In recent weeks, I've developed a routine. Right after the crush of the morning rush hour dies down, I drive downtown and make my way to Wexler's Deli in Grand Central Market for a bagel with lox, cream cheese, some slivery ribbons of thinly cut red onion and a few slices of ripe, red tomato. Then I park myself and my bagel at G&B Coffee, the bar facing out onto Hill Street. On one side, the glittering downtown buildings rise skyward and cars rush by; on the other, the colorful vintage neon signs and bustle of the market express Los Angeles' weird, old, new, peculiar and particular personality.
Sometimes it can feel difficult in L.A. to combine the physicality of the city with an incredible eating experience the way you might in, say, Rome or Manhattan: a magnificent pasta dish in an ancient square, or a midnight slice of pizza, grabbed from a window with the city streets thrumming all around you. But a Wexler's lox bagel at the counter of G&B with a very good macchiato and the sights and sounds of Grand Central Market is just such a moment, one where Los Angeles and its flavors meld into something amazing.
The surroundings create that magic, in part, but it's also the bagel or, more specifically, the lox that drapes across it. Slick, supple and delicate, the cured salmon tastes like a rushing mountain river in the same way an ultra-fresh oyster tastes like the soul of the ocean. There's something in the flavor and texture that's wildly ethereal, a delicacy made all the more precious because of its affordability: At $8, you could indulge in this breakfast regularly without fear of going broke.
The lox is smoked fresh daily at Wexler's Deli, the market stand opened in April by Micah Wexler. Wexler came to Grand Central a year after his Beverly Grove restaurant Mezze closed, a sad situation having to do with some aggressively invasive neighboring construction. Like many of Mezze's fans, I've missed the modern Middle Eastern–inspired cooking Wexler was doing there. Nothing else in town is quite like it.
Where Mezze presented creative New American food with Mediterranean touches, Wexler's Deli is highly traditional: This is an old-school Jewish deli, pure and simple. Wexler smokes his own fish and cures his own pastrami, makes his own pickles and generally obsesses over the quality of every last detail. None of that is surprising for a chef who worked at L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon and was once sous chef at Craft. What might be more surprising is that a chef with that background would opt to run a classic deli in a market stall in the first place.
This is a labor of love for Wexler, who grew up eating at the great Jewish delis of Los Angeles. He played with that heritage at Mezze, particularly on Sundays, when he'd serve deli classics: matzoh ball soup, and a house-made pastrami on rye bread. Wexler's Deli takes those Sunday tinkerings and develops them into full-blown glory.
From just about the day Wexler's opened, L.A.'s food obsessives started asking the question: Is this now the best pastrami sandwich in town? In light of our city's devotion to Langer's, the question seemed like heresy, and yet it isn't unreasonable.
At its best, the pastrami at Wexler's rivals any in this city or any other: deeply rich, slightly smoky, sweet at its edges with a prickle of pepper and clove. I've also had here it a little too fatty, and once it was just plain dry. But more often than not it's a thing of wonder, needing only a smear of mustard to achieve perfection, resting on a rye bread Wexler created along with John Baptiste Garacochea of Etchea Bakery, who bakes the bread for him. (Garacochea also makes the kaiser rolls, while Brian Gruntz at New York Bagel and Deli makes the bagels.)
I tend to think that the slight variations and inconsistencies of the pastrami here are a result of ambition: Wexler cures, smokes and steams the beef on-site, an act as complex and difficult as any charcuterie operation and much less common. Given the fact that very few delis anywhere make their pastrami on-site, and "on-site" here means in the confines of a market stall, I'm apt to forgive occasional inconsistencies.
You can get an ode to Langer's famous #19 sandwich, here called the MacArthur Park, served with coleslaw, Swiss cheese and Russian dressing. It doesn't have quite the sloppy towering extravagance of the #19, but it's not meant to be an exact replica. Like much of what's on offer at Wexler's, it's a tip of the hat to the great delis of L.A., past and present.
Mostly, this serves Wexler well. The egg salad, served on a kaiser roll with sweet pickles, is just like the classic deli version but better; less congealed and creamier, with a mustard tang that keeps you coming back for more.
But there are dishes where I wish Wexler would branch out just a tad from the confines of tradition. The tuna sandwich comes correct on rye bread with lettuce and red onion, and hits all the right notes of nostalgia if you grew up eating tuna sandwiches from Jewish delis. On its own merits, though, it's a little too austere.
Similarly, the potato salad is hard to fault on grounds of historical accuracy: yellow, slightly waxy and dill-flecked. But unlike much of what's here, it's no better than the original, just authentic to a fault.
But these are small details, the sort of thing you think about on a pensive morning over a leisurely breakfast. Most often, I instead find myself falling headlong into a sandwich reverie, as with Wexler's incredible Reuben, which inspires the kind of meaty fervor that makes you a little uncomfortable, so close it is to caveman lust. I wanted to put my face right into that sandwich.
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At Grand Central Market, only the line for Eggslut can rival the one at Wexler's during the breakfast and lunch rush. The bagels here tend to run out right in the middle of the latter, just when you're nearing the front of the line. If you're lucky, you'll snag a stool at the counter; if not, there are plenty of other places to sit in the market. The crowds and the bustle and the wait don't make for the most comfortable dining experience in town, but if that's what you're here for, you're in the wrong place.
No, you're here instead for something more: a pride-inducing, heart-swelling, quintessential L.A. experience.
See also: Our photo gallery of Wexler's Deli
WEXLER'S DELI | Three stars | 317 S. Broadway, dwntwn. | No phone | wexlersdeli.com | Mon.-Fri., 8 a.m.-4 p.m.; Fri. & Sat., 8 a.m.-6 p.m. | Sandwiches and bagels: $8-$12 | No alcohol served (though you can buy beer and wine elsewhere in the market) | Lot parking