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The Deli Counter 

Wednesday, Oct 16 2002
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Photo by Anne Fishbein

AFTER EXPLORING THE DELIS OF NEW YORK, CHICAGO AND OTHER U.S. cities, Gourmet magazine restaurant critic and L.A. Weekly Counter Intelligence columnist JONATHAN GOLD concludes that his own hometown, Los Angeles, has the most vibrant deli scene in the country -- not to mention the best pastrami sandwich anywhere (Langer's). Last week, he gathered four of L.A.'s legendary deli owners for a panel discussion at the University of Judaism on pastrami, rye and changing neighborhoods, part of Yiddishkayt Los Angeles, billed as the nation's largest festival devoted to Yiddish language and culture. The participants: Al Langer, founder of Langer's, on Eighth Street near downtown; Marvin Saul, founder of Junior's, on Westwood Boulevard; Art "Where Every Sandwich Is a Work of Art" Ginsburg, founder of Art's, on Ventura Boulevard; and Terri Bloomgarden, granddaughter of Ben Canter, one of the founders of the original Canter Brothers, in Boyle Heights, which became Canter's on Fairfax.

Photos by Aaron Paley ON L.A. DELI SUPREMACY:

MARVIN SAUL: We all hear these bromides about New York delis this and New York delis that. But we are better in many ways.

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ON A PROPER PASTRAMI SANDWICH:

AL LANGER: Pastrami is a perfect product to work on. I've always promoted our pastrami, and you want to know why? Because it costs me a little less than corned beef. Anyway, I make sure the pastrami is top-of-the-line. I think we're about the only ones in L.A. who cut pastrami and corned beef by hand. How can we do that -- by hand? Because we cook it tender and juicy. We're not worried about cooking it soft, that it will cook too long and shrink too much. If you can cut it paper-thin in a machine, it won't have the quality and the taste that it will when you cook it tender. Out of a 20-pound plate, we get 4 or 5 or 6 pounds of meat. Plus, there's an adjunct to it. You gotta serve them the proper bread. I don't believe people go to the trouble I do with the bread. When I come in the store in the morning, I do two things: I feel the bread and I check the restrooms: hot and clean. What caused it was, in 1937 I had a delicatessen in Palm Springs and got my rye bread from L.A. by bus. By the time I got it, it was 14, 16 hours old. I can't serve it like that. So I put it in the oven, and it came out hot and crispy. Everybody looked at me in amazement. I personally think I convinced a lot of people in Los Angeles to have hot bread.

ART GINSBURG: Al, I want to thank you for the hot bread. 'Cause what you didn't tell them is how to get it hot.

SAUL: Trade secrets, trade secrets, trade secrets . . .!

GINSBURG: What you gotta do is take a loaf of bread, put it under the faucet with a little water on both sides of the things, and then put it in the oven for about 15 minutes. So it gets crispy on the outside and cooked on the inside. And then you slice it.

LANGER: Ooh. So that's the way it works?

SAUL: This is the carrots getting up and slapping the farmer in the face, right?

GINSBURG: I just wanted to tell you, because I'm a little younger than you.

ON GIVING THE CUSTOMERS WHAT THEY WANT:

TERRI BLOOMGARDEN: People are more diet-conscious, so they go ahead and they get the cobb salad with 500 calories' worth of dressing for lunch; they get the Chinese chicken salad, and they think they're having something healthy.

SAUL: Who goes into a deli to eat healthy food? But we have it, and it's good. Egg whites scrambled with lox, vegetarian soups. When I started in the 1950s, you had three salads on your menu: You had a chef's salad, you had cottage cheese and sour cream with canned peaches or pears, and then you had a chopped salad. Now we've got a cobb salad, Chinese chicken salad, a caesar salad. Delis never had caesar salads.

GINSBURG: . . . We have low-calories dressing, no-calories dressing. We have to give customers what they want.

LANGER: In 1925 a delicatessen served just deli food: corned beef, pastrami, salami, bologna -- that's what you got in 1925, with plenty of pickles and mustard on the side. By the way, at that time, a corned-beef sandwich was a dime, potato salad was a nickel, and a soda pop was a nickel. So for 35 cents you got a whole meal and I got a dime tip. Anyway, as time went on -- he wanted a pastrami sandwich, and she wanted a cookie. So you had to wind up taking everything. You took the cookies and the pastrami sandwiches and you put them together.

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