Los Angeles's urban inferiority complex has been seriously challenged in light of recent food news: we are a terrific deli town. Or so claims David Sax, author of Save the Deli, the website and book that just hit stores. Sax will be here next week to discuss all things deli at Langer's on Wednesday, October 28 at 2:30 p.m. ($55 per person, includes lunch, a copy of Save the Deli, and a $10 Langer's coupon). But if you want more dish now, read what Sax had to say to Squid Ink about Los Angeles's many deli joys.
Squid Ink: So, how do we measure up deli-wise in L.A.?
David Sax: L.A. is right up there at the top of the heap. LA and New York. That's where it is. At first I was skeptical because I had never been to Los Angeles since I was a kid, but also I associated L.A. with fanatical health trends and crazy dieters. I stereotypically thought it was a place where people didn't care about Jewish culture. In a day I was just blown away by what I'd seen and heard and tasted.
S.I.: Why do you think L.A. is particularly blessed, deli-wise?
D.S.: The deli owners that are in L.A. came from New Jersey and New York and Canada. They went west, so I think there's a natural optimism. The other factor is Hollywood, the entertainment industry. It has a Jewish flavor to it because of who founded and developed it. The private jets are catered by delicatessens, quite often. Everyone from the lone P.A. to the struggling guy writing his script at Canter's to three tables over you could have Jeffrey Katzenberg and Spielberg as well. In other cities it tends to take on a nostalgic element: “This is a deli like it used to be, remember your childhood in the Bronx.” In Los Angeles they're not selling an antiquated version of anything, it's very much in the now.
S.I.: Would you describe it as an urban or suburban deli culture, or a hybrid, much like Los Angeles itself?
D.S.: Definitely suburban, with the exception of Langer's and Pico Kosher Deli. Pretty much every deli in L.A. owns their building, [unlike] in New York has driven thousands of delis out of business — they simply can't afford the rent. In cities like New York, Montreal, Cleveland, the delis are these downtown places with hard tile floors, hard chairs. They're very utilitarian. They're meant to take a lot of abuse. The comforts are in the food and the people but not necessarily the space. But in L.A. they have these lush built-in banquettes; it's an ultimate Jewish rec room. That's what it has the feel of. At Katz's or Carnegie the square footage you get at a table is half of Canter's or Nate'n Al.
S.I.: Are most delis still Jewish owned?
D.S.: Delis in L.A. are by and large family owned businesses owned by multiple generations. You don't really find that anywhere else. Most Jewish delis are operated by Jews with a few exceptions.
S.I.: So, Langer's – what makes the pastrami sandwich so damn good?
D.S.: It's a combination of the elements. The foundation of any great sandwich is the rye bread. Langer's is known for double-baked rye. The pastrami is the same sort that most other delis in L.A. use. It comes from RC Provisions, which is a deli purveyor, and Langer's has a certain trim they ask for, a certain size, a nice mix of fat and lean meat but nothing crazy extraordinary. They steam it in a specially built steam box under a very intense steam for three hours. Then they hand-slice it. No one else hand-slices pastrami in Los Angeles. Katz's in New York does, and there's a place in Milwaukee and a place in Portland. When you slice it by hand it allows you to get thicker slices that have more texture. A lot of delis will stack the meat high in the center, and Langer's does it so every bite has an equal amount of meat.
S.I.: Why are deli interiors almost always awash in brown and beige tones? Are our people colorblind or something?
D.S.: Well, delis in L.A. have some interesting design touches you never see anywhere else. Art's in Studio City has a booth corner that once upon a time had a phone in the wall, because studio executives who would take meetings at the deli wanted to be able to take phone calls. The side room in Junior's was, I think, one of the first rooms in the country to be a designated smoking area with separate ventilation completely sealed off. Factor's has three distinct areas: the first area is the old kind of diner, then you walk into the next room which was renovated a decade after that, and it's like the 1980s Naugahyde booths and mirrors on the wall, razzle dazzle cocaine era kind of stuff. And then the back patio is like 1990s, everyone goes to Tuscany and has a fountain with a cherub peeing, beautiful Italianate backyard patio. It's a pleasant place to eat, and you're not going to find this in a deli any place else.
S.I.: You also see a lot of faux-Tiffany glass, like at Greenblatt's.
D.S.: Greenblatt's is one of the most interesting delis I've ever been to. Part deli, part wine store, with decoration that's half baroque cathedral and half Cheers. You can put the Rothschild back in Rothschild, put the Jewish back in Rothschild.
S.I.: Did you learn about any defunct Jewish delis that sounded like particularly tragic losses?
D.S.: A lot of people send me stuff online, [such as] Zucky's on Wilshire in Santa Monica; I had a guy send me a poem he wrote me about it, someone the other day said he's doing a documentary about it. But L.A. has bucked the trend. It hasn't seen the great decline of its delis like other cities have.