Pastrami is the pinnacle of cured meats. Brisket of beef is salt-brined, spiced, hot smoked, chilled, steamed then sliced and served. The multiple steps were devised before refrigeration, and ensure it comes out transformed, tender and flavorful. The version most of us know and love is the unique creation of the Romanian-Jewish immigrants of New York. As the people who made it and loved it moved west, the pastrami sandwich came along for the train ride. By the time it got here, it was ready for chili peppers, less spices, an Italian roll, (the oh-so-not-kosher) cheese slice and at some point lost its strict affiliation with Eastern Europe and became open to interpretation from all cultures.
Some of the best around is being made in ugly drums by Korean-Americans, are ethically made with organic, grass-fed beef, or appear in a quesadilla at a hipster taco joint. It can be found topping burgers and fries and some rebels are making it with salmon. The meat can be thick (hand-cut) or thin (machine) sliced. Lastly, you will find all of the meat piled high on to rye bread or an Italian roll. For our purposes, we didn't care if it was on a roll or sliced bread, but did judge the quality of the bread. (Rye bread is iconic, but not nearly as common as an Italian roll.)
Choosing a "best" pastrami was exceptionally difficult. Langer's has been at the top of the list for years, but we found a few contenders for the crown.
10. The Hat
The Alhambra-based mini-chain, with locations ranging from Pasadena to Claremont, is a nostalgic favorite for people who grew up anywhere near one. Family-owned since 1951, The Hat specializes in selling hot, fast, 1/2-pound pastrami sandwiches to the yearning masses. Everything is packaged to go, but paper plates are also provided along with a condiment bar and pickled yellow peppers to pile on top. If you dine in, most locations have indoor and outdoor seating as well. And the sandwich? Dipped in jus
, it consists of delicate slices of slightly salty meat piled loose and high. The roll is soft and white and does a fine job keeping the joyful mess together. 1 W. Valley Blvd., Alhambra; (626) 282-0140.
9. Johnnie's Pastrami
The key to the decades-long success of this family-owned pastrami outpost is the copious portion of super thinly sliced - almost shredded, really - pastrami that topples from the pillowy roll. (You can get rye if you ask.) The atmosphere in Johnnie's is that of a '50s-era diner, replete with individual jukeboxes stacked with oldies, on top of the original Formica tables. Drop in a few quarters, queue up the Beach Boys and dig in to the complimentary pickle chunks before wrapping your mind around the behemoth, $12 (cash only) jus-
dipped sandwich. Or sit outside by the firepit and enjoy the sounds of Sepulveda Boulevard rushing by. Since calorie counting is in on hiatus, you probably should get some of their very fine crinkle cut french fries while you're at it. 4017 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Culver City; (310) 397-6654.
8. The Original Rinaldi's
Rinaldi's is a bit confusing on first inspection. The decor is beachy, the music is reggae and the clientele is a mix of young families and workers on lunch break. Rinaldi's quickly serves up a variety of standard hot and cold sandwiches, including a bounteous pastrami called The King of Sepulveda. They start with very lean pastrami, couple it with a slice of pickle and slather the mustard on a standard roll. The saltiness might be attributed to the proximity of the ocean, but no matter because it's well balanced and worth every bite. You can order a small or, for $1.50 more, a large that can handily serve two people. 323 Main St., El Segundo; (310) 647-2860.
Finding a pastrami sandwich to eat in Los Angeles has never been a challenge. From Boyle Heights to Tarzana, there are burger stands, dedicated pastrami shacks and classic delis, all offering sandwiches made with the salty smoked meat. Lately, with a renewed interest in all things house-made, you can also sample the Jewish staple in more unexpected places, like chef-driven restaurants.