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Al Langer: The Counterman

Al knew best. (Photo by Aaron Paley)

{mosimage}When I am showing first-time visitors around Los Angeles, I like to take them for a pastrami sandwich at Langer’s, the old-line Jewish delicatessen across the street from MacArthur Park. By the time they get to the place, either from the parking lot down the block on Seventh Street or from the subway stop across the street on Alvarado, they will have smelled the food from half a dozen Central American countries, seen a decent selection of Mexican street murals, and been offered the opportunity to buy fresh mangoes, bogus green cards and cut-rate cumbia compilations by the freelance entrepreneurs who frequent the neighborhood. Within the restaurant itself, they will probably wait for a table with customers speaking Spanish, Korean and Chiapan dialect. They are under the impression that they will be fed an egg cream and lectured about the multicultural possibilities of L.A.: Look! We all get along!

But glance at their faces a moment after they bite into a Langer’s pastrami sandwich for the first time: thick slices of hand-sliced meat, glistening with peppery fat, as dense and as smoky as Texas barbecue; thick-cut seeded corn rye, hot, crisp-crusted and soft inside, with a slightly sour tang that helps tame the richness of the meat; a dab of yellow mustard, as important to the whole as a sushi master’s wasabi. The fact is inescapable: Langer’s serves the best pastrami sandwich in America, in a location perhaps better suited to a tamale merchant or a specialist in Honduran baleadas.

When the sandwich was especially good, you would often look up to discover the presence of Al Langer himself behind the counter, where he had either cut or more likely supervised the cutting of the meat. A great pastrami sandwich depends on the knife skills of the counterman no less than a $75 order of o-toro sashimi, the ability to trace the contours of the meat, tease out obnoxious pockets of fat and sinew, prodding the steaming slices as he works, occasionally pushing aside a piece that is less than tender, and arranging the final product with the subtlety of a sculptor. If you have a great counterman, you can, as Langer’s does, steam the pastrami until it is soft, tender and juicy, without worrying whether it is going to fall apart in the slicing machine. When you have a great counterman, something as ordinary as a pastrami sandwich can be transformed into something approaching art. Until he passed away last week at the age of 94, just a few days after his restaurant celebrated its 60th birthday, Al Langer may have been the greatest counterman of all.

“The way I created the business, I made it a point to sell the most hot pastrami,” Langer confessed a few years ago. “Why? It cost me a little cheaper than corned beef.”

Langer started working in delicatessens when he was 12, to earn money toward the cost of his bar mitzvah, and he was still working as a deli man when he came to California in 1937. After a few years in the service, he opened a small delicatessen on Eighth Street, then moved to the current location a year or so later.

“There was a little deli where I am now,” he said. “Four booths. I liked the location, by MacArthur Park, which to me was a landmark, and people were gonna come there. And I figured, I’m 15 minutes from downtown. Besides that, there were about 14 different union establishments around my area. So between the downtown business and the unions, I figured it would work out all right. And it did.”

Langer’s son Norm has run the delicatessen day to day for many years now, more than enough time to learn the secrets of the family business.

And what was the secret of Langer’s success?

“You gotta serve people the proper bread. It’s very, very important. I serve them hot, crispy bread at all times. I don’t believe people go to the trouble to do what I do with the bread. When I come into the store in the morning, I do two things: I feel the bread, and I check the restrooms. Hot, and clean.”

I suspect lovers of pastrami will be finding things both hot and clean at Langer’s for many years to come.

Langer’s, 704 S. Alvarado St., L.A., (213) 483-8050. Mon.–Sat. 8 a.m.–4 p.m. Beer and wine. Curbside service (call ahead). Validated lot parking. MC, V. Entrées $8.95–$12.95.

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Langer's Delicatessen-Restaurant

704 S. Alvarado St.
Los Angeles, CA 90057

213-483-8050

www.langersdeli.com


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