just about everybody else had.
Now that the downtown neighborhood is more stable and recognized, it's clear that Angelinos haven't given up on Langer's either.
Take that, New York.