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.
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.[
7. Brent's Delicatessen
Since 1967, this stalwart deli has catered to the fresser in all of us; they're not messing around with their gigantic sandwiches. There are more than six combos on the menu that incorporate pastrami, including the triple decker heart attack of hot pastrami and chopped liver that's worth every dangerous bite. Ess gezunt. ( But no matter which version you order, leave the vine-ripened tomato off.) What you're served is moist, medium-thin slices of lightly smoked meat with a rich finish. If the portions seem extreme, you can order a half sandwich with a robust bowl of soup instead. The rye bread, which is perfectly lovely, is brought in from Delicious bakery. Since your're there, may was well pick up a loaf to make another sandwich from your leftovers. 19565 Parthenia St., Northridge; (818) 886-5679.
6. Eastside Market Italian Deli
Walk into the dimly-lit Eastside Market on a weekday and you'll instantly feel secure – mostly because almost every other patron will be a police officer, EMT or fire fighter. Seriously, if a crime were committed on the dark side of this building, nobody would ever know, as all eyes are on the behemoth sandwiches. This Italian-ish mish-mash of meat and bread is drenched in tangy red marinara sauce and topped with unmelted cheese – and is not for the faint of heart. New Yorkers may lament that it isn't on par with what they get at home, but Dodger fans know it's the ideal pre-game meal. Sandwiches are $8.20 and the harried but exceptionally kind counter-people hand the food over in a hurry, as long as you bring cash. 1013 Alpine St., Los Angeles; (213) 250-2464.
5. The Oinkster
Both outposts of Andre Guerrero's The Oinkster serve three versions of a pastrami sandwich. With cheese or without, you'll get a neatly packed pile of slow-smoked, medium-thin sliced pastrami.The juicy meat has only a hint of wood-fire clinging to it, but just enough to remind you of its long journey to the plate. At this carnvores' emprorium, (also home to some exceptional french fries) you are well advised to leave your vegetarian friends at home – and get your glutton on. 2005 Colorado Blvd., Eagle Rock; (323) 255-6465.[
4. Jeff's Gourmet Kosher Sausage Factory
The only Kosher-certified option on this list, Jeff Rohatiner's brined and lightly smoked beef is steamed, sliced window-glass thin and neatly nestled in to a roll from Elat Bakery. If you're not strictly a pastrami-on-rye lover, this is for sure the choice for you. The place is always overcrowded with school kids (why are they not in school?) on break, but don't let that deter you. Push on through to the counter and order up. There isn't really a word that means the extra light version of a very heavy food that is still exceptionally bad for you, but if there was, this is the sandwich that would inspire it. We can't praise this sandwich enough. 8930 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles; (310) 858-8590.
3. Smoke City Market
For a barbecue lovers variation on the pastrami theme, follow the wafting smell of oak wood smoke to this Texas-style restaurant in Van Nuys and pull up a bench at one of their picnic tables. The pastrami sandwich is a thing of beauty – full-fat, 3-inch tall, hunks of meat with a lingering hint of firewood and a rich, deep flavor. The picturesque meat is long-smoked with richly charred spices. Those slices are hefted on to a white roll from a panaderia in Sherman Oaks and topped with cabbage slaw and a thick barbecue sauce – which seems more Kansas than Texas, but we're being picky. The hipster restaurant, open since 2010, only serves their food on paper – and provides all the napkins you'll need, if you choose not to lick your fingers that is. 5242 Van Nuys Blvd., Van Nuys; (818) 855-1280.
Yes, Langer's is the runner-up on this list. Let the shouting begin. Believe us, we love Langer's and agree they do everything right. No denying it. When you sit down in a big booth it's like sitting down to a kosher-style deli right out of central casting, and to say it's a revered palace is almost an understatement. Knowing that, you'll most likely order the much loved number 19, a truly egalitarian, mile-high pastrami sandwich. No matter which version you get, the meat is what counts. It's fork-tender, and the caraway-flecked bread is par-baked and then finished later, giving it that renowned crackle, combined with easy chew. Due to the volume that goes through this restaurant, the pastrami isn't smoked on-site – but it is finished there, and deftly so. That they can make so many consistently perfect sandwiches is a mix of miracle and experience. What Langer's is offering is more than a sandwich: It's a full Los Angeles experience of and for the people. 704 S Alvarado St., Los Angeles; (213) 483-8050.
1. Wexler's Deli
This is what single-minded passion looks like. Micah Wexler, who recently opened his soulful deli in Grand Central Market, has a clear vision of old-school Jewish deli food, and thanks to that he makes a praiseworthy sandwich. It's a classic rendition of bread, meat and mustard, made modern through an extreme dedication to top quality ingredients. Order up the O.G. (that's Original Gangster) – or the MacArthur Park if you're the type who likes cheese on your meat – and bite in to the thick, hand-cut, antibiotic- and hormone-free Colorado beef that's been long-smoked on-site over applewood. An aromatic layer of pepper and spices adds more flavor and texture to the supple meat. It comes with a choice of slightly spicy celery-seed flecked coleslaw or the irreproachable, creamy potato salad. The beautiful bread, made to Wexler's specifications in hearth-stone ovens at Etchea bakery; is not too thin or thickly cut and has a glorious, chewy texture and a terrific toothsome crust. Pull up a stool, slather on a little more Plochman's Kosciusko Mustard, take a sip of your Cel-Ray and then bite in to perfection, finishing the experience with a barrel-aged, lacto-fermented cucumber pickle. Mazel tov, Wexler's. You're doing it right. 317 Broadway, Los Angeles; (213) 624-2378.
Rachael Narins welcomes recommendations for a good cardiologist after eating all of this pastrami. Follow her on Twitter @chickswknives and on Instagram. Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.