The Deli Counter
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.
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.
GINSBURG: Pastrami cookies? I never heard of that. A pastrami-cookie sandwich?
LANGER: That was very famous.
ON L.A.'S LARGEST MATZO BALLS:
BLOOMGARDEN: Our matzo balls are probably the biggest in town.
SAUL: Oh, I don't know about that.
BLOOMGARDEN: When [our matzo ball cook] started in the 1980s, she was a young woman. As her hands became more arthritic, the matzo balls got bigger and bigger. And at some point we had to say, "Stop! They can't fit in the bowl anymore!"
GINSBURG: Our matzo balls have been called bowling balls.
BLOOMGARDEN: Not for texture, I'm sure.
ON THE FAMILY BUSINESS:
BLOOMGARDEN: There have been up to nine members of the family working at any one time. My parents and grandparents were working 20 hours a day for many, many years. Now it's my father, who just retired, my uncle and myself who run the business. I have three cousins who are very active. My kids work there too, and I'm sure their kids will when the time comes -- if and when they have them.
SAUL: I must tell you: It's very difficult to work with two sons. Have you ever watched a pingpong match? My kids tell me, "Hey, Pop. You're pretty stupid." My youngest son says, "You don't know how to start a computer. You don't know how to use the register. You don't know how to take a reading." My oldest son, David, says, "Yeah, Johnny, but he was smart enough to start this business."
GINSBURG: I'm still in therapy, working with my two kids.
SAUL: My kids are my therapy.
ON CHANGE IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD:
GINSBURG: We opened [Art's] in 1957. In 1959 and '60, Laurelwood was built on the east side and the west side of Laurel Canyon. And that was going to a lot of young families and kids moving from the Fairfax and the city area. People moved from Boyle Heights, City Terrace, then they moved from West Adams, then from Beverlywood, and then all of a sudden they were all in the Valley. It was younger families then. Now, we're finally getting younger families again. A different generation, a different flow.
BLOOMGARDEN: Our situation is unique because we're open 24 hours. In the '60s we had the hippies there. In the '70s we had bikers. Now we have the Generation-X people. So at night you have this different thing. I can literally walk out of my office and, without looking at my watch, tell approximately what time it is by who the customers are. I think the neighborhood itself has changed, but the customers haven't really. You still have what I call the "Little United Nations" of people that come in at all times.
LANGER: You don't actually change along with [the neighborhood]. You operate a business the way you think it should be operated. I specialized in pastrami and corned beef.
SAUL: Would you believe this man is going to be 90 years old this week? And he's still active, and he's just an absolute mensch.
LANGER: There's a reason for it: Langer's pastrami!
SAUL: Let me tell you about neighborhoods changing. You still have your original customers -- I have customers that have been coming to Junior's for 43 years, and they're bringing in their children, their grandchildren. But we're getting a lot of other people. We're getting black people, Chinese, Japanese -- every ethnic area. Because Jewish food, deli food, is comfort food. I sell 10 tons of turkey breast a month. That's the big thing now -- not pastrami or corned beef like it used to be.
LANGER: Tell me who don't like breasts!
SAUL: I don't. I hate white meat . . . Oh, I get it! I'm very slow on the uptake. I bet you didn't know you were gonna have a couple of nuts over here!
GINSBURG: My favorite sandwich is -- I take a an onion roll, hollow out the top of the onion roll, hand-cut my pastrami, and then, where I hollowed out the onion roll, I put juicy coleslaw and then smack the two together.
BLOOMGARDEN: That's my sandwich.
GINSBURG: That's your sandwich?
BLOOMGARDEN: The only thing he's left out . . . We make our own pickles. I think we're the only place left in town that does . . .
GINSBURG: Yes, you did. But you didn't tell them that I gave you my coleslaw recipe.
SAUL: Quid pro quo. One hand washes the other.
BLOOMGARDEN: One thing I have to say -- we are four independent restaurants in Los Angeles. We see each other occasionally, maybe at a restaurant show, or wherever. But the camaraderie that we have here, and the kind of competition that we're talking about, is really very friendly. There is enough business out there for the whole community.
ON THE DECLINE OF THE JEWISH DELI MAN:
LANGER: Years ago, it was Jewish people behind the counter. I had one counterman, Goldstein, who was with me 30 years. Now you have Mexican counter people mostly. In our business, we don't look at religion or anything. We hire waitresses and busboys and countermen regardless of their color or make or anything. We're very proud of doing that.
GINSBURG: The Jewish deli men disappeared, I think, around the mid-'60s. The supermarkets started opening up service delis, and they offered the deli men jobs as managers, so they didn't have to pay them on an hourly basis. When they went to work at the markets, we all had to start training our own.
BLOOMGARDEN: The amazing thing is, the Hispanic deli men know more Yiddish than I do.
SAUL: We have Filipinos, Africans, people from the Middle East, people from China who work in my store. And if they are willing to learn, they go right up the ladder. My top manager is Hispanic; he started as a dishwasher 15 years ago. He goes to college, studying accounting -- he's brilliant. When I leave the store in his charge, it's the same as one of my sons being there.
ON THE FUTURE OF DELIS:
BLOOMGARDEN: In 20 years the deli will be just as strong as it is now.
LANGER: I agree with Terri. We've been at our location for 55 years. Seventy-five years ago it was different. But in the last 25 or 30 years, there hasn't been much of a change. So I don't feel there will be much of a change in the next 50 years.
SAUL: We do more things in food better than anybody else, so delis will always, in one form or another, be around.
GINSBURG: Delis are places to meet, greet, be at. It's comforting. This is the place! The deli will never go out of existence.
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