Bob's Special–a hot pink mass of corned beef served over cole slaw and under two melting slices of Swiss on a blimp-like French roll–marks a departure from the norm at Johnnie's Pastrami, the Culver City sandwich shack worn as smooth as the fob on a Manhattan cabbie's keys. It takes a certain amount of restraint to show up at Johnnie's and not order pastrami, but in this case, discipline yielded a new favorite dish.
Bob apparently specializes in the collision of salty and sweet, and here lies the advantage over Johnnie's scrappy, steamy pastrami. Granted, you sacrifice the mellow, bovine tang of Johnnie's classic jus, but you are rewarded with hyper-corned, maximally saltly shreds of stewed beef rebounding off the sweet, milky crunch of the slaw, an arch-traditional composition of 99-percent shredded fresh green cabbage with a dash of carrot, slicked with mayo and buttermilk. The balance sells the sandwich, and a generous squirt of hot mustard seals the deal. Finishing even half of a Johnnie's hot pastrami sandwich can be an ordeal, but the Bob's Special basket was wiped clean in about 20 minutes, including the fork-ready remainders swimming in mayo and oil at the bottom. And this is fairly lean corned beef, with none of the disconcerting chemical iridescence that results from low-quality cures and too-long stays in the walk-in.
Do I wish the complementary pickles were crunchier, despite their puckering, oceanic brine? Do I wish the French roll had a hardy crust to contrast the sponge-like crumb within, rather than a thin brown membrane something like the skin that coalesces atop your mug of hot chocolate? I do. But such pedestrian complaints go unheard at Johnnie's Pastrami, where the Kelvinator open-top ice cream chest hasn't been moved since LBJ was recording himself ordering custom-fit Haggar slacks. The waitress, when asked why she doesn't take plastic, gestured to the open kitchen behind her: “We've been here since 1952. We don't even have room for a microwave.”
Johnnie's Pastrami: 4017 S. Sepulveda Boulevard, Culver City; (310) 397-6654.